WASHINGTON — A powerful Senate chairman acknowledged explicitly on Thursday that President Bush was not involved in the firings of U.S. attorneys last winter and therefore ruled illegal the president's executive privilege claims protecting his chief of staff and former adviser Karl Rove.
The ruling by Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy is a formality that clears the way for his panel to vote on contempt citations if Josh Bolten, Rove and others do not immediately comply with congressional subpoenas for documents and information about the White House's role in the firings.
The executive privilege claim "is surprising in light of the significant and uncontroverted evidence that the president had no involvement in these firings," Leahy, D-Vt., wrote in his ruling. "The president's lack of involvement in these firings - by his own account and that of many others - calls into question any claim of executive privilege."
Leahy directed chief of staff Bolten, Rove, former political director Sara Taylor and her deputy, J. Scott Jennings, to comply "immediately," but did not set a deadline.
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"I hereby rule that those claims are not legally valid to excuse current and former White House employees from appearing, testifying and producing documents related to this investigation," Leahy wrote.
It was the latest salvo in a nearly yearlong controversy spawned by the firings of at least nine U.S. attorneys that ultimately cost former attorney general Alberto Gonzales his job. Leahy presided over the confirmation hearings of Gonzales' successor, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who was confirmed and took office earlier this month.
Unlike Gonzales, Mukasey did not rule out allowing a federal prosecutor to take the case of any contempt citations passed by Congress. House leaders also have filed a contempt citation in their chamber against Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, but no floor vote has been scheduled.
Likewise, a new attorney general scrambled the political calculus for citations in the Senate. Leahy held off on his ruling while the committee moved Mukasey's nomination, in part because committee officials felt there seemed little point in pursuing citations the White House seemed certain to block.
But Mukasey's testimony and his promise to quit if Bush ignored his legal advice gives any citation - even the threat of one - more weight.
It was not clear, however, that Leahy's ruling Thursday would amount to more than a threat before Congress adjourns next month for the holidays.
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