The Contempt of Karl Rove

The Contempt of Karl Rove

Fifty years ago, Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that all citizens have an “unremitting obligation” to respond to Congressional subpoenas. Karl Rove has breached this obligation.


Thursday, January 6, 2005, was a busy day in Washington, DC. In the House of Representatives, my friend the late Stephanie Tubbs Jones presented her historic objection to the 2004 presidential vote in her state, Ohio, and we debated the vote suppression and other problems that marred that election for more than two hours. In the Senate, the President’s lawyer Alberto Gonzales testified before the Judiciary Committee seeking to become our eightieth Attorney General, telling the Senators “I feel a special obligation…coming from the White House to reassure the career people at the department, and to reassure the American people that I’m not going to politicize the Department of Justice.”

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, the president’s top political adviser, Karl Rove, was also busy. Some time around noon, he dropped by the office of the Deputy White House Counsel David Leitch to discuss a somewhat obscure matter–whether the administration should “selectively replace” top federal prosecutors. Mr. Leitch sent the question on to a former White House aide who had moved over to the top ranks of the Justice Department, Kyle Sampson. That evening, Mr. Sampson replied, “If Karl thinks there would be political will to do it, then so do I.”

The scandal launched that day eventually engulfed the Department of Justice. The Department’s senior leadership resigned in disgrace, and the White House and the House of Representatives are now fighting the matter out in court. Around the country, questions are being raised about politically sensitive prosecutions, as worried citizens wonder whether our tradition of prosecutorial independence and impartial justice has been compromised.

Almost four years have passed, but Karl Rove has never explained why replacing federal prosecutors was on his mind that day. Some have observed that one federal prosecutor–Patrick Fitzgerald of Chicago– was aggressively pursuing Mr. Rove at that time and had called him to testify before the grand jury. Three times. We also know that Mr. Rove was agitated about supposed cases of “voter fraud” and that Republicans around the country were complaining about federal prosecutors who had not brought enough of these cases. A number of the prosecutors who were forced out had been on the receiving end of just this sort of political criticism. In fact, the closer we look, the more Ms. Tubbs Jones’s warning about a stolen election, the senators’ concerns about Mr. Gonzales politicizing the Department of Justice, and Karl Rove’s offhand query whether some United States attorneys ought to be replaced appear intertwined.

Against this backdrop, I invited Mr. Rove to testify before my committee. When he declined, I issued a subpoena requiring him to testify, but Mr. Rove ignored the subpoena and instead left the country. Even when a federal judge rejected the exact legal excuse Mr. Rove has used to avoid appearing before Congress–calling it “entirely unsupported by existing case law”–Mr. Rove still refused to testify.

Fifty years ago, the great Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote that all citizens have an “unremitting obligation” to respond to Congressional subpoenas. Karl Rove has breached this obligation, and that is why my committee voted on July 30 of this year to cite him for contempt of Congress. The matter now moves to the full House of Representatives for its action, and I hope my colleagues will join the Judiciary Committee in holding Mr. Rove to account, and that all Americans will support this action as critical to upholding the rule of law.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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