Bush rebuffs records demand - Democrats vow fight on prosecutor firings
By Andrew Zajac
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published June 29, 2007
WASHINGTON -- President Bush refused Thursday to turn over records sought by Congress in its investigation of the firing of federal prosecutors, setting up a standoff with no quick resolution unless one side or the other blinks.
White House counsel Fred Fielding told lawmakers in a letter that "the president has decided to assert executive privilege and therefore the White House will not be making any production" of documents.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) denounced the rebuff as "Nixonian stonewalling and more evidence of their disdain for our system of checks and balances."
Leahy and House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) vowed to press ahead in their attempt to enforce a pair of subpoenas for documents from former White House political director Sara Taylor and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.
Both were involved in deliberations that ended with the forced removal of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006, according to records already released by the Justice Department and the White House.
Fielding said Bush is shielding the requested documents because he needs his aides to be able to advise him without "fear of being commanded to Capitol Hill to testify or having their documents produced to Congress."
Miers and Taylor are slated to testify before Congress next month, but Bush also objects to that and is prepared to assert executive privilege to block it "if the matter cannot be resolved," Fielding said in his letter.
Democrats say claim invalid
But congressional Democrats said Fielding's claims of privilege are overly broad because there is no evidence that Bush himself was involved in the discussions about the firings.
Democratic lawmakers say they will ask Fielding to provide a more detailed explanation of the privilege claim as a first step in a lengthy process that could result in contempt of Congress citations and even criminal contempt charges.
The White House brush-off was expected. When Fielding's letter was released, Democrats were ready with information sheets on the limits of executive privilege and an explanation of how subpoenas are enforced.
But aides privately acknowledged that Bush could draw out the process until he leaves office in 18 months if he has the stomach for the political heat the fight might generate. Conversely, congressional Democrats run the risk of a backlash if the public perceives them as unfairly belaboring the issue.
"The system is designed to slowly ratchet up the pressure on both sides," a senior Senate aide said.
Showdowns over claims of executive privilege have occurred repeatedly over the past four decades.
Charles Tiefer, a law professor at the University of Baltimore and House deputy counsel in 1984-95, said: "President Bush's claim is like several others made by presidents in a number of scandals since Watergate. Often Congress has succeeded in bringing enough political and legal pressure to overcome presidential resistance."
Tiefer said congressional committees occasionally have voted to issue contempt citations, most recently in 1996 against Janet Reno, who was the attorney general, but the full House or Senate has approved a contempt citation only once in recent decades. In 1983, the House cited Anne Gorsuch Burford, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, for contempt for refusing, at White House direction, to produce documents on toxic waste related to the operation of the Superfund environmental cleanup program.
She resigned, but President Ronald Reagan released the disputed documents.
The subpoenas of Miers and Taylor are part of a broadening set of inquiries that began as an examination of how the prosecutors were fired and now include the politicized hiring of Justice Department civil service employees, the alleged politicization of the department's Civil Rights Division and the department's role in the administration's warrantless domestic surveillance operation.
Six top Justice Department officials have quit since the investigations began earlier this year.
On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed Committee subpoenaed the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney's office seeking records connected to the surveillance program. Leahy also announced that he has asked Atty. Gen. Alberto Gonzales to testify again before his committee. Lawmakers from both parties have called on Gonzales to resign, but Bush has said he retains confidence in the attorney general.
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The president's rationale Excerpts from a letter White House counsel Fred Fielding sent to Sen. Patrick Leahy and Rep. John Conyers on congressional subpoenas for documents in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys:
... To be sure, the President's offer also took care to protect fundamental interests of the Presidency and the constitutional principle of separation of powers. Specifically, the President was not willing to provide your Committees with documents revealing internal White House communications or to accede to your desire for senior advisors to testify at public hearings. The reason for these distinctions rests upon a bedrock Presidential prerogative: for the President to perform his constitutional duties, it is imperative that he receive candid and unfettered advice and that free and open discussions and deliberations occur among his advisors and between those advisors and others within and outside the Executive Branch. ...
... The President has frequently, plainly, and completely explained that his position, and now his decision, is rooted in a need to protect the institution of the Presidency. The President's assertion of Executive Privilege is not designed to shield information in a particular situation, but to help protect the ability of Presidents to ensure that decisions ... benefit from the exchange of informed and diverse viewpoints and open and frank deliberations.