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Capitol Hill Showdown Looms over U.S. Attorney Scandal as Bush Refuses to Let Officials Testify Under Oath

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President Bush on Tuesday rejected Democratic demands to question key White House aides under oath. The president said he would only authorize private testimony before select lawmakers and warned he would fight any subpoenas in court. We speak with Adam Cohen of The New York Times. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: A showdown is looming on Capitol Hill over the Bush administration’s firing of eight U.S. attorneys. On Tuesday, President Bush rejected Democratic demands to question key White House aides under oath. The president said he would only authorize private testimony before select lawmakers and warned he would fight any subpoenas in court.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Yet, in this case, I recognize the importance of members of Congress having — the importance of Congress has placed on understanding how and why this decision was made. So I’ll allow relevant committee members on a bipartisan basis to interview key members of my staff to ascertain relevant facts. In addition to this offer, we will also release all White House documents and emails involving direct communications with the Justice Department or any other outside person, including members of Congress and their staff, related to this issue. These extraordinary steps offered today to the majority in Congress demonstrate a reasonable solution to the issue. However, we will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants.

The initial response by Democrats, unfortunately, shows some appear more interested in scoring political points than in learning the facts. It will be regrettable if they choose to head down the partisan road of issuing subpoenas and demanding show trials when I have agreed to make key White House officials and documents available. I have proposed a reasonable way to avoid an impasse. I hope they don’t choose confrontation. I will oppose any attempts to subpoena White House officials.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush went on to defend Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, saying, “He has got support with me.” Gonzales will testify before Congress as expected. Democrats immediately rejected the president’s refusal to allow key aides appear under oath and vowed subpoenas could come as early as today. Potential witnesses include chief political strategist Karl Rove, former presidential counsel Harriet Miers, and deputy White House counsel William Kelley. Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, made the subpoena warning Sunday on ABC’s This Week.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: Mr. Rove, I don’t know how he will react when he gets his subpoena, but I intend to subpoena them. I do not believe in this “We’ll have a private briefing for you, where we’ll tell you everything.”

GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: So you want public testimony at hearings?

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I want testimony under oath. I am sick and tired of getting half-truths on this.

AMY GOODMAN: Senator Patrick Leahy, speaking Sunday. Meanwhile, the Senate overwhelmingly approved a measure to repeal the PATRIOT Act provision that allowed Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to replace federal prosecutors without Senate confirmation. The final vote was 95 to two.

Adam Cohen joins us now, a lawyer and editorial writer for The New York Times. He wrote a piece in Monday’s New York Times about the attorney firings called “It Wasn’t Just a Bad Idea, It May Have Been Against the Law.” He joins us now in our firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Adam.

ADAM COHEN: Thank you, Amy. Good to be here.

AMY GOODMAN: The significance of President Bush yesterday coming out?

ADAM COHEN: Well, it was really a stunning speech. It was disturbing even. It showed that he doesn’t recognize the oversight power of Congress. This is an absolutely ordinary thing that Congress is doing, asking members of the White House to come in and talk about, you know, what may have gone wrong there. It’s something Clinton officials did regularly. They didn’t protest in this way. And Bush is, you know, really rejecting it with, I think, very little legal basis.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about what could be learned if Karl Rove, if Harriet Miers, if the others are subpoenaed, are under oath.

ADAM COHEN: Well, the crux of this crisis is that it appears that eight U.S. attorneys were fired for political reasons, either because they went after Republican members of Congress or officials or donors — and remember, one of the people who was fired, Carol Lam, put Duke Cunningham, a Republican congressman, in jail, and it launched an investigation that was apparently threatening several other members of Congress.

AMY GOODMAN: Like Jerry Lewis.

ADAM COHEN: Like the Jerry Lewis. So that’s one part of it. The other part is it appears that some of them may have been fired because they wouldn’t go after Democrats or they wouldn’t bring bogus voting fraud charges. So there’s a —

AMY GOODMAN: What you mean “bogus voting fraud charges”?

ADAM COHEN: Well, you know, the Republicans like to say that there’s a lot of voter fraud going on, but when you actually examine the claims, they almost always turns out not to be true. So David Iglesias in New Mexico was apparently fired in part because he wouldn’t be more aggressive about bringing voting rights charges. He has said that he looked into the voting fraud charges that people were raising, and there wasn’t anything to them. So, yet it looks as if they wanted him to bring them anyway, in a way that would harass Democrats, harass people who register poor people and minorities to vote. You know, that type of thing. He wouldn’t do it, and that may have been one reason he was fired. So there’s the overall charges that U.S. attorneys, which are, remember, the top federal prosecutors in each state, had been politicized, that they weren’t allowed to use their professional prosecutorial judgment about what cases to bring, but instead were being given politicized orders to really, in many ways, help the Republican Party.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about the argument that Republicans are using that President Clinton fired every U.S. attorney?

ADAM COHEN: Well, it’s a complete red herring, and they know it. It’s being used to really just throw sand in the air and confuse everyone. At the end of a presidential term, of course, a new president asks all of the U.S. attorneys to leave so he can appoint his own people. They are political appointees. What’s unusual about this is that eight were fired in the middle of the Bush administration, six on one day. That just, you know, has not happened. And the Congressional Research Service has looked into this issue and shown that it’s incredibly unprecedented.

AMY GOODMAN: Karl Rove and Harriet Miers, what do they know?

ADAM COHEN: Well, you know, we don’t know what they know, but it does appear that some of the direction on firing these people was coming from the White House, that it wasn’t Alberto Gonzales who was making the decisions. Now, the question is, were Rove and Miers saying things among themselves like, “We don’t like the fact that Iglesias wouldn’t bring that lawsuit before the November elections,” the one that, remember, Senator Domenici called and asked, “Are you going to bring this indictment before November?” which is when there was a very closely contested congressional race in New Mexico — so the question is, was that part of their thinking? Were they annoyed at John McKay, because he didn’t investigate a very close governor’s race that the Democrat won after two recounts?

So we want to know what was the thinking behind this. And what we know so far is that what they’ve said about what they did is not true. They’ve said these people were fired for performance reasons, but these U.S. attorneys who were fired have excellent performance records. Their performance evaluations from the Department of Justice show that. So there is a missing explanation, and that’s what we would learn if we got to talk to them.

AMY GOODMAN: What could happen if Bush fights these subpoenas? Talk about the precedent in history.

ADAM COHEN: Sure. It could set up a political clash, but we’ve been there before. Remember back during Watergate, when Nixon’s White House tapes were subpoenaed, he also claimed executive privilege. Presidents don’t like to give up potentially inculpatory material. But that went to court. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Nixon unanimously. They said that there was no executive privilege. He had to hand over the tapes. I think that’s a very strong precedent legally for this situation.

AMY GOODMAN: What if Congress finds the president in contempt?

ADAM COHEN: Well, they could well do that, but then the question would become, how do they enforce that. And, ironically, that then becomes a federal legal matter, and it would be referred to the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia, who’s someone who reports to Alberto Gonzales and could be fired by him if he’s too aggressive. Again, we were down that road in Watergate with the Saturday Night Massacre. Ultimately, Alberto Gonzales —

AMY GOODMAN: Explain the Saturday Night Massacre.

ADAM COHEN: Sure. The Saturday Night Massacre was during Watergate. When the Watergate prosecutors were getting too aggressive, they just began firing, in sequence, each prosecutor. And the problem with that, of course, is that —

AMY GOODMAN: Who refused to fire the special prosecutor.

ADAM COHEN: Right, exactly. And the problem, of course, is that ultimately prosecution is an executive branch responsibility, so you have that problem that ultimately the president, the attorney general can stop the investigation of themselves. And that could be an issue here.

AMY GOODMAN: Does this stop with Alberto Gonzales? Murray Waas wrote a piece for the National Journal that said shortly before Alberto Gonzales advised President Bush last year on whether to shut down a Justice Department inquiry regarding the administration’s warrantless domestic eavesdropping program, Gonzales learned his own conduct would likely be the focus of the investigation. Bush personally intervened to sideline the Justice Department probe in April 2006 by taking the unusual step of denying investigators the security clearances necessary for their work. Did President Bush obstruct justice?

ADAM COHEN: Well, potentially. And that’s, again, the same problem, that it’s the Department of Justice investigating itself. It’s someone that the president can order off the case who has to do the investigating, which is why it’s so important what’s going on right now with Congress investigating, because you get a body that is not responsible to the president, that is independent, that is elected by its own constituencies, that has subpoena power. And it’s why the very separation of powers that President Bush mentioned in his speech yesterday actually argue for respecting the subpoena power and letting the checks and balances of the system work themselves out.

AMY GOODMAN: What about these other investigations that were thwarted? Guam, now Senator Menendez? Talk about these?

ADAM COHEN: Sure. We have the eight U.S. attorneys that everyone’s focusing on, but really a lot of other U.S. attorneys have either left office or perhaps remained in office because they did the wrong thing. But the two that you mentioned, before the very closely contested New Jersey Senate race last year, Menendez, the Democratic candidate, was — suddenly there was an investigation announced by the Republican U.S. attorney in New Jersey of a very old land deal that everyone said when the investigation was leaked, it didn’t look like there was anything there. It doesn’t look like there’s anything there. The timing of that, a couple months before the election — and remember, that was an investigation that immediately was used by Mr. Keane, the Republican, in attack ads — looked very suspicious.

The Guam situation, also suspicious. There we had a career prosecutor who decided he was going to investigate some perhaps shady dealings by Jack Abramoff. And the day after he issues a subpoena, he gets demoted, and someone else is put in his place. These are the sort of things —

AMY GOODMAN: Now, this was the case, Abramoff representing the sweatshop owners in Saipan and Guam.

ADAM COHEN: That’s right. And it’s something that still has not been adequately investigated. Now, you have to figure if there are congressional hearings that involve Rove and Harriet Miers and other people, these situations may also be probed. It might be one reason why President Bush is taking such a hard line.

AMY GOODMAN: In the op-ed piece that David Iglesias wrote today in The New York Times, the fired U.S. attorney from New Mexico, he said in order to settle the issue, he wants a written retraction by the Justice Department setting the record straight about his performance.

ADAM COHEN: Yes, well, one thing that the Justice Department did wrong in this situation is, if, in fact, these people were fired for political reasons, which it seems that they were, they immediately said, “No, everyone was fired for performance-based reasons. We fired everyone because they were bad at their job.” Well, that annoyed a lot of them. And as Mr. Iglesias said, he feels he’s entitled to an apology. But it may also have been a strategic mistake, because it really angered these hard-working, you know, long-serving prosecutors, to say, “Oh, we fired you, because you did a bad job.”

AMY GOODMAN: Adam Cohen, thanks very much for joining us. This is Democracy Now! Adam Cohen is an editorial writer for The New York Times.

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