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The White House spokesman said the president asserted executive privilege to maintain the executive branch’s independence, which he said has been done by administrations of both parties going back at least 30 years.

“This is entirely about principle,” Mr. Carney said. “Our assertions are consistent with those of prior administrations. The issue here is about after-the-fact, internal documents that have to do with the executive branch’s ability” to respond to congressional and media inquiries.

Republicans rejected the White House’s legal interpretation of the president’s need to assert executive privilege, the first time Mr. Obama has done so.

“Is the president asserting the presidential communication privilege, which applies only to documents involving communications with the White House?” asked Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee. “If so, then the Justice Department should turn over the vast majority of the documents, which would not be protected by that privilege.”

Mr. Boehner called the administration’s refusal to cooperate fully with a committee subpoena “a very serious matter.”

“Until yesterday, it was just the Department of Justice that we were concerned about,” he said. “Clearly at the 11th hour and 50th minute, the White House decided to inject themselves into this where there had been no indication that a White House had been involved at all.”

Mr. Carney defended Mr. Holder as the person who put an end to the Fast and Furious program, which involved the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms allowing firearms to be sent by straw buyers to Mexico to track purchases by drug cartels. The agency lost track of more than 1,000 firearms, and two of the lost weapons were found at the scene of the 2010 killing of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry.

“We have been absolutely clear about the fact that this operation used a tactic that originated in a field office, that was flawed, that was wrong and had terrible consequences … and should not have been employed,” Mr. Carney said.

• Sean Lengell contributed to this report, which was based in part on wire service reports.