White House Silent on Subpoenas

The White House has no official response to subpoenas issued by congressional panels probing the firing of eight U.S. attorneys. Testimony is sought from former White House counsel Harriet Miers and former political director Sara Taylor.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Here's one of those battles that defines how our political system works. Congress and the White House are separate powers - neither likes to surrender an advantage to the other. So Congress joined a recurring battle this week when it sent subpoenas to the White House. The White House has not formally replied. Lawmakers are seeking information about the firing of federal prosecutors. They want testimony from two White House aides. And they also want to read Republican e-mails that once were lost and now are found.

Here's NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.

NINA TOTENBERG: The stalemate between the White House and Congress has remained unchanged for two months, with the White House refusing to provide documents or testimony from White House officials. And now there are more sticking points. When some of Karl Rove's e-mail traffic about U.S. attorneys turned out to be on a Republican National Committee account, and not a White House account, claims of executive privilege for those seemed to be averted. But the White House said the e-mails had been routinely destroyed. Here's White House spokeswoman Dana Perino in April.

Ms. DANA PERINO (Spokeswoman, White House): I will admit it, we screwed up and we're trying to fix it.

TOTENBERG: Democrats cried foul, contending that such e-mails are always retrievable. And yesterday, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy said they had indeed been found, but were still not being provided.

Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): Gee whiz, golly, guess what. They seem to have been in a backup hard drive. I'm just disappointed that now that it turns out that they weren't lost like they claim they were, we still don't have them. We have to go to subpoenas.

TOTENBERG: Ranking Republican Arlen Specter noted there's been an outstanding invitation for testimony from White House aides for over two months, but the White House has not moved off its initial offer to allow Rove and others to answer questions only off the record and behind closed doors. Said Specter, at minimum a transcript is necessary.

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania): If you don't have a transcript, people walk out of the room in perfectly good faith and have different versions as to what happened.

TOTENBERG: Added Specter, this investigation is not going to stop. In the past these confrontations between Congress and the White House have been resolved by compromise. But with the White House, at least right now, seemingly uninterested in that, Congress is left with some difficult options. The first is to continually embarrass and humiliate the White House politically. Senator Leahy took a stab at that yesterday.

Sen. LEAHY: Their continuing stonewalling leads to the obvious conclusion, they have something to hide.

TOTENBERG: If that doesn't work, the next step is to cite the subpoenaed officials for contempt - threatening jail if they don't comply. But then what? In the early days of the Republic, witnesses cited for contempt were arrested by the House sergeant at arms and imprisoned in the Capitol. In modern times, though, a contempt citation is enforced by the United States attorney. And he works for - guess who - the president. Congress does have other pressure points, refusing to move presidential appointments, cutting White House budgets. But all of these require toughness and skill, observes Library of Congress historian Louis Fisher.

Mr. LOUIS FISHER (Historian, Library of Congress): Congress is less good - you really have to be determined, you really have to be willing to fight and you have to be willing to fight for a long time, because if you lose attention or some other priority comes up, you'll get rolled every time.

TOTENBERG: Examples are legion. To cite one, in 1983, after a 2-year court battle over executive testimony about the EPA Superfund program, Congress ended up having to compromise. The president then was Ronald Reagan and his White House counsel was a fellow by the name of Fred Fielding, who just happens to have the same job right now for President Bush.

Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.

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