07.09.09

On The U.S. Attorney Investigation U.S. Senate Floor

Today, House Judiciary Chairman Conyers and I received another letter from the White House Counsel Fred Fielding responding to duly authorized subpoenas with a blanket assertion of executive privilege.  I had hoped the Judiciary Committees’ subpoenas would be met with compliance.  Instead, they have been met -- yet again -- with Nixonian stonewalling that reveals this White House’s disdain for our system of checks and balances. 

This is more stonewalling from a White House that believes it can unilaterally control the other co-equal branches of government.  It raises the question: What is the White House trying to hide by refusing to turn over evidence?

From the outset of this scandal the President has spoken about the firing of U.S. attorneys as if it were a matter handled and decided by the Attorney General and something Mr. Gonzales would have to explain to Congress and the American people. The President was hands off and arms’ length.  He had to ask others whether anything improper was done and relied on a review by White House lawyers for his assertion that nothing was.  This President and the Attorney General have also from time to time expressed confidence that the Congress would get to the bottom of this as if they did not know the details of what had transpired. 

Are we now to understand from the White House claims of executive privilege that these were decisions made by the President?  Is he taking responsibility for this scandal, for the firing of such well-regarded and well performing U.S. attorneys?

When we had the Attorney General testify under oath, he did not know who added U.S. attorneys to the list of those to be fired or the reasons they were added.  Indeed, the bottom line of the sworn testimony from the Attorney General, the Deputy Attorney General, the Attorney General’s former Chief of Staff, the White House liaison and other senior Justice Department officials was that, while the President was not involved in the decision-making that led to the unprecedented firings of several well-performing prosecutors, they were not responsible either.  Then, I ask, who did make these decisions?  Was it the political operatives at the White House? 

Even this White House cannot dispute the evidence we have gathered to date showing that White House officials were heavily involved in these firings and in the Justice Department’s response to congressional inquiries about them.   

The White House continues to try to have it both ways, but at the end of the day it cannot.  It cannot block Congress from obtaining the relevant evidence and credibly assert that nothing improper occurred.  What is the White House hiding? Was the President involved and were his earlier statements to the American people therefore misleading?  Or is this simply an effort by the White House legal team to protect White House political operatives whose partisan machinations have been discovered in a new set of White House horrors?  

Several weeks ago, after Mr. Fielding first conveyed the President’s blanket executive privilege claim—I have yet to hear directly from the President—Chairman Conyers and I sent him a letter asking the White House to provide us with the specific factual and legal bases for its claims regarding each document withheld and a privilege log.  I asked the White House to provide this information so that it could substantiate its claim.  For months, I have been giving the White House every opportunity to work with us voluntarily to provide the information we have sought and for months these efforts have been met with the same unacceptable “take it or leave it offer.”  I have since tried to give the White House every opportunity to explain its claims.  A serious assertion of privilege would include an effort to demonstrate to the Committees which documents, and which parts of those documents, are covered by any privilege that is asserted to apply and why.  It is apparent that this White House is contemptuous of the Congress and feels that it does not have to explain itself to anyone-- not to the people’s representatives in Congress, nor to the American people.

The White House’s refusal to provide a listing of those documents on which it asserts privilege and a specific factual and legal basis for the assertion of executive privilege claims raise more questions.  Specifically, what is it the White House is so intent on hiding that they cannot even identify the documents, the dates, the authors and recipients?  Would we see the early and consistent involvement of White House political operatives in what should be independent and neutral law enforcement decisions?

Nor is the White House content with blanket assertions of privilege regarding matters in its control.  It has now reached out to direct the Republican National Committee not to provide information it has to Congress and has today instructed a former White House official Sara Taylor not to cooperate with the investigation by testifying to the best of her knowledge. 

Ms. Taylor is scheduled to testify on Wednesday to comply with a subpoena authorized by the Committee.  It is unfortunate that the White House is trying to interfere with Ms. Taylor’s testimony before the Senate and with Congress’s responsibility to get to the truth behind the unprecedented firings of several U.S. Attorneys.  

There is clear evidence that Ms. Taylor was one of several White House officials who played a key role in these firings and the Administration’s response to cover up the reasons behind them when questions first arose.  There is also clear evidence that Ms. Taylor was part of more than 66,000 RNC e-mails that have been kept hidden from the public as part of a White House-wide effort to avoid oversight by ignoring the laws meant to ensure a public record of official government business.

I am willing to discuss the matter in good faith with the White House.  I have been trying to engage the White House for months in discussions to come to some sort of accommodation and I hope we can do that.   I am reluctant to agree to anything that prevents Congress from doing our oversight job effectively. Previous Administrations have found ways to work with Congress – this Administration seems only to obstruct and obfuscate.

We cannot lose sight that this is a serious matter.  This is about improper political influence of our justice system – it is about the White House manipulating the Justice Department into its own political arm.  It is about manipulating our justice system to pursue a partisan political agenda.   It is about pressuring prosecutors to bring cases of voter fraud to try to influence elections – of sending a partisan operative like Bradley Schlozman to Missouri to file charges on the eve of an election in violation of Justice Department guidelines.  It is about high-ranking officials misleading Congress and the American people about this political manipulation of justice.  

It is about the unprecedented and improper reach of politics into the Department’s professional ranks – such as the admission by the Department’s White House Liaison Monica Goodling that she improperly screened career employees for political loyalty and wielded undue political influence over key law enforcement decisions and policies. 

It is about political operatives pressuring prosecutors to bring partisan cases and seeking retribution against those who refuse to bend to their political will -- such as the example of New Mexico U.S. Attorney David Iglesias, who was fired a few weeks after Karl Rove complained to the Attorney General about the lack of purported “voter fraud” enforcement cases in Mr. Iglesias’ jurisdiction.  

Along the way, this subversion of the justice system has included lying, misleading, stonewalling and ignoring the Congress in our attempts to find out what happened.  We know that White House officials are involved, but it is difficult to get the facts when the White House refuses to provide a single witness or document.

This Administration has instituted an abusive policy of secrecy aimed at protecting themselves from embarrassment and accountability.  Apparently the President and Vice president feel they are above the law.  In America no one is above the law. 

This President has sought to make the Vice President’s former Chief of Staff above the law when he granted him a form of amnesty last week.  The President chose to override a prosecution, jury trial, conviction and prison sentence and to excuse his lying to federal investigators and a grand jury and his perjury, and to reward his silence and purportedly bad memory by giving Mr. Libby what commentators have called a get-out-of-jail-free card. 

The lack of accountability for anyone in the Bush Administration has reached new heights—or lows.  It is not often when The New York Times and Washington Times editorial boards agree, but they did about this President’s abrupt commutation of Mr. Libby’s 30-month prison term for perjury and obstruction of justice.  The Washington Times opined that President Bush’s action was “neither wise nor just.” It continued in its Independence Day editorial: “Perjury is a serious crime.  . . . The integrity of the judicial process depends on fact-finding and truth-telling.  A jury found Libby guilty of not only perjury but also obstruction of justice and lying to a grand jury.”  I would add that the widely-respected trial judge, who was nominated by this President and confirmed by the Senate while I chaired the Judiciary Committee in September 2001, imposed a reasonable sentence at the lower end of what the prosecutor recommended, and that the D.C. Circuit had refused to stay the sentence pending appeal in accordance with the law. 

The New York Times in a July 3 editorial entitled “Soft of Crime” called the President’s action a “baldly political act,” noting that “[a]s president, he has repeatedly put himself and those on his team, especially Mr. Cheney, above the law.”  They noted that the President “sounded like a man worried about what a former loyalist might say when actually staring into a prison cell.”

That presidential act sent the message that silence, bad memory and abject loyalty would be rewarded—just as the mass firings of U.S. attorneys sent the message that all remaining federal prosecutors had better knuckle under to the political agenda of this Administration. 

Untoward White House interference with federal law enforcement is a serious matter.  It corrupts federal law enforcement, threatens our elections and has seriously undercut the American people’s confidence in the independence and evenhandedness of law enforcement.

 

Despite the attitude of the current Administration, our Constitution does not include the phrase “unitary executive” or “executive privilege.”  What the United States Constitution does provide in the oath of office is that the President must swear to “faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States” and “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” His essential duties require him to “take care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”  I have great concern with regard to how this Administration is fulfilling those essential duties.  The political intrusion into the law enforcement functions of the Government through the scheme to fire and replace our U.S. attorneys is a key part of that concern. 

 

Congress will continue to pursue the truth behind this matter because it is our constitutional responsibility -- and it is the right thing to do.   I hope the White House stops this stonewalling and accepts my offer to negotiate a workable solution to the Committee’s oversight needs so that we can effectively get to the bottom of what has gone on and gone wrong.

 

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