Big Plans and Powerful Friends
All roads lead to Karl.
—Kenneth J. Duberstein, Republican lobbyist,
Ronald Reagan chief of staff, Rove adviser
When Marc Schwartz thinks back on the incident, he sees it as a kind of strutting by Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff. Schwartz, who was consulting for the Tigua Indian tribe of El Paso, Texas, was involved in a political effort to help his client reopen the Speaking Rock Casino in Ysleta, the dusty province of the Tiguas on El Paso's southeast side. The casino had been shuttered when the state of Texas had pressed its antigaming laws in the federal court system. The Tiguas had eventually decided to spend millions of dollars with Abramoff's lobby firm in an attempt to save the tribe's only real source of income.
"I gotta meet Rove," Jack Abramoff told Schwartz one afternoon as they talked in the backseat of the lobbyist's car. Abramoff's driver, Joseph, was working his way through the crowded streets of Washington. The lobbyist gave Joseph a location for a rendezvous, and he set a course in the direction of the White House.
"Really?" Schwartz asked. "We're going to the White House?"
"No. No. We don't do that," Abramoff answered.
"Why not?" Schwartz joked. "I'm sure George would want to see me."
Schwartz was in the midst of one of several trips to Washington to get a sense of what the Tiguas were purchasing with the more than $4 million they were spending with Abramoff. Burdened with unrelenting poverty, tribal members had begun to receive respectable annual stipends from the casino's revenue stream before the state forced closure. They were acquiring educations, building modern homes, and taking jobs at Speaking Rock. Spending millions to save the tribe's financial security was an acceptable risk. Schwartz nonetheless wanted to take frequent measure of progress and met with Abramoff as often as was reasonable. Abramoff, in turn, felt compelled to display his influence to show Schwartz what the Tiguas were getting for their money.
He explained to Schwartz why they were not going to see Karl Rove at the White House.
"They've got movement logs over there and everything, and we like to keep things kind of quiet. So just watch. You'll really get a kick out of it."
A few minutes later, Abramoff pointed through the front windshield at an approaching street corner and turned to smile at Schwartz.
"You recognize him?" the lobbyist asked his client.
"Son of a bitch," Schwartz muttered. "He's just out in the middle of the street."
As the car came to a stop, Abramoff stepped out, and Schwartz lowered his window. The first part of the conversation between Abramoff and Karl Rove was easily heard.
"We've got a problem, Jack." Rove mentioned a member of the House who was not cooperating on a piece of legislation. Schwartz was unable to hear the congressperson's name. "And this is getting really out of hand. We need to clamp down. We need this to stop. Can you put the fireman [Tom DeLay] on this and let Tom know we need this ended? This is not good for us."
"You bet," Abramoff told the presidential adviser. "Taken care of. Not a problem. On it."
This was how Rove and Abramoff conducted their business. Rove tried to avoid any record of meetings. Although President Bush and Tom DeLay were both from Texas, there was no great warmth between the White House and the majority leader. So Rove used Abramoff to deliver messages to House leadership, allowing the uberlobbyist to brag frequently within the concentric circles of Washington politics about his connections to the White House.
Because the conversation Marc Schwartz had just heard had sounded private, he raised his window and thought about the political process he was witnessing. Karl Rove was out on the street, a few blocks from the White House, delivering detailed instructions to a Republican lobbyist. Is this the way it is done? If there were nothing to hide, why would they not be sitting down in Rove's office? Schwartz had seen this kind of hookup on previous trips to Washington, but he had to concede he was still impressed. It was a vivid vision, riding around the city with Abramoff when the lobbyist's cell phone rang and Rove asked to meet on a street corner. Schwartz had watched as Rove "bebopped" into view and Abramoff got out for a brief conversation.
Schwartz later explained, "Jack just told me they did that because of the movement logs in the White House. If Rove called him, there'd be a phone log. If Abramoff showed up [at the White House], there'd be a log of that. But if Rove signed out and said, 'I'm going to get a haircut,' and left, you'd have no earthly idea who he just met with."
"That, to me, is a stud deal," Schwartz said to Abramoff the first time he'd witnessed such a clandestine rendezvous.
"We're not stupid," Abramoff bragged.
"And the bottom line is," Schwartz conceded in retrospect, "that's exactly how they did it. They weren't stupid."
When his latest sidewalk strategy session with Karl Rove had concluded, Jack Abramoff settled into the backseat of his chauffeur-driven car at the window on the opposite side of where Schwartz was sitting.
"That's the weirdest thing I've ever seen. The guy's a heartbeat away from the president's office, and he's out here on a street corner."
"Yeah, it's just easier," Abramoff said, shrugging. "Like I said, everything that comes out of the White House is logged in. The phone calls he makes. The phone calls he receives. So this is just easier. It keeps things a lot cleaner. And he's a fat fuck, and he can use the exercise. If the weather's nice, we meet in a couple of spots, and if not, he'll drive over and come in through Signatures [Abramoff's restaurant] or one of the other spots."
Abramoff's relationship with the Tiguas later was proved to be more performance art than accomplishment after e-mails between him and an associate were made public. The exchanges gave the impression he was more interested in the tribe's money than its political issues. The FBI, a federal grand jury, and five different federal agencies began to investigate Abramoff and what one senator called "a cesspool of greed." Senator John McCain launched a government investigation into Abramoff and his partners for allegedly defrauding various tribes of about $82 million, $4.2 million of which came from the Tiguas. By early 2006, Abramoff and associates had pleaded guilty in perhaps the biggest government scandal in Washington in a generation.
At the time Schwartz was with Abramoff, what he and the Tigua tribal leadership didn't know was that the lobbyist, according to disclosures from the Senate investigation, had been paid millions in consulting fees by the Alabama Coushatta and the Choctaw tribes of Louisiana to keep the Tigua casinos in Texas from ever doing business. Investigators also discovered that Jack Abramoff had been using money from those same tribal gaming interests to pay the firm of former Christian Coalition leader Ralph Reed, who used the money to fight gambling, especially in Texas, where the Tiguas were trying to restart their casino. Eventually, the government's evidence indicates, Abramoff appeared to become comfortable with the concept of taking money from both sides of a legislative fight, and he decided to go after Tigua cash. In an e-mail to Reed, Abramoff wrote, "I wish those moronic Tiguas were smarter in their political contributions. I'd love us to get our mitts on that moolah."
Abramoff ultimately convinced the tribe's leadership he was the guy to help them change the law and open their shuttered Speaking Rock Casino. The El Paso tribe's legal problems, however, didn't disappear as a result of Abramoff's work. Marc Schwartz implied that about all the tribe got for its money was the exhibition of Abramoff's consorting with Rove in a public thoroughfare and a photo op at the White House with the president.
The story recalled by Schwartz is as revealing about Karl Rove as it is about Jack Abramoff. According to Schwartz, the meeting took place in the spring of 2002 as President Bush was busily making his case for the invasion of Iraq, which was to take place a year later. Rove was a chief strategist of that effort with a responsibility to develop the messaging and political support for the president's plans to depose Saddam Hussein. Also, because midterm congressional elections were only six months distant and Rove was charged with seeing that his party continued to increase its numeric strength, he was busily crafting a strategy that was to make the GOP the first political party since Franklin Roosevelt's Democrats to gain seats in an off-year midterm election.
Historically, no detail has ever been too small for Rove's attention, regardless of the size and complexity of the projects he's managing, and thus, he might have been distracted by a member of Congress who was wavering in support of the upcoming war. He wanted to bring it to the attention of the majority leader. Tom DeLay was certain to be responsive to Abramoff, who'd been a major fund-raiser for the Texan and a close counselor on Republican issues. Subsequent federal investigations of Abramoff focused on examining his relationship with DeLay and other key lawmakers and lavish overseas golfing and lobbying trips, including one to Saint Andrews in Scotland. The junket was reportedly paid for with Tigua money and was used to cultivate the political kindness of Republican Bob Ney of Ohio. Ney, according to Abramoff, was a likely sponsor of legislative efforts to legalize gambling on the Tigua reservation. Unfortunately for the tribe's ambitions, everything fell apart in a haze of impropriety, subpoenas, and arrests, which had nothing to do with the Tiguas.
That late spring of 2002, however, power flowed mightily in Republican circles, and there were no GOP members of Congress who didn't owe a portion of their electoral success to Karl Rove and the president who was leading their party. The "Architect" was at the peak of his powers and determined to execute his vision of Republican dominance in American politics. Applying a template developed by Newt Gingrich and the Republicans who had created the Contract with America, Rove, Bush, and the Republican National Committee raised money for virtually every candidate their party ran for national office. In return, they demanded unfaltering loyalty from the officeholders, which meant they were always expected to vote with the party and the president. Independence wasn't tolerated. On the day Marc Schwartz watched the president's political adviser and Jack Abramoff commiserate on a D.C. sidewalk, Rove had obviously gotten word that a congressman had decided to think for himself, and the White House political guru wanted Abramoff to carry instructions to House Majority Leader Tom DeLay that this was to be immediately addressed.
Retaining an almost lockstep control of Congress is a small but essential part of a larger master political plan Karl Rove has been dreaming of implementing since early in his career. During interviews, speeches, and casual conversations over the course of many years, Rove has detailed his greater goal of a complete political realignment for America. By gaining majority control over U.S. political power and government institutions, he seeks to create a kind of dominance that risks turning America into a one-party nation.
The elements of his strategy involve numerous direct assaults on institutions serving the Democratic Party. While publicly Rove has indicated that a political party can only be destroyed by a lack of candidates and ideas, he's proceeded to assist the Democrats with facilitating their demise by trying to eliminate their party's traditional sources of funding—as well as social policies that sustain their ideology and federal agencies that have historically serviced mostly Democratic constituencies. His goal is nothing less than the eradication or dramatic reformation of the government programs created under Franklin Delano Roosevelt's "New Deal," Lyndon Baines Johnson's "Great Society," and subsequent progressive policy that might bolster the Republican opposition.
If he can accomplish these goals, Rove will realize his dream of surveying a political landscape where the Democrats are a party in name only and the federal government renders almost no services and is so small that, in the words of Rove confederate Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, "It can be drowned in a bathtub." There are political risks to running a government that cannot deliver essential services in critical times. Karl Rove, though, considered the odds and thought they were good. He was always capable of taking any risk necessary, regardless of ethics or legality, to achieve a win. He was even more determined when it came to doing whatever was needed to give Republicans long-term political control of America. The question always lingering over Rove's great talents was whether he would be tempted to go too far to achieve a specific end and might ever get caught doing one of the many things for which he has been blamed.
He never seemed to think about such questions, however. That was for others who lived in a different reality. All he wanted to do was win and control. To do that, obstacles to Rove's goal of fundamental realignment had to be marginalized. If plaintiffs' attorneys find it difficult to file and win cases in courts of law, they'll be less capable of making financial donations to Democratic candidates and causes. Legislatively restricting access to the civil justice system could have big consequences. Reducing citizen lawsuits against business interests could result in more-dangerous products but also mean higher corporate profits, guaranteeing a larger stream of campaign cash to GOP politicians, who, in turn, reward business by further suppressing access to the courts. Trial lawyers, conversely, eventually find it doesn't pay to pursue most liability cases. It was a neat cycle, and one Rove had been working on since the late 1980s. For Rove, he never had an easier enemy to malign than lawyers.
"What's happening is that the Republicans are incredibly focused and serious because they want it all," says Linda Lipsen, president of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America. "The Democrats are very comfortable with a balanced government. Checks and balances? The Republicans, they want complete dominion over every aspect of government."
"Should we be afraid of this?" Lipsen was asked.
"I think it's extremely scary, and actually, I would say that if the Democrats were doing it. I don't think it's healthy to have one party in control of government and every branch. I think it produces corruption."
Corruption has indeed proliferated during the Bush administration. Even the president's most ardent supporters were forced to suspend all skepticism to believe that the CIA and the United Nations were fooled by a blustering Iraqi dictator on the matter of weapons of mass destruction. More likely was deception by the White House, guided by message-maker Karl Rove. There is a convincing case to be made that all of the Ph.D.'s and experienced bureaucrats and politicians within the administration knew that the Niger documents, the key piece of evidence against Iraq, were fake but decided to use the information anyway.