THE WHITE HOUSE and congressional Democrats have drawn deep lines in the sand over who will testify, and how, as Congress investigates the dismissal of eight U.S. attorneys. The stubbornness and overheated rhetoric on both sides threaten an unnecessary constitutional crisis that would only bog down the inquiry in a distracting fight over process.
It's worth stepping back and putting the supposed scandal in perspective. President Bush is entitled to replace his U.S. attorneys; he'd be entitled to do so if he thought they weren't pursuing his prosecutorial priorities with sufficient vigor, or even if he just wanted to give other lawyers a shot at the jobs. The many e-mails that the administration has released for the most part suggest nothing nefarious in the dismissal process.
It would not be acceptable for Mr. Bush to fire the attorneys to short-circuit prosecutions of political corruption among Republicans. So far there's no evidence that he did, and in fact the most questionable conduct we know of originated in Congress, with New Mexico Republicans Sen. Pete Domenici and Rep. Heather Wilson. But in at least two of the eight cases, there are reasonable questions to be asked. And given the administration's incorrect and inadequate answers to the Senate thus far, Congress is right to pursue those questions.
But how? Defiant in tone and words, President Bush made what he ill-advisedly presented as a final offer of his view of that question Tuesday. Embattled Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales would set the record straight in new hearings on Capitol Hill. Senior presidential adviser Karl Rove, former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers and two other West Wing officials would be made available. But they would speak in private, not under oath, and no transcript would be made.
Democratic leaders deemed the conditions unacceptable. Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee authorized the issuance of subpoenas to compel the White House aides to testify under oath and in public. The Senate Judiciary Committee is set to do the same today.
Lawmakers would do well to demonstrate more understanding of the legitimate institutional concerns at stake here -- is the president not entitled to confidential advice on personnel matters? -- and to remember that the tables could easily be turned, as they were not so many years ago, with a Republican Congress eager to rifle through the files of a Democratic administration. At the same time, history does not support unlimited presidential privilege. Among other incidents, President Bill Clinton's chief of staff, White House counsel and deputy counsel testified about his granting of a pardon to fugitive financier Marc Rich -- a pardon being a core and exclusive presidential power.
As we suggested last week, a two-step process could pull both sides back from the brink. First, Mr. Gonzales and other Justice Department officials should testify about their decisions to remove the ousted eight. If questions remain, Mr. Rove and Ms. Miers should be interviewed. They don't have to testify under oath, since lying to Congress is a crime. But their testimony must be as open as possible and should without question be transcribed. If Mr. Bush is serious about wanting the truth to come out, he will relent on this issue.