Rove: Glad the Burden Is Lifted

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White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove

Karl Rove was sitting on a Southwest Airlines flight from Baltimore to Manchester, N.H., waiting for other passengers to board on Monday afternoon when he got a message on his BlackBerry from his lawyer, Robert Luskin. Rove phoned back and got the news he had been hoping to receive since at least October 2004, when he first testified before a federal grand jury investigating the leak of the identity of former CIA officer Valerie Plame Wilson.

Luskin had just received a fax from Patrick Fitzgerald, the special counsel in the case, saying that he was formally notifying Luskin that absent any unexpected developments, he does not anticipate seeking any criminal charges against Rove.

The White House senior adviser and deputy chief of staff is glad the matter is ended and the burden lifted, say those close to him. Republican officials today were saying more freely what they long had thought: that Rove's conversations about Plame — whose husband, former ambassador, Joseph Wilson, was attacking the Administration case for war in Iraq — were nothing more than the effort to shape and beat back news stories that happens in any White House on any day. But Republicans were careful not to take a public victory lap, instead praising Fitzgerald's diligence.

Fitzgerald's decision, which he did not announce or acknowledge publicly, appears to narrow the potential scope of the damage the case could do to President George W. Bush, although a January trial date looms for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, Vice President Cheney's former chief of staff. Libby, who said he will be exonerated, resigned in October after being charged with perjury, obstructing justice and making false statements.

Rove, widely viewed as the dominant active Republican strategist, was interviewed twice by FBI agents and made five appearances before the grand jury. Defense lawyers said that frequency had made it appear the prosecution had an acute interest in his statements, and that did not appear to be a good sign. But Rove and his friends had become increasingly optimistic that he would not be indicted, and he had recently been making frequent appearances at political events and on Bush's road trips.

Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin, tells TIME that the prolonged inquiry reflected Fitzgerald's legendary thoroughness. "I think he wanted to have some level of confidence that he had not only turned over every stone, he'd turned over every pebble," Luskin said. "Karl is obviously relieved. He felt, and I certainly believe quite correctly, that he'd done his very best to cooperate as best he could, right from the beginning. This has taken an enormous toll on him and his family, to be in the center of something like this and to have these things said about him day after day and week after week."

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said on ABC's Good Morning America that Rove has been "remarkably successful" as Bush's closest political adviser, and said the exoneration will be great for the President. "In allowing him to go back with new energy and new zest, I think, it will be part of revitalizing the White House in a big way," Gingrich said.

Rove critics refused to give him his day. Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean said in a news release that Rove "does not belong in the White House." His statement continued: "If the President valued America more than he valued his connection with Karl Rove, Karl Rove would have been fired a long time ago." Christopher Wolf, lawyer for the Wilsons, issued a statement asserting that Fitzgerald's decision "obviously does not end the matter." The couple have long talked about seeking civil damages from officials involved in the case, and Wolf's statement concluded: "The day still may come when Mr. Rove and others are called to account in a court of law for their attacks on the Wilsons."

White House allies who are asked to discuss the case on television will be stressing points Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman made in a round of interviews this morning: that Rove did nothing wrong, but was right to cooperate, and that Democratic leaders prejudged the case and owe Rove an apology. "What people like me said during this whole investigation is: Let's not presume his guilt or innocence, let's let the facts get out," Mehlman said on CNN. "You saw a rush to judgment for political gain." Rove, indeed, appears to be off the hook. But with the Libby charges unresolved, the ultimate collateral political damage from the case is unknown.