WASHINGTON—President Bush's lawyers told the Republican National Committee on Tuesday not to turn over to Congress any e-mails related to the firings last year of eight U.S. attorneys before showing them to the White House.
Democrats and Republican critics of the administration said the move suggests that the White House is seeking to develop a strategy to block the release of the non-government e-mails to congressional investigators by arguing that they're covered by executive privilege and not subject to review.
Scott M. Stanzel, deputy White House press secretary, called the action "reasonable" and said that any review of the e-mails would "be conducted in a timely fashion, to balance the committee's need for the information with the extreme over breadth of their requests." Party officials declined comment, but a GOP aide familiar with the negotiations said the RNC would comply with the White House request.
In a related development, the House Judiciary Committee plans to grant immunity to a former Justice Department liaison to the White House to force her to tell Congress what she knew about the firings. A vote to grant Monica Goodling "use immunity" could come as early as Thursday. Goodling had refused to testify and said she would invoke the Fifth Amendment against self-incrimination.
Judiciary Chairman John Conyers, D-Mich., who'd asked the RNC to turn over any applicable e-mails by week's end, characterized the White House's stance as an "extreme and unnecessary" effort to block or slow the release of the e-mails.
Bruce Fein, a former Reagan administration Justice Department official who's been critical of the administration and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, said the existence of the RNC e-mails is worrisome for the White House.
"The situation is very awkward for the administration because they don't know exactly what e-mails are there. What does seem very clear is that the e-mails did concern government business, which would include firing U.S. attorneys. Otherwise there would be no plausible claim," he said.
Fein said the administration might be considering seeking an injunction to prevent the Republican Party from releasing the e-mails to Congress.
Citing the leaking of the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers as an example, Fein said, "It's always more difficult to claim privilege after it's leaked out of your hands—or if it's never in your hands in the first place."
At the same time, Fein said, the White House is putting the Republican Party in a bind. "If you're the RNC, you're making yourself vulnerable to a claim you're impeding or endeavoring to impede a congressional investigation," he said.
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., general chairman of the Republican Party, said he wasn't involved in those discussions and referred legal questions to the RNC. "I'm sure they're going to try to do the right thing, but what that is I don't know. I'm sure they're burning the midnight oil with lawyers over there figuring it out."
The letter from special counsel Emmet T. Flood to the RNC's lawyer, Robert Kelner, said the White House must have an opportunity to review the documents to learn whether they must be preserved as part of the Presidential Records Act, but also to determine "whether the executive branch may need to take measures necessary to protect its other legal interests."
It's not known how many applicable e-mails exist dating back to at least 2005. The White House and RNC last week suggested some might have been lost, although experts say they likely can be retrieved.
But investigators know from documents already released by the Justice Department in the U.S. attorneys probe that some of the 50 current and former White House officials who had separate Republican Party e-mail accounts did send or receive e-mails related to the U.S. attorneys through their non-government accounts.
That includes Bush's deputy chief of staff and political adviser Karl Rove and a deputy of his.
The White House has yet to turn over internal documents and e-mails requested by Congress and has reserved the option of asserting executive privilege to protect internal communications. But Democrats say executive privilege doesn't apply to e-mails sent on non-government accounts. Some also have charged that White House aides might have purposely used non-government e-mail accounts for such communications in order to avoid scrutiny.
If the House Judiciary Committee authorizes immunity for Goodling, it would be the first granted in the congressional investigation into whether politics improperly influenced the firings of the eight U.S. attorneys.
Goodling, through her lawyer, declined to comment on the House panel's plans. Her lawyer previously suggested that if Goodling testified, former colleagues under scrutiny might turn against her, or Democrats seeking political gain might twist her words.
Conyers said Tuesday that Goodling "clearly has much to contribute" to the investigation.
But Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate's judiciary panel, said of the Democrats, "This is taking on the attributes not of a fishing expedition but a witch hunt. I just think it's driven by politics, and we ought to get serious."
Gonzales is scheduled to testify before the Senate's panel on Thursday as to his role in the firings.
He and Bush have maintained that the nation's 93 U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president and that there was nothing improper about the decisions to bring in some new top prosecutors. But they haven't offered consistent explanations about the reasons for the firings.