© 2024 WUTC
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

White House Refuses Congressional Subpoenas

Hear Steve Inskeep and Ari Shapiro

The White House on Thursday rejected Congressional subpoenas for documents that could shed light on the administration's role in the firings of eight federal prosecutors, with attorneys for President Bush asserting executive privilege.

In a letter to the chairmen of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees, President Bush's attorney claimed executive privilege in denying Congress the documents from former presidential counsel Harriet Miers and former political director Sara Taylor.

The White House also made it clear that Miers and Taylor will not testify before Congress next month, as directed in the June 13 subpoenas.

In his letter, White House counsel Fred Fielding said President Bush had "attempted to chart a course of cooperation" by releasing more than 8,500 pages of documents and sending Gonzales and other senior officials to testify before Congress.

However, Fielding said Bush "was not willing to provide your committees with documents revealing internal White House communications or to accede to your desire for senior advisers to testify at public hearings."

The White House also offered a compromise in which Miers, Taylor, White House political strategist Karl Rove and their deputies would be interviewed by Judiciary Committee aides in closed-door sessions, without transcripts. But Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, rejected that offer.

"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 advisers and between those advisers and others within and outside the Executive Branch," Fielding wrote.

"The doctrine of executive privilege exists, at least in part, to protect such communications from compelled disclosure to Congress, especially where, as here, the president's interests in maintaining confidentiality far outweigh Congress's interests in obtaining deliberative White House communications," he said.

Fielding also said Congress has not demonstrated why the documents are important to any legislative initiatives.

The stalemate could end up with House and Senate contempt citations and a battle in federal court over separation of powers.

It was the second time in his administration that the president has exerted executive privilege, said White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto. The first instance was in December 2001, when he rebuffed Congress' demands for Clinton administration documents in federal court over separation of powers.

Tensions between the administration and the Democratic-run Congress have been building for months as the House and Senate Judiciary panels probe the firings of eight federal prosecutors and the administration's program of warrantless eavesdropping. The investigations are part of the Democrats' efforts to hold the administration to account for the way it has conducted the war on terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Democrats say the firings of the prosecutors over the winter was an example of improper political influence. The White House says U.S. attorneys are political appointees who can be hired and fired for almost any reason.

Democrats, and even some key Republicans, have said that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales should resign over the U.S. attorney dismissals, but he has steadfastly held his ground, and the president has backed him.

On Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee subpoenaed the White House and Vice President Dick Cheney's office, demanding documents pertaining to terrorism-era, warrant-free eavesdropping.

Separately, that panel is also summoning Gonzales to discuss the program and an array of other matters — including the prosecutor firings — that have cost a half-dozen top Justice Department officials their jobs.

Leahy, the committee's chairman, raised questions Wednesday about previous testimony by one of Bush's appeals court nominees and said he wouldn't let such matters pass.

"If there have been lies told to us, we'll refer it to the Department of Justice and the U.S. attorney for whatever legal action they think is appropriate," Leahy told reporters. He did just that Wednesday, referring questions about testimony by former White House aide Brett Kavanaugh, who now sits on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.