WASHINGTON - It looked like business as usual at President Bush's Cabinet meeting yesterday. And that's exactly what White House aides wanted.
The president ticked off the administration's preparations for Hurricane Wilma, mentioned the need to control federal spending, even found time to tease a reporter about her sunglasses.
But seated along the edge of the room were two poker-faced men whose fates could determine Bush's effectiveness through the rest of his term in office. The possible indictments of Karl Rove and I. Lewis ''Scooter" Libby hang over virtually everything the president is doing these days, but behind the scenes, the Bush administration and its Republican allies have already launched a campaign to minimize the damage of any criminal charges.
Yesterday, Bush changed the subject of Washington conversation by nominating a new chairman of the Federal Reserve Board. Emphasizing the atmosphere of normalcy, Rove and Libby attended the morning meeting for senior staff as well as the Cabinet meeting, and Libby sat in while Bush met with the US ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann.
''We've got to keep our energies focused on the things we can do something about," said Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary. ''We're following the developments in the investigation just like you all are. But we've got a lot of work to do here at the White House, and that's what we'll continue to focus on."
With indictments possible as soon as today, Republicans are preparing a public relations blitz aimed at shoring up public support for the Bush administration. The outlines of the campaign emerged on the Sunday talk shows; Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican with close ties to the White House, said on NBC's ''Meet the Press" that indictments may be based on ''technicalities," to justify the resources spent on the probe.
''I certainly hope that if there is going to be an indictment . . . that it is an indictment on a crime and not some perjury technicality where they couldn't indict on the crime and so they go to something just to show that their two years of investigation was not a waste of time and taxpayer dollars," Hutchison said.
Democrats began rebutting that strategy yesterday, by pointing out some of the Republicans who spoke of the serious nature of similar charges in the late 1990s, when President Clinton was under scrutiny in the Monica Lewinsky affair.
''When a Democrat was in the White House just a few short years ago, the seriousness of perjury and obstruction was pretty much all Republicans would talk about," said Phil Singer, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Bush has steered clear of criticizing special counsel Patrick J. Fitzgerald, and earlier this month praised him for conducting a ''very dignified" investigation. When asked about the possibility of indictments yesterday, Bush repeated the no-comment answer he has offered multiple times in recent weeks.
''This may be the fourth time I've been asked about this," the president said after the Cabinet meeting. ''I'm not going to comment about it. This is a very serious investigation, and I haven't changed my mind about whether or not I'm going to comment on it publicly."
Public signals suggest that Fitzgerald could bring charges this week in his investigation into the leak of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity. Rove, the president's top political adviser, and Libby, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff, represent the highest-profile potential targets. Both are known to have discussed Plame at least obliquely with reporters.
The legal scrutiny could hardly come at a worse time for the president. The number of US combat deaths in Iraq is just reaching 2,000. Bush's Supreme Court nominee, Harriet Miers, has caused a split among the president's conservative base. High gas prices are keeping the president's approval rating at about 40 percent.
Congressional Republicans say they expect indicted officials to take leaves of absence while the legal proceedings are underway. Though White House officials have declined to speculate before Fitzgerald's investigation is complete, Republicans with close ties to the White House say Rove and Libby are likely to step aside if indicted out of loyalty to the administration.
Losing Rove would rob the White House of its top political mind -- the man Bush called ''the architect" of his reelection campaign last year. But outside advisers, including former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie and the current chairman, Ken Mehlman, are ready to step in to fill the void. And Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. could take on a larger portfolio.
''This administration will move forth with the organized, disciplined manner they're accustomed to," said Ron Kaufman, a Washington lobbyist who is the Republican national committeeman for Massachusetts. ''You always miss someone like Karl, but between Andy and the others, they'll be fine."
Fitzgerald's investigation began with the 2003 publication of Plame's status as a covert operative in an article by syndicated columnist Robert Novak. The column sought to discredit Plame's husband, Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former ambassador who became a vocal critic of the Bush administration's case for the Iraq war.
The probe has since expanded to focus on conversations that Rove or Libby had with other reporters, including Matthew Cooper of Time and Judith Miller of The New York Times.
Last week, on a newly launched website, Fitzgerald made public a 2004 letter authorizing him to prosecute crimes committed in the course of his investigation, ''such as perjury, obstruction of justice, destruction of evidence, and intimidation of witnesses."
Democrats say that if top Bush aides are indicted, they will use the fact that Plame's identity was leaked in connection with the drive to invade Iraq to intensify their criticism of Bush.
''We'll try to take it back to the president," one Senate Democratic leadership aide said, speaking on condition of anonymity. ''We'll call for a wholesale housecleaning in the White House, like Reagan did after Iran-Contra, and call on the president to put an end to this culture of corruption."
Copyright © 2005 Boston Globe