WASHINGTON - The White House has decided to defy Congress in its latest demand for information regarding the dismissal of nine U.S. attorneys, sources familiar with the decision said Saturday. Such an action would escalate the constitutional struggle and propel it closer to a court showdown.
Senate and House committees have directed President Bush to provide by Monday a detailed justification of his executive privilege claims and a full accounting of documents he is withholding. But White House counsel Fred Fielding plans to tell lawmakers that he has already provided the legal basis for the claims and will not provide a log of withheld documents, the sources said.
The standoff suggests that neither side is prepared to budge in the fight over documents and testimony in the widening U.S. attorney investigation. Officials in both camps said no serious negotiations are taking place to resolve the dispute, while Fielding plans to follow up his letter by further asserting executive privilege later this week, directing former White House aides Harriet Miers and Sara Taylor not to testify in response to congressional subpoenas.
The two sides increasingly believe the matter will lead congressional Democrats to seek criminal contempt citations against the White House, which could result in a protracted court battle over the contours of the president's power to shield White House deliberations. Both sides insist the other's legal position is weak and argue that this could be one of the most important test cases in years.
The impasse is leading to "a monumental clash between the executive and legislative branches of government," Taylor's attorney, W. Neil Eggleston, wrote in a letter sent Saturday to Fielding and leaders of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The conflict stems from congressional investigations into the dismissal last year of nine chief federal prosecutors. The Senate and House judiciary committees issued five subpoenas seeking documents and testimony by Taylor, who until six weeks ago was the White House political director, and Miers, the former White House counsel. Bush asserted executive privilege June 28 in refusing to respond to the subpoenas for documents, and the committees responded by demanding that he provide a legal basis and the log.
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The log, according to the committees, should describe each document withheld, including its source, subject matter, date and recipients. White House officials viewed it as a backdoor attempt to get sensitive information about deliberations, the sources said.
A White House spokesman declined to comment Saturday. But the White House in recent days has said it has already cooperated extensively with congressional investigators and is now standing on principle.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said Saturday that withholding the legal basis and log would suggest the White House is trying to cover something up or realizes it does not have a reasonable claim. He noted that the administration was willing to give some of the information previously under strict conditions.
"This latest stonewalling attempt raises troubling questions about what the White House is trying to hide by refusing to turn over evidence it was willing to provide months ago as long as the information was shared in secret with no opportunity for Congress to pursue the matter further," Leahy said through a spokeswoman.
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