Bush Claims Executive Privilege on Subpoenas
Friday, June 29, 2007
The White House invoked executive privilege yesterday in withholding subpoenaed documents on fired U.S. attorneys out of confidence that it can prevail in court and weather a political storm by blaming Congress for overreaching, administration officials said.
White House counsel Fred F. Fielding said in a letter to the chairmen of the Senate and House judiciary committees that President Bush will not make available the requested documents or permit testimony by two former senior aides about White House and Justice Department calculations in the firing of nine federal prosecutors.
Striking a theme used by other presidents being investigated by Congress, Fielding wrote that Bush is taking the position to preserve what he termed a "bedrock Presidential prerogative: for the President to perform his constitutional duties, it is imperative that he receive candid and unfettered advice" from top aides.
Advisers would be "reluctant to communicate openly and honestly" if they feared being dragged before Congress to testify or provide documents of their deliberations, he wrote.
Coming on the same day the Senate torpedoed Bush's immigration plan, Fielding's letter and the White House's statements threatened to worsen the already strained relations between the administration and the Democratic-controlled Congress, which has launched aggressive investigations aimed at exposing White House wrongdoing.
The statements from all sides yesterday called to mind the harsh rhetoric in Washington heard at the height of the Watergate scandal.
"This is a further shift by the Bush administration into Nixonian stonewalling and more evidence of their disdain for our system of checks and balances," said Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Increasingly, the president and vice president feel they are above the law."
The White House's action yesterday did not address the separate Senate subpoenas this week for documents related to the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program. If Congress insists on those subpoenas, a senior administration official said, "we will have to deal with that. . . . I am not going to speculate at this point."
Even as Fielding's letter landed on Capitol Hill, the White House launched a campaign to portray the key issue as being congressional Democrats' obsession with attacking the president and his advisers, rather than addressing problems such as immigration and health care. Press secretary Tony Snow told reporters traveling on Air Force One that the subpoenas "may explain why this is the least popular Congress in decades, because you do have what appears to be a strategy of destruction rather than cooperation."
Democrats have charged that the administration's decision last year to fire nine U.S. attorney was tainted by politics, and they have called for Attorney General Alberto S. Gonzales to resign for providing shifting explanations of key events. In seeking documents related to White House involvement, Democrats appear to be gunning in particular for top White House political adviser Karl Rove. E-mails released so far suggest some involvement by his aides but offer only a murky picture of his own role.
Bush has offered to make Rove and other senior aides, including former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers, available for private interviews, but he has refused to allow a transcript to be made of those sessions and said they could not be conducted under oath.
That stance has been unacceptable to Democratic majorities of the House and Senate Judiciary committees. The Senate panel subpoenaed former White House political director Sara M. Taylor and its House counterpart subpoenaed Miers, who broached the idea of firing all U.S. attorneys after the 2004 election. Both committees have also demanded relevant documents about the associated White House deliberations.