Congress probes pile pressure on Bush team
By Andrew Ward in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: June 24 2007 17:53 | Last updated: June 24 2007 17:53
A recent rash of high-level resignations has raised concern that the White House is suffering a brain drain as George W. Bush’s administration limps towards the end of its troubled second term. Rob Portman, the widely respected budget director, was the latest to head for the exit last week.
One corner of the West Wing, however, is enjoying an influx of fresh talent. It emerged this month that Fred Fielding, White House counsel, had hired nine new lawyers, increasing the size of his staff by about a third.
The recruitment spree reflects the increased demands on his legal team since the Democrats took control of Capitol Hill in January. After six years of co-operation with a Republican Congress, the Bush administration is facing a barrage of investigations by the Democratic leadership.
Four developments over the past fortnight highlighted the mounting scrutiny. First, the House and Senate judiciary committees issued subpoenas for testimony from two former White House officials, including Harriet Myers, former legal counsel, about their roles in the firing of eight federal prosecutors last year.
Second, the House oversight committee published a report alleging violation of rules aimed at protecting White House e-mail records, resulting in the loss of many thousands of e-mails to and from senior officials.
Third, the Senate judiciary committee approved – although it has not yet issued – a subpoena ordering Alberto Gonzales, attorney-general, to hand over documents related to the National Security Agency’s domestic wiretapping programme.
Fourth, the House oversight committee demanded a response from Dick Cheney, vice-president, to allegations that he blocked the US National Archives from measuring the volume of classified documents generated by his office.
Together, the probes represent an attempt to fight back against the unprecedented expansion in executive authority that has taken place since Mr Bush took office. “During the first six years of the Bush administration, the Republican Congress gave it a rather amazing free pass,” says Charles Tiefer, law professor at the University of Baltimore and former deputy House counsel. “That period has now ended.”
What remains to be seen is whether the Democrats can find evidence of any wrongdoing serious enough to transform the investigations from an irritation into a full-blown crisis comparable to past presidential scandals such as Watergate, Iran-Contra or Lewinsky.
The probes are not without danger for the Democrats, as the leadership seeks to balance demands from grassroots supporters for an aggressive approach against the risk of alienating moderate voters if the probes begin to look like witch hunts.
More than 85 Democratic-controlled cities have passed resolutions urging impeachment of Mr Bush. But the calls have found few echoes among Congressional Democrats, who remember the backlash suffered by House Republicans after impeaching Bill Clinton in 1998. “The Democrats have picked their oversight targets cautiously,” says Mr Tiefer. “There’s very little wild talk about impeaching the president or bringing back [Donald] Rumsfeld for a show trial.”
It was assumed following the mid-term elections that the Democrats would make prewar intelligence on Iraq their main line of investigative attack against the Bush administration. But while Condoleezza Rice, secretary of state, has been issued with a subpoena for testimony on events leading up to the war, the issue has been overtaken by the case of the fired US attorneys.
Democrats have sought to prove the dismissals were orchestrated by the White House to create vacancies for what one internal justice department e-mail described as “loyal Bushies”. The subpoenas for Ms Miers and Sara Taylor, a former aide to Karl Rove, presidential adviser, marked the first attempt to compel White House officials to testify about the firings. Many Republicans believe the Democrats hope to eventually ensnare Mr Rove in the investigation.
In common with many past presidents, Mr Bush argues that White House officials are protected from Congressional subpoenas by a constitutional privilege designed to safeguard their ability to give candid advice.
If, as expected, the White House resists the subpoenas, Congress would have to go to court to enforce them.
As Carl Tobias, law professor at the University of Richmond puts it: “The White House will win any war of attrition because the process of enforcing a subpoena is so cumbersome.”