He’s Rove’s Brain

072005 article asm Hes Roves Brain“I hate bullies,” said Karl Rove’s lawyer, Robert Luskin.

Mr. Luskin had just answered the door of his Georgetown townhouse wearing a white shirt and pinstriped pants, held up by a beaded Native American–style belt. He had a shaved head and a gold hoop through his left earlobe.

“And there is always a moment in these kinds of things where the city at large—the reporters, the Congress, everything—that there’s a huge amount of bullying going on.

“I mean, there’s a moment where that public voice—in addition to a voice … trying to get to the bottom of all the things that are entirely legitimate and part of democracy and part of the process—but there’s also a quality in that voice that’s the voice of a bully.

“And I have this incredibly strong urge to kind of step in front of my client and say, ‘Don’t you dare do that stuff to him.’”

Bob Luskin is Karl Rove’s lawyer. Not Hillary R. Clinton’s—who usually gets this kind of gallant defense from liberals—but Karl Rove’s.

The New York Times had once more splayed the Joseph Wilson–Valerie Plame leak investigation, in which he’s defending Karl Rove on page 1. The President of the United States had made it news once more by redefining the foul lines that would necessitate a White House employee’s ejection. But Mr. Luskin seemed undistracted. At 55, his outlook and appearance was more bachelor shaman than superego to the man whose folk name has become “Bush’s Brain.”

Karl Rove is a force of nature in Washington. Bob Luskin is something else. Earring, belt and cluttered apartment aside, he’s a straight-line descendent of exactly the kind of people the Bush Bunch always claims to disdain and despise. He’s a new incarnation of, and protector of, the Washington liberal establishment.

Of course, the Bush Bunch’s disdain for the establishment is itself a kind of a pose: The President was a D.C. brat from the word go, an aristocrat with a grandfather who was in the U.S. Senate. The Texas stuff was an acquisition.

But in a more central way, the 55-year-old Mr. Luskin, as a protector of Mr. Rove, is a protector of another kind of Washington tradition: the establishment liberal—yes, liberal!—who will defend you, Mr. Rove and any other politically anomalous specimen on behalf of some combination of Washington fairness and power. He’s in a long line of lawyers that includes Edward Bennett Williams and Robert Strauss. Interdisciplinary power guys.

A tour of his wood-frame Georgetown townhouse drew forth an excavation of the memorabilia of his life, not discarded, as a “liberal Democrat”: the record of his radio broadcasts as a student reporter at Harvard, when the Students for a Democratic Society took over University Hall; a poster advertising The Harvard Strike, a book he contributed to. Also, Mondale-Ferraro campaign paraphernalia—Mr. Luskin wrote speeches for the 1984 Democratic Vice Presidential candidate—including a map pinpointing campaign stops that he hit for the cause.

“The best thing for a speechwriter to do was to figure out how to speak in the voice of a candidate,” he said. “I feel the same way about the representation. There should never be a ‘look-at-me’ moment.”

Of course, this is Mr. Luskin’s “look-at-me” moment, at least in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the rest of the press. That’s a lawyer’s business in a public trial; he may be a quiet lawyer, but the David Boies in him will pop up sooner or later.

“He’s been a low-profile/high-profile lawyer for years. But this is the first time he’s front and center,” said Michael Ryan, a friend since college. “I gather there’s a part of him that wishes he could go on Meet the Press—though it wouldn’t be good for his client—and there’s a part of him that’s relieved he doesn’t have to go on Meet the Press.” And Mr. Luskin seems to be channeling his client well—at least if you believe the legend of Mr. Rove’s political genius. For example, it’s hard not to have been galled by Mr. Luskin’s scorched-earth attacks on Time correspondent Matthew Cooper for leading Mr. Rove down some alleged road, for his last-minute theatrics of receiving a waiver from his source that allowed him to testify.

In an interview with National Review Online, Mr. Luskin compared Mr. Cooper’s July 11, 2003, internal Time e-mail with the story Mr. Cooper co-wrote a few days later. “By any definition, he burned Karl Rove,” Mr. Luskin said of Mr. Cooper. “If you read what Karl said to him and read how Cooper characterizes it in the article, he really spins it in a pretty ugly fashion to make it seem like people in the White House were affirmatively reaching out to reporters to try to get them to them to report negative information.”

The press has griped about his tactics, but President Bush seems to be, rather unsurprisingly, following Mr. Luskin’s talking points, narrowing the criterion for dismissal to criminal behavior.

And Mr. Luskin—or Mr. Rove—seems to have shaped the last few weeks’ news coverage by arguing that, while Mr. Rove did indeed have conversations with reporters, it would be a stretch to read his comments as breaking the law. Mr. Luskin has somehow flipped the Republican Rasputin into Washington whistle-blower.

“I know Bob to be a very experienced and skillful lawyer. He knows what he’s doing, and I therefore necessarily take on faith—because I don’t know the facts—that he’s executing a strategy that is appropriate under the circumstances,” said David Kendall, who represented President Clinton during his impeachment. “He’s being cautious, but he is making the case for his client as he needs …. I don’t think he takes chances. I don’t think he’s out in the media because there’s some kind of ego-gratification thing going on.”

Mr. Luskin is reluctant to talk about what he calls “the representation” or “Karl.” He said he doesn’t see how it would help his client and cites an “insanely mean and personal and vindictive” Washington mind-set. To escape it, he flees to the Valhalla of liberal Democrats, summers at the fulcrum of all the Bushes detest: the Graham-Reston-Clinton colony of Martha’s Vineyard.

“I think I’m a liberal Democrat on issues involving the environment, national security, poverty, racism, public education,” Mr. Luskin said.

He would only refer to his current assignment transitively, by comparing it to his representation of former Clinton staffer Mark Middleton, a White House aide who was sucked into allegations surrounding the Clintons’ alleged campaign-finance misdeeds. No charges were ever filed.

He is also representing former Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in the criminal-contempt proceedings that arose out of the Indian trust-fund litigation, and former Senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell, a Republican, against allegations of wrongdoing by staff members in his office.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics’ Web site, Mr. Luskin has made political contributions in the three figures to Democratic Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois in 2001, Representative John Barrow of Georgia in 2003 and 2004, Representative Brad Carson of Oklahoma in 2004 and Republican Senator Susan Collins of Maine in 2001.

Mr. Luskin’s law firm, Patton Boggs, is known best in its capacity as a Democratic lobbying shop, though the firm does plenty of business on both sides of the aisle. (Influence magazine ranks it first in revenues for combined law-lobbying firms.) One of the name partners was Representative Hale Boggs; his son, Tommy, is currently a lobbyist at the firm and one of the deans of the Washington lobbying community. (Tommy’s sister is Cokie Roberts.)

But oddly enough, it was through a Patton Boggs law partner of Mr. Luskin’s that he was referred to the case. That partner, Ben Ginsberg, was a Bush-Cheney campaign lawyer until he resigned after it was revealed that he had advised the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth—a 527 group that the campaign had declared to be independent from their operation. “Yeah, I would certainly say that Ben introduced me to Karl,” Mr. Luskin conceded.

When Mr. Rove sought his counsel, Mr. Luskin told him he had represented people in the Clinton White House. “I made clear to him that I’d represented folks in the Clinton administration,” he said, “and wanted to make sure that he had no problem with it and that it wasn’t going to be an issue with him. There are plenty of people who are very, very capable who have got Republican credentials. And as far as he was concerned, it was not an issue for him—and that’s the only thing that matters to me.

“Some people find it incongruous, because my politics are not Republican, and so there are plenty of people who just can’t imagine how it is that he and I found each other. Lawyers understand it immediately. I make sense of it because it’s a perfectly noble thing for a lawyer to do to try to prevent an injustice. And I have a huge amount of faith in the process, and so I am very, very, very, very comfortable working as hard as I can—and really I mean as vigorously as I can—to defend Karl, because I don’t think he did anything wrong, and that’s what a lawyer should do.

“It’s the same experience I had with Mark [Middleton],” Mr. Luskin continued. “People were baying after him; people were stationed outside his apartment, his townhouse—the full-monty Washington scandal-chasing and political rhetoric. Some of the things people said were just unbelievable. You know what that was about? People wanted to get at Clinton, and they thought that by hurting Mark or getting at Mark, they would hurt Clinton—and they thought that saying things about me would hurt Mark and would hurt Clinton.

“It had to do with the larger, strategic politic objectives at the time,” he said, “and I think the personal nature of it in this context is roughly the same. People do it now because they can, and because people have decided over the last 20 years that that resonates and that it works.

“Other people can draw the obvious parallels here. All I’m saying is that the reason things have gotten uglier is that folks have made the judgment that those sort of tactics work, and therefore, because this is a high-stakes game, there is just no point at which they’ll stop.”

Mr. Luskin said that he’s being “intellectually honest” by likening the attacks on Mr. Rove to those on Mr. Middleton.

Or Janet Reno.

Mr. Rove, said Mr. Luskin, is “an important figure in a very responsible position in the forefront of public life, so necessarily people are going to have opinions about him.

Think of the way people reacted to Janet Reno and some of the stuff that was directed to her. Why? Was it something that Janet Reno did? I honest to God don’t think so. Were questions about what the Justice Department was doing legitimate questions for public debate? Of course they were—but did that justify some of the personal hostility that you always saw directed toward her? I don’t know. Is there something different about Janet Reno than Karl Rove? I don’t think so.”

What could be more Washingtonian than a partisan Democrat using liberal principles to defend a conservative Presidential counselor? Calling Clark Clifford!

Mr. Luskin declined, for the most part, to discuss his inner turmoil, or any contradictions he sees in his current situation.

“Whatever incongruity there may be there,” he said, “lawyers are not their clients; clients are not their lawyers. And you find a common ground relating to the issues in the particular case where you’re representing somebody—and if you can’t find that common ground, you shouldn’t take that representation, or shouldn’t continue to represent someone.

“The things you need to agree on in this context are not the environment; they’re fundamental issues related to the representation.”

Lanny Davis, former special counsel to President Clinton, said that Mr. Luskin—with whom he’d worked at Patton Boggs—made sure that “the media and the public knew that his client did not do anything that met the criteria for violation of this particular law. Most criminal-defense lawyers would say that’s a mistake, because most criminal-defense lawyers are trained to say nothing to the media.” Mr. Davis, who said that Mr. Rove should make a public apology, added: “In this situation, he understood that as soon as the Matt Cooper e-mail broke, the previous strategy of Mr. Rove not commenting at all and not explaining at all was not going to be practical and effective.”

Like most D.C. lawyers, Mr. Luskin’s career has been punctuated by work generated by the various controversies and investigations that mark the passing of time in the capital: ABSCAM, the Keating Five, Clinton White House campaign finance, Native American trust-fund litigation and now the L’Affaire Plame.

Yet his practice is more eclectic than the standard Washington white-collar criminal defender. In the early 1990’s, he represented a liberal U.S. District Judge who had been convicted on two obstruction-of-justice charges. He argued the case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals—getting the convictions reversed—and then in the Supreme Court (they reinstated one of the convictions, but then the Ninth Circuit threw that one out as well), shocking court-watchers by appearing with a stud in his left ear.

And the bulk of his practice is as the in-house prosecutor for the 800,000-member union Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA). The conservative movement cried foul when, in 1995, the Justice Department cut a deal with the union, allowing them to create an internal judicial system to ferret out corruption and mob ties—as opposed to taking it over, the way the Justice Department had done with the Teamsters—and for some time, Mr. Luskin was their punching bag.

The cries for blood got louder when it was revealed that Mr. Luskin had accepted payments in gold bars from a client who was a convicted drug-money launderer, Stephen Saccoccia. In 1998, he reportedly agreed to repay $245,000 of the approximately $700,000 he’d been paid for representing Mr. Saccoccia in his sentencing and some of his appeal proceedings. The right became convinced that this was proof of Mr. Luskin’s mob ties.

“We negotiated them through a bank, filed the appropriate reports with the Treasury Department, let the government know about it,” he said about accepting Mr. Saccoccia’s tribute. “There was no doubt there was going to be scrutiny afterward, and I thought I was being reasonably careful. In hindsight, I think I was completely blind to the optics of the situation and rather caught up with the steps that I had taken to ensure that, to my satisfaction, the funds were O.K.

“In hindsight,” he said, “what a stupid thing for me to have done.”

But before long, that somewhat obscure bit of labor negotiation was forgotten in Washington. There were other clients, other connections to be made. He was back in the saddle again. After all, this was no Watergate.

And what’s more Washington than that?