Video: Congress, White House in showdown?

By M. Alex Johnson Reporter
updated 3/22/2007 7:16:53 AM ET 2007-03-22T11:16:53

Congress and the White House marched closer to a showdown in court Wednesday after lawmakers rejected President Bush’s offer to let top aides be interviewed about the firings of eight U.S. attorneys only in secret and not under oath.

A House Judiciary subcommittee responded to Bush’s offer by voting Wednesday to authorize subpoenas for Karl Rove, the president’s top political aide, and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, along with their deputies; and for Kyle Sampson, who resigned last week as chief of staff to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The vote gives Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairman of the full Judiciary Committee, a powerful weapon in lawmakers’ fight to force the administration to explain why the eight U.S. attorneys were forced out of their jobs late last year. It allows him to issue the subpoenas to try to haul the aides up to Capitol Hill to testify under oath at any time.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, meanwhile, is scheduled to vote Thursday on its own subpoenas.

Snow dismisses media ‘spectacle’
White House press secretary Tony Snow went on the offensive in an uncharacteristically contentious briefing for reporters Wednesday. He repeated Bush’s promise Tuesday to fight any subpoenas in court and warned that Bush’s “extremely generous” offer of private, unsworn interviews was final and would be taken off the table if summonses were issued.

Snow said public testimony under oath would devolve into political “show trials” and asked whether Democrats were more interested “in truth or spectacle.”

“Are we going to change our conditions? No, but it’s probably worth giving members of Congress a little time to think about this,” Snow said. “If they issue subpoenas, the offer is withdrawn, because it means that they will not have responded to the offer. They will have rejected the offer.”

Snow refused to answer when asked repeatedly why this case was different from past investigations in which Congress demanded sworn testimony from administration officials.

Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Congress had a right and a duty to find out why the U.S. attorneys were fired but that the White House was trying to hide the truth.

“I don’t know why they are so desperate to keep all this behind closed doors, not to have people under oath, not to have transcripts,” he said Wednesday in an interview with MSNBC’s Norah O’Donnell.

Leahy drew a parallel with the investigation of the leak of the identity of CIA officer Valerie Plame.

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In public comments, the White House denied that Rove and other aides had any involvement, but “we found out from the trial” of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, “when people were under oath, they had a lot to do with it,” Leahy said.

“If you’re in public and under oath, you tend to get a lot more accurate,” he said.

Bush’s rights vs. Congress’ rights
The White House and congressional leaders are locked in a showdown over the constitutional separation of powers.

Leahy and other skeptical Democrats say they must compel Rove, Miers and the others to testify so they can exercise their oversight of the Justice Department. But Bush insisted Tuesday that his need for candid advice that would not be aired in public trumped that prerogative under the doctrine of “executive privilege.”

Political independence is also at the heart of the underlying dispute.

All 93 U.S. attorneys are routinely replaced when a new administration takes office, but it is highly unusual for them to be removed en masse in midterm. Democrats allege that the eight prosecutors — several of whom had received stellar performance ratings and some of whom were investigating allegations of political corruption — were fired for political reasons.

Defenders of Gonzales, who has come under pressure from outside the White House to step down, say that was not the case, and even if it was, U.S. attorneys serve at the president’s pleasure.

But the Senate voted this week to reassert its oversight privileges by repealing authority that was given to Gonzales only recently under a change in the USA Patriot Act, which allowed him to appoint interim U.S. attorneys indefinitely and without Senate confirmation.

An internal Justice Department e-mail message revealed that Sampson was eager to use the new authority to install a friend of Rove’s as an interim federal prosecutor in Arkansas over the objections of Sens. David Pryor and Blanche Lincoln. The plan, Sampson wrote, was to “run out the clock” until Bush’s term ended in January 2009.

Leahy says White House can’t be trusted
Sampson’s e-mail was included in a “document dump” of more than 3,000 pieces of paper and electronic correspondence the Justice Department delivered to the House subcommittee Monday night. As House staffers and reporters sifted through them Tuesday and Wednesday, they turned up contradictions to the Justice Department’s account of the dismissals.

Leahy, Conyers and other Democrats contended that the paper trial so far indicated widespread deception by the Justice Department.

“I believe there is even more to come out,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., a member of Leahy’s committee. “And I think it’s our duty to bring that out.”

Leahy said the only way to do that was to hear from White House aides under oath. But Bush’s offer would not even allow transcripts to be made of their interviews.

“We’ve had a number of these private meetings where they’ve come up and they’ve met with a few members of the Senate and the House and said, ‘Here, we’ve given you the whole story,’” Leahy said. “Two days later, we pick up the newspaper and find they’ve left out half of it, and then they call up and say, ‘Oops.’”

In one exchange that is likely to be closely examined, e-mail messages showed that Gonzales was considering whether to fire some prosecutors as early as January 2005, when he was Bush’s chief counsel.

Other messages from the same period show that Sampson was already at work on trying to remove as many as 20 percent of prosecutors whom he deemed not to be “loyal Bushies.” Rove, meanwhile, was making inquiries about whether all 93 U.S. attorneys could be dismissed.

Sampson replied that firing all of the prosecutors would meet great resistance on Capitol Hill. “That said, if Karl thinks there would be political will to do it, then so do I,” he wrote.

By last December, Sampson, by then chief of staff to Gonzales, who had become attorney general, was schooling Miers at the White House in how to defend the dismissals. The e-mail was titled “Prepare to Withstand Political Upheaval.”

Gonzales on the hot seat
The confrontation has led to calls from many Democrats and even some Republicans for the removal of Gonzales , whom they accuse of having compromised the Justice Department’s independence from politics and of having needlessly trashed the eight prosecutors’ reputations in defending their dismissals.

Gonzales apologized to the fired prosecutors after the Justice Department documents revealed the political underpinnings of the plan, but some of them are seeking positive steps to repair their reputations.

David Iglesias, who claimed he was fired as the U.S. attorney in New Mexico for not yielding to Republican pressure to quicken his investigation of alleged Democratic vote fraud, wrote Wednesday in The New York Times that he wanted a written retraction from the Justice Department to set the record straight about why he was fired.

For now, Bush remains in his old friend’s corner.

“He’s got support with me,” Bush said Tuesday. “I support the attorney general.”

Less clear is how much resolution either side could get from a court battle, Pete Williams, NBC News’ Justice Department correspondent, reported Wednesday. If the House does seek legal sanctions, it would have to do so through the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who would be asked, in essence, to prosecute his bosses for contempt of Congress.

Moreover, the courts are historically reluctant to referee disputes between what they have traditionally called the “political branches,” Williams said.

“If you look back through history,” he said, “someone usually makes an accommodation before it comes to trial.”

NBC News Political Director Chuck Todd; NBC’s David Gregory and Pete Williams; and MSNBC-TV’s Contessa Brewer, Norah O’Donnell and Mike Viqueira contributed to this report.


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