WASHINGTON — President Bush ordered former White House Counsel Harriet Miers to stay away Thursday from a House panel investigating last year's firings of nine U.S. attorneys, prompting the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to threaten Miers with a contempt citation.
Miers had been expected to appear Thursday before a Judiciary subcommittee but to decline to answer many questions because Bush has asserted that "executive privilege" shields his former staffers from testifying before Congress on the matter.
When Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., learned through Miers' lawyer that the president was instructing Miers not to appear at all, Conyers shot off a letter warning that "a refusal to appear before the subcommittee tomorrow could subject Ms. Miers to contempt proceedings" and that "we strongly urge you to reconsider."
The president's directive to Miers further escalated the conflict over the firings, and the back and forth moves by the White House and Congress pushed both sides closer to heading to court to seek a resolution to the dispute.
The genesis of the president's order was an opinion by White House Counsel Fred Fielding and the Justice Department, which was in a letter sent to the Judiciary Committee by Miers' lawyer, George T. Manning.
Fielding concluded that Miers has "absolute immunity" from testimony including appearing before the committee and that forcing her to appear "would be akin to requiring the president himself to appear."
Conyers and Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., a chairwoman of a Judiciary subcommittee, challenged Fielding's opinion, saying that there is "absolutely no court decision that supports the notion that a former White House official has the option of refusing to even appear in response to a congressional subpoena."
Late Wednesday, White House spokesman Tony Fratto urged Conyers to "pursue a less confrontational course, and one that has greater respect for the separation of powers. The best way to resolve this would be for the committee to accept the president's offer of accommodation."
The White House has offered to let aides testify about the firings in private, not under oath, and with no transcript record. Congress rejects that.
Meanwhile on Wednesday, the White House's former political director did appear before a Senate panel and said that as far as she knew, Bush was not involved in the firings of the prosecutors.
Lawmakers said that disclosure could undercut the president's privilege claim that is shielding top aides from disclosing any information about whether the firings were politically motivated.
"If he's not involved then there's no claim of executive privilege," argued Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.
Taylor told the panel, "I did not speak to the president about removing U.S. attorneys. I did not attend any meetings with the president where that matter was discussed. I am not aware of a presidential decision document."
Asked whether Bush was "in any way" involved in the firings, Taylor, who reported to the president's political advisor Karl Rove until her resignation this spring, responded, "I don't have any knowledge that he was."
Taylor's answers came during a three-hour hearing where she awkwardly tried to navigate between lawmakers' threats of a criminal contempt citation for obstructing a congressional investigation, and the president's instruction that current and former aides not discuss any internal or external deliberations about the firing and replacement of the prosecutors.
Taylor, 32, said she tried to distinguish between questions that were fair game and what Bush would consider off-limits, but Democrats accused her of selectively hiding behind the president's privilege claim.
"It seems like you're saying 'I'm giving you all the information I can when it's self-serving to the White House, but not allowing us to have information to make independent judgments," said Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Md.
Taylor wouldn't say what she knew about who decided to fire which attorneys, but said she didn't know what criteria was used. She couldn't recall adding or removing names to the firing lists, but declined to say if she made suggestions. She could not recall if she was contacted by critics of prosecutors; but told another senator such questions were off-limits.
She acknowledged that some e-mails of hers stored on a Republican Party Internet account and later turned over to the White House may involve the U.S. attorneys matter.
Asked of Rove's or Miers' involvement in replacing Arkansas U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins with a former Rove aide who had scant prosecutorial experience, Taylor testified both that she was not sure and that she couldn't discuss the subject.
She said, "I don't believe anybody in the White House did any wrongdoing."
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said early in the hearing he hoped no contempt case would be brought against Taylor. But as the hearing closed he told her he was concerned that might happen. "You might have been on safer legal ground if you'd said absolutely nothing," he said.
Leahy said he would read over her testimony before making any decision.
Congress is six months into investigating the firings of Bush's own prosecutors in Arizona, Arkansas, California, Michigan, Missouri, Nevada, New Mexico and Washington. Most had rejected Republican pressure to prosecute Democrats for voter fraud or had corruption investigations into Republicans.
The White House has said that is coincidence and that the firings were not retaliatory, but Attorney General Alberto Gonzales told Congress he doesn't know who decided to fire which attorneys, or why.