WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that he would not judge the role that senior aide Karl Rove might have played in revealing the identity of a CIA agent until a federal criminal investigator had finished his work.
Noting the continuing investigation, Bush declined to defend Rove or to weigh in on the politically charged case, which has prompted Democrats to call for Bush to fire Rove or curb his role at the White House.
"We're in the midst of an ongoing investigation, and this is a serious investigation," Bush told reporters after a morning meeting with his Cabinet. "And it is very important for people not to prejudge the investigation based on media reports. And again, I will be more than happy to comment on this matter once the investigation is complete."
Bush's comments came as Matthew Cooper, a reporter for Time magazine, was giving a detailed accounting of a conversation he had with Rove to a federal grand jury that is investigating the disclosure of the identity of the CIA operative, Valerie Plame.
Special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald has said that Cooper was a critical figure in wrapping up his nearly two-year investigation into whether Bush administration figures violated federal law in connection with the exposure of Plame's identity in newspaper articles in July 2003.
Cooper - who was before the grand jury for 2 hours - had been called to testify about a conversation with Rove in which they discussed the CIA operative, days before her name surfaced in a column by Robert Novak and in a later story that Cooper helped write for the Time Web site.
"I testified openly and honestly," Cooper told reporters afterward, adding that he had "no idea" whether Rove or any other Bush administration official had committed crimes. "That's something the special counsel's going to have to determine," he said.
Cooper declined to discuss the specifics of his testimony, saying that he intended to tell the story himself in an article for Time. But the questioning of the reporter is believed to have focused almost exclusively on Rove and on what he conveyed to Cooper.
Cooper said after yesterday's appearance that he had been dismissed and that he had no reason to believe he would be recalled to give further testimony. He previously spoke with Fitzgerald about conversations he had with I. Scooter "Lewis" Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff.
Fitzgerald has said that the testimony of New York Times reporter Judith Miller is also crucial to completing the investigation. Miller spent her eighth day in jail yesterday after being held in contempt of court last week for refusing to name her sources.
Cooper relented only after being threatened with jail and receiving what his lawyer said were last-minute assurances from Rove allowing him to testify about their conversation.
At the White House, Bush was asked twice by reporters about Rove at the end of a Cabinet meeting. Both times, he declined to address the substance of the case
About two hours later, White House press secretary Scott McClellan rejected suggestions that the president had failed to defend Rove.
"He wasn't asked about his support or confidence for Karl. Every person who works here at the White House, including Karl Rove, has the confidence of the president," McClellan said. "This was not a question that came up in the Cabinet Room."
Congressional Republicans stepped up their efforts yesterday to defend Rove.
Sen. Norm Coleman, a Minnesota Republican, issued a statement calling on Democrats to "cool the rhetoric" on Rove, focus on legislative business and allow the investigation to run its course.
Democrats, meanwhile, kept the heat on the White House.
Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and fellow Democrats Charles E. Schumer of New York, Richard J. Durbin of Illinois and Debbie Stabenow of Michigan called on White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr., to conduct an internal investigation of any White House involvement in unmasking a covert CIA agent and making public the results.
The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.