Two former senior aides to President George W. Bush have been ordered to testify on their roles in the dismissal of eight federal prosecutors, marking an escalation in the showdown between Congress and the White House over the firings.
Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, and Sara Taylor, the former political director, were issued with subpoenas on Wednesday by two powerful congressional committees.
The subpoenas marked the first attempt by Congress to compel White House insiders to testify on the controversial firings, which Democrats believe were politically motivated.
Democrats are seeking to prove that the White House was involved in the decision to remove the attorneys last year, accusing the Bush administration of creating vacancies to fill them with what one internal justice department e-mail referred to as “loyal Bushies”.
The White House has dismissed the investigation as a political witch hunt targeted at two of Mr Bush’s closest and longest-serving allies: Alberto Gonzales, the attorney-general, and Karl Rove, the White House political adviser.
Months of testimony by justice department officials, including Mr Gonzales, has established that the White House was aware of the firings but Democrats have so far failed to prove any explicit wrongdoing. The White House has offered to make serving and former officials available to Congress for private off-the-record interviews on the firings but has refused to volunteer them for formal testimony.
“The White House cannot . . . stonewall congressional investigations by refusing to provide documents and witnesses while claiming nothing improper occurred,” said Patrick Leahy, the chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, which issued the subpoena for Ms Miers. The subpoena for Ms Taylor was issued by the Senate judiciary committee.
Tony Snow, Mr Bush’s press secretary, said the White House would review the subpoenas before deciding how to respond, saying it was premature to speculate on a possible legal challenge. Earlier, another White House official accused Democrats of being “more interested in drama than facts” and insisted Congress could get all the information it needed through the informal interviews offered.
The House committee authorised a subpoena for Mr Rove in March but has so far refrained from issuing it.
Newly released justice department documents prove that Ms Taylor, a key deputy to Mr Rove, was involved in the firings. In one e-mail she described an Arkansas attorney who was later fired as “lazy”.
Ms Miers, who was briefly nominated by Mr Bush for a Supreme Court vacancy in 2005, left the White House in January, while Ms Taylor departed last month.
Monica Goodling, a justice department official, admitted to the House judiciary committee last month that she “crossed the line” in using political criteria to help decide which federal prosecutors should be hired and fired. Paul McNulty, the deputy attorney-general, “was not fully candid” when he told Congress in February that the fired attorneys had been dismissed for “performance” reasons, she added.
On Monday an attempt by Senate Democrats to force a no-confidence vote in Mr Gonzales won support from a simple majority of Senators but fell narrowly short of the larger majority needed to pass a resolution.
Speaking in Bulgaria on Monday, Mr Bush reiterated his support for the attorney-general.
“It’s political. There’s no wrongdoing,” he said.