Congressional Democrats yesterday issued subpoenas for testimony from two former senior White House officials, leading to a likely executive privilege showdown with the Bush administration over the firing of eight federal prosecutors last year.
Two congressional committees issued the subpoenas, with the House Judiciary Committee ordering former White House Counsel Harriet E. Miers to appear July 12, and the Senate Judiciary Committee demanding that former White House political director Sara Taylor appear July 11 and provide documents by June 28.
"Let me be clear. This subpoena is not a request; it is a demand on behalf of the American people for the White House to make available the documents and individuals we are requesting to help us answer the questions that remain," said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy, Vermont Democrat, also subpoenaed White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten for documents, instructing him to turn over all papers relating to the attorney firings.
However, the White House accused Democrats of provoking an unnecessary fight, and gave every indication they would take the matter to court.
"The committees can easily obtain the facts they want without a confrontation by simply accepting our offer for documents and interviews," said White House spokesman Tony Fratto.
Mr. Fratto said the White House was "aware of the committees' actions and will respond appropriately," but no official response was issued yesterday.
White House spokesman Tony Snow said Democrats were simply creating "media drama."
"Witness the fact that [news of the subpoenas] was arriving over your BlackBerrys this morning before we had been informed," Mr. Snow said.
President Bush already has promised to fight any subpoenas from Congress, which would mean the dispute would head to the courts.
And White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding last week warned Mr. Conyers and Mr. Leahy that subpoenas would "elevate the stakes" and "prolong this debate."
Mr. Fielding has offered interviews with Miss Miers, Miss Taylor, and the man Democrats most want to see under oath, presidential adviser Karl Rove. But the interviews would be private, with no transcripts, instead of a public spectacle where each person would be forced to raise their right hand and swear an oath, a potent political image.
Mr. Fielding, however, pointed out in his June 7 letter that there is no evidence "that any U.S. attorney was asked to resign in order to interfere with a pending or future criminal investigation or for any other improper reason."
Democrats have questioned whether some of the U.S. attorneys were removed because they were investigating Republican officials or refusing to prosecute Democrats, but no evidence of such actions has surfaced.
Without any evidence of criminal wrongdoing, Democrats would have little chance of winning in court, legal specialists have said. This makes an eventual settlement still the most likely outcome, since a court ruling against Congress might strip the legislative branch of the oversight powers it already has over the executive branch.
Yesterday, however, Mr. Leahy accused Mr. Fielding of being uncooperative, in a letter accompanying the subpoenas.
"You have not made any effort to work with us," Mr. Leahy said. "You have merely restated your initial, unacceptable offer."
"The White House's continued stonewalling leads to the obvious conclusion that the White House is hiding the truth because there is something to hide," Mr. Leahy said.