WASHINGTON — In the White House Cabinet Room Wednesday morning, President Bush refused to comment on the political firestorm surrounding his chief political adviser, Karl Rove, who was seated directly behind him.
"I also will not prejudge the investigation," Bush said.
Nor did the president choose to express confidence in his senior adviser, though an aide said later he would have, had he been asked directly.
Meanwhile, Time magazine’s Matt Cooper — the reporter Rove spoke to about CIA operative Valerie Plame — testified Wednesday morning about their conversation before the grand jury investigating the leak of Plame's identity.
After testifying, Cooper spoke outside the courthouse, saying, "I have no idea whether a crime was committed or not. That's something the special counsel's going to have to determine."
Cooper was questioned before the grand jury about the now public e-mail summarizing his call with Rove and other personal notes.
Joining Democrats Wednesday in calling for Rove to be fired was Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, who has criticized the White House over claims that Iraq was pursuing material for a nuclear program.
He spoke to NBC's Jamie Gangel in an interview to air Thursday morning on NBC’s "Today" show.
"What these guys are doing — what this thing has been for the past two years — has been a cover-up," said Wilson. "A cover-up of the web of lies that underpinned the justification for going to war in Iraq."
Rove, through his lawyer, has denied blowing Plame's cover, or any criminal wrongdoing.
But no one disputes that Rove mentioned Plame's work at the CIA in order to cast doubt on her husband's criticism of the administration's pre-war intelligence.
Jeffrey Smith, the CIA's former general counsel and a Democrat, says even if Rove didn't commit a crime, as a senior official he should have checked Plame’s status before speaking about her at all.
"Any time a government official learns and works with the CIA," explains Smith, "they learn that they need to take actions to protect the identity of individuals."
Whatever the outcome of the criminal investigation, the White House is in the middle of a fierce debate over whether what Rove did amounts to an unethical smear of an American spy or simply hardball politics played by both sides.
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