By TOM RAUM, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 15 minutes ago
WASHINGTON - President Bush passed up a chance Wednesday to express confidence in senior aide Karl Rove in a political fight over a news leak that exposed a endorsement surprised some White House officials who had been told Bush would back his embattled friend.
Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, later asserted that Rove had "cooperated fully" in the federal investigation, had done nothing wrong and was prepared to provide additional information to a special prosecutor if needed.
"This is a serious investigation," Bush told reporters after a Cabinet meeting, with Rove sitting just behind him. "And it is very important for people not to prejudge the investigation based on media reports."
Later in the day, White House spokesman Scott McClellan insisted that Rove did have Bush's support. "As I indicated yesterday, every person who works here at the White House, including Karl Rove, has the confidence of the president," McClellan said.
Bush said he would not discuss the matter further until a criminal investigation is finished.
Across town, a federal grand jury heard more testimony in its probe into whether anyone in the administration illegally leaked the name of CIA officer Valerie Plame in July 2003. Her husband, former ambassador Joseph Wilson, a critic of the administration's rationale for invading Iraq, has said the leak was an attempt to discredit him.
Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper, who wrote an article that identified Plame, appeared before the grand jury for 2 1/2 hours.
"I testified openly and honestly," Cooper said outside the courthouse, without divulging details. "I have no idea whether a crime was committed or not. That's something the special counsel's going to have to determine."
Wednesday evening, Luskin, Rove's attorney, issued a statement saying that Cooper's testimony would "not call into question the accuracy or completeness of anything Rove has previously said to the prosecutor or the grand jury."
"Rove has cooperated completely with the special prosecutor, and he has been repeatedly assured he is not a target of the investigation," said Luskin. "Rove has done nothing wrong. We're confident he will not become a target after the special prosecutor has reviewed all evidence."
If special counsel Patrick Fitzgerald "seeks additional information from Rove in light of Cooper's testimony, Rove will promptly provide it," the lawyer's statement said.
The dispute has taken a toll on the White House and its allies, threatening to jeopardize the president's domestic agenda and leading to an aggressive GOP campaign to blunt Democratic calls for Rove's firing or resignation. With urging from the White House, Republican congressmen lined up in support of Rove and most GOP politicians outside Washington followed suit.
"It's a tempest in a teapot," said Denzil Garrison, former state GOP leader in Oklahoma. But some Republicans said Rove may need to go. "I think he should resign," said Jim Holt, a Republican state senator in Arkansas who is running for lieutenant governor. "I hope Karl Rove doesn't come gunning for me."
Bush previously had suggested he'd fire anyone found to have been a leaker in the case.
Bombarded with Rove questions for a third straight day, McClellan said, "I think we've exhausted the discussion on this the last couple of days." Joking about the toll of the controversy, he said, "It may not look like it, but there's a little flesh that's been taken out of me the past few days."
McClellan said Bush had not expressed confidence in Rove in the Cabinet session because no one had asked him that directly. The question put to Bush was whether he had spoken with Rove about the Plame matter, whether he believed Rove had acted improperly, and whether it was appropriate for the White House to say in 2003 that Rove was not involved in the leak.
McClellan said Bush agreed with Laura Bush, who earlier Wednesday told reporters traveling with her in Africa that Rove was a good family friend.
"I have instructed every member of my staff to fully cooperate in this investigation," Bush said. "We're in the midst of an ongoing investigation and I will be more than happy to comment further once the investigation is completed."
The failure by Bush to publicly back Rove left some White House advisers privately wondering whether the president was distancing himself from his longtime adviser.
The White House has previously said Rove was not involved in the leak. But an internal Time magazine e-mail disclosed over the weekend suggested Rove mentioned to Time reporter Cooper that Wilson's wife was a CIA agent.
She was first publicly identified by name as an operative in a July 2003 opinion piece by syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak. Rove, through his lawyer, has confirmed that he talked to Cooper but has denied providing Plame's name or leaking classified information.
Each political side intensified its attempts to discredit the other on Wednesday, producing a flurry of press releases and news conferences.
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and three other Senate Democratic leaders — Charles Schumer of New York, Dick Durbin of Illinois and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan — sent a letter to Andrew Card, the White House chief of staff, asking him to release results of an initial internal investigation into the leak and to begin a new probe "to explain public inconsistencies."
MoveOn, a liberal advocacy group, announced its members would stage a protest in front of the White House on Thursday to demand Rove's firing. Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, called Democratic attacks on Rove "out of control and entirely inappropriate ... accusations based on rumor and innuendo."