Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Aide: I didn't discuss firings with Bush

Aide: I didn't discuss firings with Bush

WASHINGTON - Former White House political director Sara M. Taylor told a congressional panel Wednesday that she did not talk to or meet with President Bush about removing federal prosecutors before eight of them were fired.

"I did not speak to the president about removing U.S. attorneys," Taylor said under stern questioning by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. "I did not attend any meetings with the president where that matter was discussed."

When asked more broadly whether Bush was involved in any way in the firings, Taylor said, "I don't have any knowledge that he was."

Taylor, who left the White House eight weeks ago for reasons she said were unrelated to the firings, was treading a rough line between obeying Bush's order to not reveal internal White House deliberations about the firings and a congressional subpoena compelling her to do so.

Loyal to Bush even outside the White House, Taylor at first refused to answer questions that might violate the president's claim of executive privilege and at one point reminded the committee that as a commissioned officer, "I took an oath and I take that oath to the president very seriously."

Seeing a chance to weaken Taylor's observance of Bush's executive privilege claim, Leahy corrected her: She took an oath to uphold the Constitution, he noted.

"Your oath is not to uphold the president," Leahy lectured her.

The exchange was part of proceedings that were as much about the ongoing dispute over what information the White House can keep secret as it was about the stated topic — the firings over the winter of eight U.S. attorneys.

Taylor began by telling the committee she would observe Bush's directive to defy the subpoena and refuse to answer questions — unless a court ordered her to do so.

Democrats insisted that the decision to cooperate — or not — with the subpoena was 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," 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."

With that, Democrats and ranking Republican Arlen Specter began to try to unravel Taylor's adherence to Bush's directions and prod her into answering their questions about who ordered the firings and why.

Democrats noted that Taylor, 32, is a private citizen compelled by subpoena to testify, under threat of being held in contempt of Congress. During a first round of questioning, 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 — at first — from Specter.

"I think your declining to answer the last series of questions by the chairman was correct under the direction from White House counsel," Specter 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."

Nonetheless, Democrats pressed Taylor.

Under questioning from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Taylor acknowledged that she did not recall agreeing to observe Bush's instructions after her White House employment ended.

Answering some questions but not others opened Taylor to a citation for contempt of Congress, Specter said later.

"You might have been on safer legal ground if you'd said absolutely nothing," Specter told her.

Likewise, some lawmakers said her decision to answer some questions weakened Bush's executive privilege claim.

"I think sometimes you've stepped on one side of the line and then not wanted to step on the other," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. "This broad claim of privilege doesn't stand up."

Apart from her comments about Bush, Taylor revealed a few other 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.

Taylor also issued a stiff defense of her colleagues in the Bush administration.

"I don't believe there was any wrongdoing by anybody," she said.

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."


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