After four years in the political penalty box, Karl Rove has returned as the undeniable mastermind of the G.O.P.’s electoral effort. Vanity Fair contributing editor Craig Unger has just published a new book, Boss Rove: Inside Karl Rove’s Secret Kingdom of Power, that focuses on Rove’s fall from grace during the Bush years and his remarkable political resurrection. It shows how Rove’s tactics are remaking the nation’s political landscape and explains why, win or lose in 2012, he is likely to be a dominant force in Republican politics for some time. I put six questions to Unger about his new book:
1. A large part of your book focuses on a computer-services company, based in Chattanooga, Tennessee, called SmarTech. You note that after SmarTech began serving Ohio’s electoral returns at 11:14 p.m. on election night in 2004, inexplicable anomalies began to flood the vote totals—all of which favored George W. Bush. The company also appears repeatedly in your book as the inner sanctum of G.O.P. voting-technology strategies, and as the host of servers on which Karl Rove’s mysteriously vanishing emails were stored. Yet when you asked Rove about SmarTech, he insisted he “had no idea who it was.” What do you think of Rove’s denial, and why do you devote so much of your book to the company?
When I repeated the question to Rove, his response morphed into a classic Watergate-like non-denial denial in which he claimed to be “so many layers removed” from such operations that he didn’t “recall” the company. Whatever the state of his memory, Rove’s relationship to SmarTech is emblematic of how he operates: with no fingerprints, via entities that serve his interests in extraordinary ways even though he has no visible ties to them.
This company went through a bankruptcy, changes in ownership, and several different names before emerging as SmarTech. But much of its initial funding came through Mercer Reynolds and Bill DeWitt, who were important to George W. Bush’s personal and political finances. They bailed him out of financial trouble in the oil industry. DeWitt provided the entrée for Bush to invest in the Texas Rangers baseball team—the most lucrative deal of his life. And Reynolds raised well over $200 million for the party in 2004. After its birth as a start-up typical of the late Nineties dotcom boom, the company was transformed, thanks to Reynolds and DeWitt, into a political operation serving the Republican Party, the Bushes, and dozens of conservative groups.
In other words, Rove says he’s never heard of a company that was started by key backers and that hosted websites for George W. Bush, the Bush–Cheney transition team, dozens of prominent Republican politicians and political action committees, the Republican National Committee—and even Rove’s own emails.
As to its importance, there’s no reason why conservative groups should not have sophisticated technology. But SmarTech has done much more than that. Through one of its clients, GovTech, SmarTech hosted sites for the House Judiciary Committee, the House Intelligence Committee, and other nonpartisan governmental agencies. An important firewall had been breached—a highly partisan Republican company had gained sensitive information regarding the electoral process and national security.
This conflict of interest was most evident when SmarTech became the “failover” site for Ohio’s returns in 2004. The anomalous returns that came in after SmarTech’s servers kicked in have never been explained, and have fueled suspicions that the election was stolen. Americans deserve a full explanation, but key information has repeatedly vanished. Ultimately, a key potential witness, Mike Connell, died in a solo plane crash.
Finally, there are the missing emails. When White House staffers write emails as part of their work for the president, those emails are subject to the Presidential Records Act. Legally, they belong to the public at large, not to the president or his staffers. But Rove and more than eighty other White House staffers had their emails hosted on a Republican National Committee account that resided on SmarTech servers. Those emails triggered interest among investigators probing both the Valerie Plame affair and the U.S. attorneys scandal, but it later emerged that more than 5 million related emails had mysteriously gone missing. Later, in 2009, it was announced that as many as 22 million emails had been deleted. I wouldn’t be surprised if they contained some of the greatest secrets of the Bush-Cheney-Rove years, but I fear we will never find them.
2. In studying Rove’s manipulation of the Justice Department during the Bush years, you look in depth at the case of former Alabama governor Don Siegelman. Why would Rove have targeted Siegelman, and why do you believe the allegations that the case was a politically motivated prosecution have merit?
As a popular Democratic governor in Alabama, Siegelman represented a potential threat to the G.O.P. on a national level. It is difficult to overstate the importance of the Solid South to the Republican Party. In the past fifty years, the only Democrats to win the White House other than Barack Obama—Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter, and Bill Clinton—have come from the South.
There are three reasons to believe the case was politically motivated. One is that Bill Canary, a Rove colleague, had run or was linked to campaigns of leading G.O.P. candidates in Alabama, and Leura Canary, his wife, just happened to have been appointed a U.S. attorney in Alabama by the Bush Administration. This meant that while Bill Canary was boosting the campaign of Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob Riley, come election time his wife Leura could indict Riley’s opponent Don Siegelman—which is exactly what happened.
Secondly, there is the testimony before the House Judiciary Committee of Alabama attorney Dana Jill Simpson, who said while under oath that she’d had a conversation with Rob Riley, son of Bob Riley, the G.O.P. candidate, and that Riley said that his father and Bill Canary “had had a conversation with Karl Rove again and that they had this time gone over and seen whoever was the head of” the Public Integrity Section of the Justice Department. Simpson further testified that Rob Riley said that Karl Rove had spoken to “the head guy there,” a New Jersey lawyer active in G.O.P. politics named Noel Hillman, who agreed “that he’d allocate all resources necessary” to prosecute Siegelman. Soon thereafter, the White House nominated Hillman to the federal judgeship he had been seeking.
Finally, the data supports allegations of widespread selective prosecution of Democrats. During the period between Bush’s inauguration and Ashcroft’s recusal at the end of 2003, federal prosecutors in the Bush Administration initiated investigations of no fewer than 200 public officials on charges including bribery, bid rigging, influence peddling, mail fraud, tax evasion, extortion, and more.
The targets of these investigations included mayors of at least twelve major cities, governors and lieutenant governors from five states, several congressional candidates, senators and senatorial candidates, and key figures in state legislatures. The targets were overwhelmingly Democrats. Astoundingly, according to a study of the Bush Justice Department by professors Donald C. Shields and John F. Cragan, out of 200 officials under investigation at that time, only thirty were Republicans—15 percent—a disparity the authors compared to racial profiling of African-Americans.
3. The scandal surrounding the Siegelman case erupted in earnest when Jill Simpson gave the testimony to which you just alluded. Rove responded to these accusations by refusing to testify under oath and then issuing statements in which he aggressively denied things that were never alleged and failed to respond to the key allegations. He has also repeatedly and sharply attacked Simpson, often totally out of the blue. Who do you consider to be more credible on the story—Rove or Simpson? And why does Simpson’s testimony have Rove so rattled?
Simpson is more credible. First, there’s no question that Rove has lied about Simpson’s testimony. In an interview he gave in 2008 to GQ Magazine, Rove, referring to Simpson, said, “She’s a complete lunatic. . . . No one has read the 143-page deposition that she gave congressional investigators—143 pages. When she shows up to give her explanation of all this, do you know how many times my name appears? Zero times. Nobody checked!”
This is a brazen lie. Simpson’s testimony is readily available online and in fact it cites Karl Rove at least fifty times. Rove is renowned as a highly disciplined operative, so it is all the more striking that he has repeatedly lost his cool about Simpson. When Greta Van Susteren interviewed him on Fox News earlier this summer, he erupted into a tirade against Simpson. Likewise, during the week of the Republican convention in Tampa, I asked Rove a question about his working relationship with Fox News boss Roger Ailes—a subject that has zero to do with Simpson—and he blasted her again.
As for Simpson, she did tell her story under oath, at considerable risk and for no apparent gain. Documents, including emails and phone records, show she was clearly working with Rob Riley. Some aspects of her testimony have proven difficult to corroborate, but, unlike with Rove, I have no reason to think that she lied.
Ultimately, I don’t know why Rove is so rattled, but I’d be surprised if there were not much more to the story.
4. If you’re right about the origins of the Siegelman case, why do you think the Justice Department under Eric Holder has failed to investigate it and take corrective action, as it did in the similar case of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens?
One of the most disappointing things about the Obama Administration has been its failure to roll back Rove’s Justice Department. Giving political appointments to campaign contributors is not the prettiest part of our electoral system, but it’s standard operating procedure. George W. Bush did it with more than 100 of his donors. But when Siegelman did it with a campaign contributor named Richard Scrushy, it was characterized as bribery—even though Siegelman did not personally take a dime.
On September 11, Siegelman is scheduled to go to prison for more than six years—a travesty of justice. Obama should pardon him. I can only speculate that he has not done so because he fears the political consequences.
5. Five years ago, Karl Rove left the Bush White House in disgrace, narrowly escaping criminal charges over his role in outing a covert CIA agent. But at the Republican Convention in Tampa, he could be seen in the box of casino-gambling kingpin and G.O.P. megadonor Sheldon Adelson watching Mitt Romney, Rove’s chosen candidate, accept the G.O.P.’s presidential nomination. How do you assess Rove’s position within the G.O.P. today?
My book is titled Boss Rove because he is now the party boss. He has created an unelected position, with no term limit, in which he controls the money. In the Eighties, in Texas, he created political action committees that were responsible to him—not the Texas Republican Party—so he would have control of the party. Now he has done this on a national level. Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision and a new breed of billionaire donors—Adelson, the Koch brothers—Rove already has about $1 billion in his coffers for the 2012 campaign. The danger, of course, is that that money will buy up all the airtime for the G.O.P. in the battleground states and pervert the electoral process. Talk-radio host John Batchelor, a Republican, put it best. “America is a two-party state,” he said. “There are the Democrats. Then, there’s Karl Rove.”
6. Let me press a bit more into that bizarre exchange you had with Rove last week in Tampa. You said he had used his position on Fox to attack Mitt Romney’s primary opponents and asked if he had discussed this with Roger Ailes. Rove responded by talking about an Ohio G.O.P. consultant named Mike Connell and claiming, absurdly, that your book states that Rove murdered him. The following day, Rove told a group of Florida donors, “We should sink Todd Akin. If he’s found mysteriously murdered, don’t look for my whereabouts!” He subsequently apologized. How do you understand Rove’s comments?
For the record, I don’t accuse Rove of murdering Mike Connell, his computer guru. Connell’s death came at a propitious time for Rove in terms of the investigation into what happened in Ohio in 2004. But the National Traffic Safety Board reports that other planes landing at roughly the same time Connell’s plane attempted to land had experienced icing, which may have been the cause.
These two episodes illustrate astoundingly aberrant behavior by Rove—self-inflicted wounds—by someone disciplined. It is shocking that he would link himself to murder twice in one week.