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Today, the Senate Judiciary Committee heard its first public testimony from a current White House aide in the investigation of U.S. attorney firings. Scott Jennings is the president's deputy political director. He wasn't the committee's first choice to testify.
And as NPR's Ari Shapiro reports, he didn't answer many of the committee's questions.
ARI SHAPIRO: Scott Jennings was not supposed to be the headliner at this hearing. The Senate Judiciary Committee issued subpoenas for Jennings and his boss, Karl Rove, to testify and bring documents about the dismissal of U.S. attorneys.
Yesterday evening in a letter to the committee, the White House claimed executive privilege and said the president's top political adviser would not show up. Jennings, the White House said, would testify with instructions not to answer questions about the firing of U.S. attorneys. The witness, who pointed out that his only 29, compared himself to a Greek hero trapped between two mythological sea monsters.
Mr. SCOTT JENNINGS (Special Assistant to the President and Deputy Director of Political Affairs): I hope that you can appreciate the difficulty of my situation. It makes Odysseus' voyage between Scylla and Charybdis seem like a pleasure cruise.
SHAPIRO: The witness pleaded for the committee's sympathy as he refused again and again to answer senators' questions.
Mr. JENNINGS: Senator, I'm doing the best I can and believe me this is likely as frustrating for me as it is for you, but I'm doing...
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): No, trust me it is not.
SHAPIRO: That was a very unsympathetic committee chairman, Patrick Leahy.
Sen. LEAHY: I believe you and others at the White House who refuse to answer questions could answer questions if you wanted to.
SHAPIRO: Whether Jennings could or not, he often didn't. Sometimes he refused to answer questions that former White House Political Director Sara Taylor answered at the same committee, under the same restrictions just a couple of weeks ago. Other times, Jennings declined to confirm information that's already in the public record.
Democratic Senator Charles Schumer asked Jennings to confirm an e-mail showing that Jennings helped set up a Justice Department meeting for a Republican official from New Mexico who is concerned about the U.S. attorney there.
Mr. JENNINGS: Senator, pursuant to the president's assertion of executive privilege, I must respectfully decline to answer...
Senator CHARLES SCHUMER (Democrat, New York): Sir, we have an e-mail that says you did.
Mr. JENNINGS: I ask...
Sen. SCHUMER: How can you - I mean, again, we are getting to be a Never Neverland here. The memo is not privileged, but your confirming what we all have read in the memo is privileged?
SHAPIRO: After conferring with his lawyer, Jennings confirmed that he wrote the e-mail, but refused to confirm its contents. Chairman Leahy was more successful asking about e-mails that Jennings and other White House staffers sent from Republican National Committee accounts. Democrats are concerned that people at the White House did government work on their RNC accounts to avoid presidential records-keeping laws.
Jennings explained that for him, it was a matter of convenience. When he arrived at the White House, Jennings said, he was given a BlackBerry and a laptop that connected to his RNC account, but only his office desktop connected to the official White House account.
Mr. JENNINGS: So over the course of time, the use of the Republican National Committee e-mail account became a matter of convenience and efficiency because I had access to it 24 hours a day, seven days a week unlike my other e-mail account.
SHAPIRO: Jennings said he once asked for a BlackBerry with his White House account. His request was denied. But after the story about RNC accounts broke publicly, Jennings got a White House BlackBerry.
Jennings told the committee that if Congress and the White House can sort out their differences over executive privilege, he'd be happy to answer all the committee's questions then.
Speaking with reporters after the hearing, Republican Senator Arlen Specter said, we're never going to come to the end of the skies. It's a multi-year process.
Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.
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