White House contempt

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kaje

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Nov 19, 2005
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White House contempt

House Judiciary Committee Democrats warned yesterday they would pursue a contempt of Congress motion if the White House fails respond to subpoenas for testimony and documents related to the firings of U.S. attorneys last year.

The deadline for a response is Thursday, June 28. If the White House does not comply, it opens the possibility of a constitutional showdown between the two branches. In an ironic twist, the Department of Justice (DoJ) would be called on to enforce the contempt motion.

During yesterday’s testimony by Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty, panel Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) asked McNulty whether he would enforce such a motion. McNulty responded that he would recuse himself from handling such matters because of an internal DoJ investigation into the U.S. attorneys matter.

One of the contempt motions would likely be directed at Presidential Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, to whom the subpoena for documents was addressed, according to a Democratic aide.

Others who could face contempt motions include ex-White House Counsel Harriet Miers and former White House political director Sara Taylor. Last week, the House Judiciary Committee voted to subpoena testimony from Miers, while the Senate Judiciary panel voted to subpoena testimony from Taylor.

“The House and Senate judiciary committees have issued subpoenas to the White House for documents and testimony,” said Conyers. “We’re still hopeful they may cooperate. But it’s still possible that enforcement action may be taken.”

Democrats have been unsatisfied with the testimony they’ve heard so far from top officials and former officials at the DoJ, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Under questioning, all have said either that their roles were limited or that they were not directly responsible for suggesting certain U.S. attorneys be placed on the firing list.

Because of these claims, Conyers said, Democrats’ only choice is to seek more information from the White House.

“We want to know where the lines go from the DoJ to the White House,” he said. “That’s where these bread crumbs keep leading us and then they get lost in the snow or something.”

Conyers said he wanted McNulty to go on the record about the DoJ’s commitment to enforcing such a contempt motion, but his question was an indication of the Democrats’ awkward position. If the House passed the motion, it would be referred to the U.S. attorney in the District of Columbia. The DoJ would then be called on to enforce it.

After the hearing, Conyers said he was not satisfied by McNulty’s testimony.

“It was not a fully candid discussion,” he said.

Conyers said McNulty was walking a fine line between defending his previous testimony and wanting to avoid contradicting other DoJ officials’ accounts of his role in the firings. Some have stated that he misled Congress in previous testimony.

The chairman also said McNulty was trying to avoid antagonizing former DoJ White House liaison Monica Goodling, who was granted immunity. In her own testimony before the panel, she accused McNulty of not being forthcoming in his February Senate testimony about the White House’s involvement in the firings. She also rejected any suggestion that she had misled McNulty when she briefed him for that appearance.

McNulty agreed with lawmakers’ depictions of him as largely “cut out of the loop” during the process of determining which U.S. attorneys to fire, being brought in only at the end of the process, essentially to sign off on the list of names. He said he first learned about the firing list in October 2006, and that he attended his first meeting about the firings Nov. 27. But he claimed he didn’t discuss the matter with Gonzales until Dec. 7, the day the prosecutors were asked for their resignations.

“I think you were poorly treated,” remarked Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.). “It’s my belief that you were thrown under the bus.”

McNulty pointedly refused to say that anyone, including Goodling, misled him while he was preparing for February testimony.

When news was breaking about the U.S. attorneys’ controversy back in January, he said, the department was “moving quickly” and “trying to respond to questions.”

“I’m not in a position to conclude that individuals were trying to keep information from me,” he added.

McNulty also acknowledged that an Oct. 4, 2006, a phone call by Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) complaining about the performance of then-New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias kept him from objecting to Iglesias’s placement on the list of those to be ousted. He did not disclose the influence of Domenici’s call during his February Senate testimony.

McNulty testified that he was given the opportunity to voice his objections to the names on the list and that at least one U.S. attorney was taken off the list at his suggestion. He refused to disclose that attorney’s name, even though media accounts have identified the prosecutor as the U.S. attorney for Tallahassee, Fla., Greg Miller.