On Sunday, Karl Rove gave students of spin a prime example of a non-denial denial. He was a guest on ABC News’ This Week and after discussing the presidential campaign, he was asked by host George Stephanopoulos about the Don Siegelman controversy. Siegelman is the former Democratic Alabama governor who was convicted and imprisoned for corruption and who charges that the Justice Department prosecution against him was part of a secret campaign mounted by Rove and other Republicans. Last week, the House judiciary committee subpoenaed Rove in connection with the Siegelman case and the firings of U.S. attorneys.
One has to wonder if Siegelman has been trying to save himself by pinning his case to the U.S. attorneys scandal, but the way Rove answered (that is, did not answer) a question from Stephanopoulos about the Siegelman affair was quite suspicious. Look at the entire exchange:
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: As we know and our viewers probably know you were subpoenaed this week by the House Judiciary Committee to give testimony on any involvement you may have had with the prosecution of the former Alabama governor, Don Siegelman. He’s claiming there was selective prosecution. He’s out on bail now even though he was convicted. He said your fingerprints are all over it. Here’s what the House report said.
It said, “In May 2007 a Republican attorney from Northern Alabama named Jill Simpson wrote an affidavit stating that in November 2002 she heard a prominent Alabama Republican operative named Bill Canary say that Karl Rove had contacted the Justice Department about bringing a prosecution of Don Siegelman. The question for Mr. Rove is whether he directly or indirectly discussed the possibility of prosecuting Don Siegelman with either the Justice Department or Alabama Republicans.”
KARL ROVE: Let me say three things, first of all, I think it’s interesting — everybody who was supposedly on that telephone call that Miss Simpson talks about says the call never took place. I’d say…
STEPHANOPOULOS: Although she produced a cell phone record according to the committee.
ROVE: Well, I would say three things. First of all, I have – I learned about Don Siegelman’s prosecution by reading about it in the newspaper. Second of all, this is really about a constitutional question of the separation of powers. Congress, the House Judiciary Committee wants to be able to call presidential aides on its whim up to testify, violating the separation of powers, executive privilege has been asserted by the White House. In a similar instance in the Senate. It will probably be asserted very quickly in the House. Third, the White House and — has agreed, I’m not — I’m not asserting any personal privilege. The White House has offered, and my lawyers offered several different ways in which if the House wants to find out information about this they can find out information about this. And they’ve refused to avail themselves of those opportunities. We didn’t say, close off any option to do anything else that you want to do in the future. We said if you want to hear about this let’s sit down and talk about this and then you’re entitled to do what you want to do in the future. This is now tied up in court. It’s going to be tied up in court and settled in court. And frankly the House last week doing this is, you know, is duplicating what the Senate has done that has already found its way into the report.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But to be clear you did not contact the Justice Department about this case?
ROVE: I read about — I’m going to simply say what I’ve said before, which is I found out about Don Siegelman’s investigation and indictment by reading about it in the newspaper.
STEPHANOPOULOS: But that’s not a denial.
ROVE: I’ve — you know, I read –I heard about it, read about it, learned about it for the first time by reading about it in the newspaper.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Mr. Rove, thanks very much.
It’s pretty damn obvious: Rove would not say, “I did not contact the Justice Department about the Siegelman case.” Confronted with this simple question, he first said that others supposedly on that particular phone call have denied the call took place. Pressed by Stephanopoulos, he then twice said that he learned about the Siegelman investigation and indictment from newspaper reports.
Why would Rove not state that he had not contacted the Justice Department and egged it on to prosecute Siegelman? Two explanations come to mind. (A) He did do something like that. Or, (B) he doesn’t remember whether he made such a call but he knows it’s the type of call he might have made. So rather than plainly deny he contacted the Justice Department, Rove parries the question with a shifty formulation. Stephanopoulos did call him on this, noting Rove was not actually denying the accusation. But Stephanopoulos was too polite to say, “Excuse me, Mr. Rove, this is BS. Did you or did you not communicate with the Justice Department at all about the Siegelman matter at any time?” No doubt, though, the House judiciary committee’s investigators paid close attention to how Rove handled the question, and his non-answer ought to motivate them to dig further.