Pull Up a Chair, Mr. Rove

Friday 11 July 2008

by: Dana Milbank, The Washington Post

Karl Rove had never been so agreeable.

The former chief strategist to President Bush was the only witness listed on the agenda for yesterday's meeting of the House Judiciary Committee, and he proved to be uncharacteristically contained.

Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.), chairman of the subcommittee holding the hearing, declared herself "extremely disappointed and deeply concerned" about Rove's behavior.

Rove was silent.

Sanchez spoke of his "role in the alleged politicization of the Justice Department" and his hand in "the unprecedented firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006."

Rove offered no defense.

"If such allegations were true," said Rep. Chris Cannon (Utah), the ranking Republican on the panel, "they would be very serious."

Rove did not dispute this.

There was good reason for The Architect's quiet: He was out of the country. He had no intention of appearing before Congress, and he had sent the panel the equivalent of a doctor's note - from no less a medical authority than White House counsel Fred Fielding - saying he did not have to respond to the congressional subpoena.

So lawmakers decided to pull out one of the most feared weapons in their arsenal: the empty-chair stunt. They printed up a name card for "Mr. Karl Rove" and displayed it on the witness table. They put out a glass of cold water with ice, and pointed the microphone toward an empty wooden armchair.

"This meeting today is a travesty of a mockery of a sham," protested Cannon, paraphrasing the great authority on separation-of-power disputes, Woody Allen.

It was a mockery, to be sure, and it had elements of a sham. But where was the travesty?

Congress knows the White House can run out the clock on the various investigations into the Bush administration. White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers have already been held in contempt of Congress - but even if Bush's Justice Department decides to prosecute those cases, his administration will be out of office before they are resolved. A contempt citation for Rove, which could come as soon as next week, would face the same sort of delay.

That makes the immediate gratification of the empty chair more appealing.

The antiwar activists from the liberal Code Pink group certainly thought so. Before the hearing began, they entertained the arriving crowd with a chant of "They do the crime and we do the time." Then one of them placed an "Arrest Rove" sign on the empty chair. "Ma'am, we can't do things like that," a Capitol cop told her gently. "Let's not go overboard."

No, going overboard was the responsibility of lawmakers. Not only did they have the empty chair at the witness table, but they also put up 18 more empty chairs in the first row, each labeled "Reserved for Witness." Building suspense, the committee members waited until 15 minutes after the hearing's start time to appear on the dais, giving Rove's ice time to melt in his glass.

"Former presidential adviser Karl Rove has refused to appear today to answer questions in accordance with his obligations under the subpoena served on him," Sanchez announced with indignation.

And we thought he was just stuck in traffic.

"We are unaware of any proper legal basis for Mr. Rove's refusal even to appear today as required by the subpoena," Sanchez continued.

Cannon, doing the White House's bidding, attempted to pretend that Rove really wanted to be at the hearing. He asked Sanchez if she was "aware that Mr. Rove is out of the country on a trip that was planned long before this hearing was set."

Sanchez evidently was not. "We were not made aware by his attorney or by Mr. Rove himself," she said.

Of course, the letter from Fielding, supplied by Rove's lawyer, made clear that his absence had nothing to do with his foreign travel. "Mr. Rove is not required to appear in response to the committee's subpoena. Accordingly, the president has directed him not to do so," the White House counsel wrote.

But Cannon, undeterred by this hole in his logic, went on to scold Democrats for opting "to hold a hearing today in front of an empty chair," which he labeled a "partisan stunt" and "partisan antics."

Rep. Lamar Smith (Tex.), the top Republican on the full Judiciary Committee, also had some thoughts about the unoccupied chair. "Madame Chair, although we find ourselves in front of an empty chair, it is not a sign of an administration refusing to cooperate with Congress," he maintained.

Republicans, eager to be done with the empty-chair event, offered to consent to a ruling by Sanchez that Rove's legal excuses weren't valid. But that wasn't good enough for Sanchez, who favored the spectacle of a roll-call vote.

The committee voted, 7 to 1, to order Rove - again - to appear before the committee.

The witness displayed no emotion.