WASHINGTON - In the hours before the Justice Department informed the White House in late September 2003 that it would investigate the leak of a covert C.I.A. officer's identity, Scott McClellan, the White House press secretary, gave reporters what turned out to be a rare glimpse into President Bush's knowledge of the case.
Mr. Bush, he said, "knows" that Karl Rove, his senior adviser, had not been the source of the leak. Pressed on how Mr. Bush was certain, Mr. McClellan said he was "not going to get into conversations that the president has with advisers," but made no effort to erase the impression that Mr. Rove had assured Mr. Bush that he had not been involved.
Since then, administration officials and Mr. Bush himself have carefully avoided disclosing anything about any involvement the president may have had in the events surrounding the disclosure of the officer's identity or anything about what his aides may have told them about their roles. Citing the continuing investigation and now the pending trial of I. Lewis Libby Jr., Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, they have declined to comment on almost any aspect of the case.
The issue now for the White House is how long it can go on deflecting the inquiries and trying to keep the focus away from Mr. Bush.
While there has been no suggestion that Mr. Bush did anything wrong, the portrait of the White House that was painted by the special counsel in the indictment of Mr. Libby was one in which a variety of senior officials, including Mr. Cheney, played some role in events that preceded the disclosure of the officer's identity.
Mr. Bush was not mentioned in the indictment. But the fact that so many of his aides seem to have been involved in dealing with the issue that eventually led to the leak - how to rebut or discredit Joseph C. Wilson IV, a former diplomat who had challenged the administration's handling of prewar intelligence - leaves open the question of what the president knew.
The White House has also kept a tight lid on information about what Mr. Bush learned afterward about any involvement that Mr. Cheney, Mr. Libby, Mr. Rove and others may have had in the leak.
People involved in the case have confirmed that Mr. Rove told Mr. Bush and other White House colleagues in September 2003 that he had no involvement, but it is not known what, if anything, Mr. Rove has told Mr. Bush since testifying to the grand jury last year and this year that he had conversations with two reporters that touched on the identity of the officer, Valerie Wilson. What, if anything, Mr. Cheney and Mr. Libby may have told Mr. Bush remains a mystery.
From a political perspective, the investigation now seems to be taking a toll on Mr. Bush. A Washington Post/ABC News poll released on Thursday found that only 40 percent of Americans see him as honest and trustworthy, down from 53 percent in May 2004 and 62 percent soon after he took office in 2001; 58 percent said they did not see him as honest and trustworthy, up from 45 percent last year and 32 percent in 2001.
At the same time, Democrats are demanding that he live up to his earlier pledges to hold his administration to the highest ethical standards, "not only what is legal but what is right, not just what the lawyers allow but what the public deserves," as Mr. Bush put it at the end of the 2000 presidential campaign. And Democrats are drawing renewed attention to an apparent change in Mr. Bush's standard for what would constitute a firing offense, to anyone who "committed a crime," the threshold he used when he addressed the issue in July, from anyone who was "involved in" a leak of classified information, a definition Mr. McClellan used in 2003.
More broadly, Democrats and their allies are trying to place the leak case at the heart of their argument that the administration has shown itself to be incompetent, dishonest and out of touch with middle-class Americans. "Katrina. Iraq. Indictment. George Bush's presidency is in trouble, and he'll do anything to save it," said a new television commercial from People for the American Way, a liberal group opposing the nomination of Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court.
"We're at the very beginning stages of this, not at the end," said Representative Rahm Emanuel, Democrat of Illinois, referring to the political impact of the investigation.
"The president, politically at least, has an obligation to say something to the American people to get some clarity about what did they know and what did they say," he said.
But the Bush White House has always been good at what one close Republican ally refers to admiringly as "making their own reality," meaning that the president and his top aides stick doggedly to their political script and agenda, refusing to be knocked off course. What Democrats consider stubbornness and detachment, Mr. Bush's admirers consider determination, and in this case that trait suggests the White House will be in no rush to acknowledge mistakes or to offer detailed explanations that might swamp the president's second-term plans.
"A White House that is aggressively on message is an unstoppable political tool," said Rich Galen, a Republican consultant. "Just as the Clinton White House got itself back together in '95 and after impeachment, this White House will get itself together, too."
Whatever political problems the Libby indictment creates, he said, "It's a long way from the Veep's office to the Oval. No one has ever hinted that President Bush was involved in this or was even aware of it. I really don't think the issue will have legs beyond the next couple of weeks."
The administration's supporters point out that Mr. Bush has repeatedly emphasized that the White House will cooperate fully with the special counsel, Patrick J. Fitzgerald. The administration raised no issues of executive privilege when it came to documents sought by investigators. Mr. Fitzgerald had given no indication that he was denied any information on the ground of national security. No officials are known to have taken the Fifth Amendment to avoid incriminating themselves.
Therefore, allies of the White House said, it would be hard to make a case, legally or politically, that there was any organized effort to cover up what happened, despite Mr. Libby's indictment on charges of trying to do just that. And assuming that Mr. Fitzgerald does not indict Mr. Rove in the next few weeks, Mr. Bush has a natural firebreak available to him.
He will be away from Washington for much of the rest of the month. After returning from a trip to South America, Mr. Bush will leave for a week in Asia and then will spend Thanksgiving at his ranch in Texas.
When he returns, allies of the White House said, he hopes to regain traction by moving smoothly ahead with Judge Alito's nomination, shifting the focus to the policies he intends to emphasize next year, including reduced government spending and an overhaul of the immigration and border control systems, and making a more effective case for why victory in Iraq is vital.
"I'm not sure he needs to say anything about the case until the investigation is over," Charlie Black, a Republican strategist, said, "and then I'm not sure they need to do anything differently."
Mr. Black said the political repercussions from the case were "a fairly temporary phenomenon" that would fade in the next few weeks, giving way to the problems that had been presenting such a tremendous challenge to Mr. Bush before the leak case flared up this fall.
"The president's job approval long term is driven by Iraq and the economy much more than this leak stuff," he said. "They know that."
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