IN THE HOT SEAT
Ex-Aide to Respect Confidentiality Of White House in Hill Testimony
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Former White House aide Sara M. Taylor will refuse to testify today about matters President Bush has deemed shielded by executive privilege, but she will offer to respond to other questions from senators that do not breach White House confidentiality, her attorney said yesterday.
The Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Taylor to testify this morning about the dismissals of nine U.S. attorneys last year and the Bush administration's response to the controversy that followed. Bush this week invoked executive privilege, and White House counsel Fred F. Fielding sent Taylor a letter directing her not to discuss internal communications.
"Ms. Taylor will appear at the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in response to the committee subpoenas and intends to comply with the letter from Mr. Fielding," her attorney, W. Neil Eggleston, said yesterday. Sitting by her side in the hearing room, Eggleston will advise her whether questions fall afoul of Fielding's instructions.
Fielding told Eggleston in a letter Monday that Taylor should not discuss "White House consideration, deliberations, or communications, whether internal or external, relating to the possible dismissal or appointment of United States Attorneys, including consideration of possible responses to congressional and media inquiries."
A spokeswoman for Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said the panel has questions that will not fall under that restriction. But committee Democrats made clear that they will not be satisfied with that and will press the White House to drop its assertion of executive privilege. The Senate could cite Bush or Taylor or both for criminal contempt, which would send the matter into the courts.
"I hope Ms. Taylor chooses to reject the White House's insistence that she carry out their stonewalling and, instead, works with us so that we can get to the bottom of what has gone on and gone wrong," Leahy said in a statement last night.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), a committee member, said: "With no one in the Justice Department claiming responsibility for the U.S. attorney firings, the arrow points more and more strongly at the White House, and that's where we're headed. We would hope that Sara Taylor tells us everything she knows."
Taylor, who was White House political director until two months ago, is eager to avoid sanctions but unwilling to defy the president she served. By appearing at the hearing and agreeing to answer at least some questions, she and her attorney hope that the Senate will focus any enforcement action on the White House rather than on her. Her attorney has said that Taylor will answer any questions if permitted by the White House or if ordered by a court that has declared the privilege claim invalid.
The legal dilemma is an unexpected coda to an eight-year run working for Bush, which vaulted Taylor to the highest circles of power before she was 30. When she cleared out her White House desk in late May, Taylor, now 32, hoped to take a six-week break before pursuing a corporate career and private political work. But, instead, she finds herself at the center of an investigation into the U.S. attorney firings, after the release of e-mails in which she denounced aides to Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales for fumbling the response to the disputed firings and asserted that one prosecutor was sacked for being "lazy."
Democrats want Taylor to testify about the role of her immediate boss at the White House, Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, in the firings. Former Gonzales chief of staff D. Kyle Sampson testified in March that he believed the dismissal of U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins of Little Rock was important to Rove because the intended replacement, former Rove aide Tim Griffin, was important to Taylor.
Like many Washingtonians caught up in scandal, Taylor sought out the best legal help regardless of partisan leanings. Eggleston, a Democrat, is very familiar with White House staffers being forced to testify on Capitol Hill, having appeared before House and Senate committees to talk about internal deliberations as a deputy counsel in the Clinton White House. He also represented the Clinton White House in executive-privilege battles with special prosecutors.
But Democrats might use his words against his client. "The assertion of privilege by the White House in the face of allegations of misconduct by high-ranking White House staffers is just not going to be politically tenable," Eggleston told the Legal Times in 2003 after a criminal investigation was launched into the leak of a CIA officer's name.
In his letter to the committee on the eve of Taylor's testimony, Eggleston portrayed his client as a sympathetic character caught up in a larger political and constitutional struggle between a president and Congress. "Having worked most of her adult life for President Bush, she is unquestionably loyal to the president," he wrote. "If there is to be a clash, we urge the Senate to direct its sanction against the White House, not against a former staffer."