WASHINGTON — Ratcheting up the stakes in a legal battle with Congress, President Bush on Wednesday ordered White House adviser Karl Rove and a senior political aide to refuse on grounds of executive privilege to testify before the Senate on the firings of nine U.S. attorneys.
In a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee leaders, White House counsel Fred Fielding declared that Rove, ``as an immediate presidential advisor, is immune from compelled congressional testimony'' about matters involving his service to the president.
While deputy White House political affairs director Scott Jennings is expected to appear before the committee Thursday, Fielding said that he, too, has been directed ``not to produce any documents or to provide any testimony'' covered by the privilege claim.
The decision throws a huge roadblock in the way of a seven-month-old congressional investigation and moves the confrontation between Congress and the White House closer to a constitutional showdown in the courts.
The House Judiciary Committee last week voted to initiate contempt of Congress charges against White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and Bush's former legal counsel, Harriet Miers, who refused to appear on Bush's orders. A former Rove aide, Sara Taylor, gave limited testimony due to a similar privilege claim.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, called it ``a shame that this White House continues to act as if it is above the law.''
``Why is the White House working so hard to hide Karl Rove's involvement?'' Leahy said in a statement Wednesday. ``Mr. Rove has given reasons for the firings that have now been shown to be inaccurate after-the-fact fabrications. Yet he now refuses to tell this committee the truth about his role in targeting well-respected U.S. attorneys for firing and in seeking to cover up his role and that of his staff in the scandal.''
Jennings is of interest mainly because of his involvement in fielding complaints last year from New Mexico Republicans about the performance of that state's U.S. attorney, David Iglesias, who later was among those fired. Iglesias has since charged that he was fired for political reasons.
Democrats are investigating whether the firings were connected to prosecutors' corruption investigations of Republicans or refusals to bring voter-fraud cases against Democratic-leaning registration workers.
The White House, which denies that the firings were retaliatory or improper, is basing its executive privilege position on legal guidance from the Justice Department that it would violate the constitutional separation of powers to compel testimony from Rove and Jennings. The department also has maintained since 1984 that it is not bound to enforce a congressional contempt citation against an administration official who, under presidential orders, defies a congressional subpoena on grounds of executive privilege.
Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, central figures in the scandal, have recused themselves from advising the White House on the subpoena fight. The White House released letters supporting the executive privilege claim from Solicitor General Paul Clement, who's serving as acting attorney general in the matter, and Steve Bradbury, principal deputy assistant attorney general.
Meanwhile, Gonzales on Wednesday tried to quell a furor over his testimony last week that there were no disagreements between him and then-Deputy Attorney General James Comey in March 2004 over the administration's secret terrorist surveillance program.
Comey testified this spring that he, then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller and several other senior department officials threatened to resign unless some warrantless spying activities were halted.
Gonzales said in a letter to Leahy on Wednesday that his ``shorthand'' answers to the panel to shield classified information may have created confusion. He acknowledged that there were ``very serious disagreements'' over other intelligence activities, but not the surveillance program in which the National Security Agency intercepted overseas phone calls.
Leahy, however, dismissed Gonzales' letter as a ``legalistic explanation of his misleading testimony'' and gave him until Friday to correct the record.