Loyal even after leaving the White House, President Bush's former political director Sara M. Taylor obeyed his instructions and declined to answer most of Congress' questions Wednesday about her role in the firings of federal prosecutors.
But Democrats insisted that the decision to cooperate with their subpoena -- or not -- is hers.
"It is apparent that this White House is contemptuous of the Congress and feels that it does not have to explain itself to anybody," Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said as he opened the hearing. "I urge Ms. Taylor not to follow that contemptuous position and not to follow the White House down this path."
Taylor said she would answer only limited questions to comply with her former boss's directions, unless a court orders her to comply with the congressional subpoena instead.
"While I may be unable to answer certain questions today, I will answer those questions if the courts rule that this committee's need for the information outweighs the president's assertion of executive privilege," said Taylor, 32, who left her White House job two months ago.
"Thank you for your understanding," she added.
Democrats made clear they did not understand or agree, noting that she is a private citizen compelled by subpoena to testify, under threat of being held in contempt of Congress. Leahy asked Taylor repeatedly whether she had met with or talked to Bush about the replacement of U.S. Attorneys. Taylor repeatedly refused to answer, citing Bush's instructions.
She got some backup from a GOP senator.
"I think your declining to answer the last series of questions by the chairman was correct under the direction from White House counsel," the committee's ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said.
"Whether White House counsel is correct on the assertion of executive privilege is a matter which will be decided by the courts," Specter added. But, in the senator's view, "congressional oversight has the better of the argument."
Democrats insisted there were plenty of things about the firings that Taylor could discuss because they are not covered by Bush's executive privilege claim.
Taylor did reveal a few details: She said she did not recall ordering the addition or deletion of names to the list of prosecutors to be fired. And she disputed testimony by Kyle Sampson, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' chief of staff, that Taylor wanted to avoid submitting a new prosecutor, Tim Griffin, through Senate confirmation.
"I expected him to go through Senate confirmation," Taylor said under questioning by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
She refused to answer whether Bush was involved in deciding which prosecutors to fire.
Some lawmakers said by picking and choosing what questions to answer, she weakened Bush's executive privilege claim.
"This broad claim of privilege doesn't stand up," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.
Leahy took the unusual step of allowing Taylor's lawyer, Neil Eggleston, to sit next to her at the witness table. There, he advised her on which questions she should or should not answer under the president's directive.
Democrats said the same standard applied to a second former Bush aide, one-time White House counsel Harriet Miers. Miers, subpoenaed to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, said through her lawyer that she "cannot provide the documents and testimony that the committee seeks."
"Ms. Miers is thus subject to conflicting commands, with Congress demanding the production of information that the counsel to the president has informed her she is prohibited from disclosing," Miers' lawyer, George Manning, wrote to the House committee.
The two former aides are now private citizens, and some congressional officials have argued that it is not clear Bush's executive privilege claim covers them even though White House Counsel Fred Fielding told lawyers for Miers and Taylor that the president was directing them not to answer questions or provide any information about the firings.
A court fight could take years, dragging on even after Bush leaves office.
Wednesday's hearing is the latest round in the dispute over the administration's firing last winter of eight federal prosecutors. The congressional probe, now in its seventh month, has morphed into a broader standoff over what information the president may keep private and what details Congress is entitled to receive as part of its oversight of the executive branch.
Claims for executive privilege are based upon the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution. As a separate but equal branch of government, it is argued, the executive can resist efforts by the legislative and judicial branches to encroach on its authority. Presidents have argued against releasing some documents to Congress and against forcing administration officials to testify about private discussions, contending that such disclosures could damage the executive branch's ability to function independently and the president's ability to receive unfettered advice.
Taylor and Miers were among Bush's closest aides during the period when the firings were planned. Democrats want to know if the prosecutors were fired at the White House's direction. Bush has denied that there were improper political motives.
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