In the latest pull in a legal tug-of-war over the Bush administration's firings of U.S. attorneys, the president reasserted his use of executive privilege Monday to instruct two former aides not to testify before congressional committees later this week. As the week unwinds, more drama is sure to unfold.
Former White House counsel Harriet Miers and former political director Sara Taylor were scheduled to appear before the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, respectively, but the Bush administration invoked executive privilege again, offering to make witnesses available only off the record.
When Bush originally stated he would use the privilege to quash the June 13 subpoenas issued by the committees, the chairs, Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. John Conyers, asked the administration to reconsider.
"We had hoped our committees' subpoenas would be met with compliance and not a Nixonian stonewalling that reveals the White House's disdain for our system of checks and balances," Leahy and Conyers wrote to Bush's legal counsel, Fred Fielding.
The administration did not reconsider and would not provide much elaboration for using the privilege, or additional evidence requested by the lawmakers by the 10 a.m. Monday deadline. In a response, Fielding called the privilege necessary to protect "a fundamental interest of the presidency: the necessity that a president receive candid advice from his advisers."
Conyers said the White House's reaction is disappointing and the move has agitated congressional Democrats, already riled by President Bush's commutation of the sentence given to former administration aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby last week.
"While we remain willing to negotiate with the White House, they adhere to their unacceptable all-or-nothing position, and now will not even seek to properly justify their privilege claims," Conyers said in a statement.
"Contrary to what the White House may believe, it is the Congress and the courts that will decided whether an invocation of executive privilege is valid, not the White House unilaterally."
The committees are set to proceed with the hearings anyway. A House Judiciary spokeswoman said Conyers expects Miers to comply with the subpoena and appear Thursday.
Taylor is supposed to testify before the Senate panel on Wednesday. Whether they actually appear remains to be seen. And if one side doesn't back down, the case may end up in federal court.
By Nikki Schwab