Against Claims of Executive Privilege, a Committee Comes Up Dry

Water, water everywhere, but only a few drops for the senators. (By Mark Wilson -- Getty Images)
By Dana Milbank
Thursday, July 12, 2007

Yesterday's Senate testimony by former White House political director Sara Taylor was a watershed.

Not in the newsmaking sense: Taylor, as instructed by the White House, invoked executive privilege so often that the session did little to change the constitutional showdown between the president and Congress over the U.S. attorney firings.

No, Taylor's appearance was a watershed because of the extraordinary amount of liquid she consumed -- three bottles of Deer Park spring water, not including the half bottle her lawyer quaffed.

"What is the White House trying to hide?" demanded the Judiciary Committee chairman, Pat Leahy (D-Vt.). Taylor grabbed her bottle, licked her lips and sipped.

"This is a difficult time for you," Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said through his crocodile tears. Taylor took a big swig.

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) accused the White House of putting "young, loyal, talented people like yourself in to the line of fire." Taylor savored a long draught.

When Leahy called a recess after a little more than 90 minutes, the former White House official rose to leave the chamber and said something quietly to her lawyer that sounded very much like, "I need to use the ladies' room."

Though Taylor was a fluid witness, her answers were not enough to quench the senators' thirst for answers about the White House's role in the firing of nine U.S. attorneys and related allegations of wrongdoing in the Justice Department. From the start, she announced that she had a directive from White House counsel Fred Fielding to say nothing about "White House consideration, deliberation, communications, whether internal or external" -- which is to say pretty much everything.

Taylor invoked Fielding's name 24 times and used his letter like a shield. She mentioned it 35 times: "I have a very clear letter from Mr. Fielding. . . . Again, I have a letter. . . . I believe that Mr. Fielding's letter is quite clear."

Democratic senators generally described the young witness as a pawn in their chess match with the White House, and they therefore cut her some slack (a fate unlikely to meet Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel who plans to ignore an order to appear before the House Judiciary Committee today). On the other hand, Taylor got little support from Republican senators, who skipped the hearing.

"I could use some company," announced Republican Arlen Specter (Pa.), outnumbered seven to one. The only senator to heed Specter was Sen. Chuck Grassley (Iowa), who stopped by long enough to certify that he had met the witness, a fellow Iowan, when "she'd just turned 6 years old."

Taylor had a brash presence that belied her tender years ("almost 33," she said), but her mannerisms betrayed youth: She flipped her hair back after some answers, fiddled endlessly with a paper clip and resorted regularly to verbal filler. "I'm trying to, you know, infer here," she said. And, "You know, again, and I will continue to try to be as cooperative as I can, and, I guess, you know, the only alternative is to just sit here."

Taylor's main task was to avoid a contempt citation for her refusal to answer questions, and she was shrewd enough to praise one of her chief antagonists, telling the senator from New York, "You're a persuasive attorney, Mr. Schumer."

But she couldn't help but lash out at a couple of the committee's junior Democrats, whom she had worked to defeat as White House political director. She interrupted Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (R.I.) to "take issue" with his question -- but quickly apologized under his glare. She further told Whitehouse that she took an "oath to the president" but was later forced by a shouting Leahy to acknowledge that the oath was to the Constitution, not the president.

When Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), another rookie, asked if she could make an independent judgment about wrongdoing at the White House, she retorted: "I think all human beings are able to make independent judgments." And when Cardin questioned her failure to remember phone calls, she shot back: "I can't remember what I had for breakfast last week."

Taylor's lawyer, Neil Eggleston, rocked in his chair and put his fingers to his lips. More than once, Eggleston, evidently fearing his client looked contemptuous of Congress, huddled with Taylor and encouraged her to be more forthcoming. "My attorney has informed me that he believes that that question does not fall within Mr. Fielding's letter, so I apologize for not answering it," she said after one such sidebar.

Contemptuous of Congress or not, the witness's most obvious sentiment was her fondness for bottled water. She bounded into the hearing room and, ignoring the glass and coaster in front of her, unscrewed the Deer Park bottle, licked her lips and drank. She took seven more such sips during Leahy's opening statement. When he said she "was among the staffers who played a key role in these firings," she licked her lips and sipped. "What role did Ms. Taylor and others in Karl Rove's White House political office play?" Sip. "It's apparent that this White House is contemptuous of the Congress." Sip.

Specter did his best to defend the well- hydrated witness from the anticipated contempt citation. "Good job," he congratulated her at the end. But what about her water drinking -- a total of three bottles? "I wasn't watching the consumption," Specter said. "I had four."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company