How Rove Directed Federal Assets for GOP Gains
How Rove Directed Federal Assets for GOP Gains
Bush Adviser's Effort to Promote the President and His
Allies Was Unprecedented in Its Reach
By John Solomon, Alec MacGillis and Sarah Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 19, 2007; A01
Thirteen months before President Bush was reelected,
chief strategist Karl Rove summoned political
appointees from around the government to the Old
Executive Office Building. The subject of the Oct. 1,
2003, meeting was "asset deployment," and the message
The staging of official announcements, high-visibility
trips and declarations of federal grants had to be
carefully coordinated with the White House political
affairs office to ensure the maximum promotion of
Bush's reelection agenda and the Republicans in
Congress who supported him, according to documents and
some of those involved in the effort.
"The White House determines which members need
visits," said an internal e-mail about the previously
undisclosed Rove "deployment" team, "and where we need
to be strategically placing our assets."
Many administrations have sought to maximize their
control of the machinery of government for political
gain, dispatching Cabinet secretaries bearing
government largess to battleground states in the days
before elections. The Clinton White House routinely
rewarded big donors with stays in the Lincoln Bedroom
and private coffees with senior federal officials, and
held some political briefings for top Cabinet
officials during the 1996 election.
But Rove, who announced last week that he is resigning
from the White House at the end of August, pursued the
goal far more systematically than his predecessors,
according to interviews and documents reviewed by The
Washington Post, enlisting political appointees at
every level of government in a permanent campaign that
was an integral part of his strategy to establish
Republican electoral dominance.
Under Rove's direction, this highly coordinated effort
to leverage the government for political marketing
started as soon as Bush took office in 2001 and
continued through last year's congressional elections,
when it played out in its most quintessential form in
the coastal Connecticut district of Rep. Christopher
Shays, an endangered Republican incumbent. Seven
times, senior administration officials visited Shays's
district in the six months before the election -- once
for an announcement as minor as a single $23
government weather alert radio presented to an
elementary school. On Election Day, Shays was the only
Republican House member in New England to survive the
"He didn't do these things half-baked. It was total
commitment," said Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (Va.), who
in 2002 ran the House Republicans' successful
reelection campaign in close coordination with Rove.
"We knew history was against us, and he helped
coordinate all of the accoutrements of the executive
branch to help with the campaign, within the legal
In the past few months, revelations about a few dozen
political briefings that Rove's team conducted at
federal agencies and several election-related slides
from those briefings have touched off investigations
into whether the White House improperly politicized
federal workers or misused government assets to win
Investigators, however, said the scale of Rove's
effort is far broader than previously revealed; they
say that Rove's team gave more than 100 such briefings
during the seven years of the Bush administration. The
political sessions touched nearly all of the Cabinet
departments and a handful of smaller agencies that
often had major roles in providing grants, such as the
White House office of drug policy and the State
Department's Agency for International Development.
The U.S. Office of Special Counsel and the House
Government Reform and Oversight Committee are
investigating whether any of the meetings violated the
Hatch Act, which prohibits government employees from
using federal resources for election activities. They
also want to know whether any Bush appointees
pressured government for favorable actions such as
grants to help GOP electoral chances.
"What we are seeing is the tip of a whole effort to
make the federal government a subsidiary of the
Republican Party. It was all politics, all the time,"
Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the
oversight committee, said last week.
The White House has repeatedly said that Rove's team
stayed within the confines of federal law and that the
meetings were an effort to ensure the president's
agenda and those who supported it were fully promoted.
But the Office of the Special Counsel, which protects
whistleblowers, has concluded that the Hatch Act was
violated during one such briefing, conducted for
General Services Administration political appointees
by J. Scott Jennings, the White House's deputy
director of political affairs. Special Counsel Scott
J. Bloch said he hopes his investigation of political
briefings will have "an educational benefit and a
deterrent effect" in reminding federal employees about
their legal obligations. "Yes, people have their
political parties, and that is good. But they have to
check those affiliations at the door when you do the
people's business," he said in an interview last week.
'How We Can Work Together'
An invitation to a March 12, 2001, political briefing
for federal officials -- one of the Rove team's
earliest -- framed the mission this way: "How we can
In practical terms, that meant Cabinet officials
concentrated their official government travel on the
media markets Rove's team chose, rolling out grant
decisions made by agencies with red-carpet fanfare in
GOP congressional districts, and carefully crafted
announcements highlighting the release of federal
money in battleground states.
"We did that from Day One of the administration,
strategically utilizing the president's appointees to
sell his agenda," Drew DeBerry, the Agriculture
Department's liaison to the White House between 2001
and 2005, recalled in an interview last week.
The scope of Rove's ambitions was unprecedented.
"Karl's ability to see the chessboard and deploy all
of the various pieces to the maximum effect is
flat-out unrivaled," said Mark Corallo, a longtime GOP
operative who worked with Rove as a top Justice
Department communications official and later as a
private consultant. "At the same time, he was always
thoroughly aware of the limits and of the boundaries."
To lead the charge, Rove had his "asset deployment
team." It comprised the chief White House liaison
official at each Cabinet agency. The team members met
-- sometimes as often as once a month -- to coordinate
the travel of Cabinet secretaries and senior agency
officials, the announcement of grant money, and
personnel and policy decisions. Occasionally, the
attendees got updates on election strategies.
White House officials say Rove had two basic rules:
the first was to avoid meddling with grant and
contract decisions made by career government
employees; the second was to make sure they complied
with the Hatch Act. "What was surprising was how
adamant Karl and his whole team was that we involve
the lawyers in our discussions to make sure we didn't
come up with things that ran afoul of the law,"
DeBerry said. In March 2002, then-White House lawyer
Brett Kavanaugh gave such a briefing on the "do's and
don'ts regarding your participation in politically
related activities," according to the invitation.
Most of the political briefings, officials said, were
held at the White House or Old Executive Office
Building for the liaisons or the agency chiefs of
staff. But once or twice a year, Rove's team sought to
spread the message beyond this core team. Attendees
were presented a slide show with the latest polling
data, election talking points and maps identifying
competitive media markets, congressional races and
presidential battleground states.
The subjects for such meetings -- which involved at
least 18 agencies -- ranged from "a political update"
and "mid-term election trends" to "outreach" and
"coalition activities/organization," according to
invitations gathered by congressional investigators.
DeBerry requested one such meeting at the Agriculture
Department about five months before the 2004 election.
"We would like to hold a briefing for our political
appointees on the strategy we should focus on over the
next several months," he wrote on June 15, 2004, to
Barry Jackson, the White House chief of strategic
initiatives. "The briefing you gave the Asset
Deployment team about a year ago would be perfect."
DeBerry's e-mail captures what administration
officials said was the essence of Rove's approach:
making sure that political appointees at every level
of government pushed a uniform agenda in key media
markets and on behalf of White House-backed
candidates. That meant resisting the natural
tendencies of the federal bureaucracy to cater just to
congressional purse-string holders, officials said.
"I feel like people need to hear the message about
resisting the urge to travel to the districts of the
key committee chairmen and members for the sake of
building relationships . . . that the White House
determines which members need visits and where we need
to be strategically placing our assets," DeBerry
Some briefings targeted political appointees because
of their race or ethnicity. On Aug. 11, 2006, for
instance, Hispanic political appointees were summoned
to a meeting with Rove's team to discuss the
administration's accomplishments for Hispanic
Even agencies traditionally considered to be above the
elections fray sent representatives to such briefings.
A White House-arranged meeting that year for Justice
Department appointees at the Old Executive Office
Building included "a presentation about what the
Department of Justice is doing for Hispanic American
citizens," the department recently told Waxman's
During the Clinton administration, White House
officials made their own attempt to harness the
federal bureaucracy's grant announcements and travel,
but they were far less systematic. The White House
political office held two or three meetings in the 18
months before the 1996 election with each Cabinet
secretary and one or two top aides, deeming some
agencies such as Justice and State as off limits to
politics, former Clinton officials said.
"It was not a full-scale agency briefing. There were
no targets; we were not calling them in and giving
them lists of who to take care of and punish," said
Douglas Sosnik, White House political director in 1995
and 1996. "It was an overview of where we were headed
with the campaign."
Helping Endangered Republicans
Politically embattled Republicans such as Shays were
Between April 2006 and Election Day, Shays was able to
announce at least 25 new federal grants or projects
totaling more than $46 million, including a new
veterans medical facility and a long-awaited
installment of federal money for ferry service,
according to a Post analysis of his news releases.
Seven different Bush administration officials,
including two Cabinet secretaries and the chief of the
highway administration, visited his district during
In contrast, Shays announced just $39 million in
grants and got just one visit by a federal official in
the prior 15 months, the analysis shows.
No federal generosity was too small to tout. A top
official of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration was on hand with Shays when the NOAA
awarded a single severe-weather alert radio, valued at
$23, to an elementary school in Norwalk, Conn., two
months before Election Day.
Shays wrote Bush on Sept. 8, 2006, to seek the early
release -- before the election -- of heating
assistance money for low-income residents in his
state. Just four days later, the White House released
$6 million. Asked to comment on the administration's
help, Shays's campaign manager Michael Sohn said,
"Chris was grateful to be returned to office based on
his record of hard work and accomplishment."
Similar efforts to promote grants in key states took
place across the government. When the Department of
Health and Human Services, for example, released 22
grants totaling $35.7 million for community health and
disease-prevention programs in late September 2004,
The Post analysis found, half the awards went to
targeted election states or congressional districts,
the rest to noncompetitive areas that included
Democratic strongholds such as Boston and New Orleans.
The agency's news release about those grants, however,
detailed at the top just four recipients -- in
Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania and an Oklahoma
congressional district -- that Rove's team identified
in earlier 2004 briefings as key to the GOP's
The White House briefings also frequently identified
key media markets where Republicans most wanted their
message out. A Post review of trips announced by
several Bush Cabinet members during the 2004 election
showed that their travel fell neatly into the markets
listed on a slide included in briefings that year.
Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao made 13 official visits
in the last two months of the election, never straying
more than 50 miles from the media markets on Rove's
office list, the analysis showed. That August, she
attended three local Fraternal Order of Police
meetings in the battleground states of Pennsylvania,
Ohio and Michigan to tout new overtime rules that
would soon go into effect. Likewise, she traveled to
Tampa -- another targeted media market -- to announce
grants for recipients who actually lived in
Jacksonville, Fla., a less competitive area.
Aside from her home town of Denver, Interior Secretary
Gale A. Norton visited just five cities in the first
two months of 2004, according to the public
announcements. But that pace changed between June and
November, when -- in visits to 37 cities -- she hit
the target election markets 32 times, the
Those visits occurred after Interior liaison William
Kloiber wrote to White House political affairs aide
Matt Schlapp to thank him for a briefing about the
political landscape. In an e-mail obtained by
congressional investigators, Kloiber wrote, "Sometimes
these folks need to be reminded who they work for and
how their geographic travel can benefit the President."