President George W. Bush on Thursday stepped towards a constitutional showdown with Congress when he rejected demands from lawmakers to hand over White House documents related to the controversial firing of several federal prosecutors.
Two congressional committees issued subpoenas for the documents this month as part of their investigation into whether the White House put pressure on the Department of Justice to dismiss federal attorneys for political reasons.
The White House said on Thursday it would not respond to the subpoenas because the documents involved were protected by executive privilege.
The House and Senate judiciary committees, which are leading the investigation, must now decide whether to seek support from the full Congress for a court battle to enforce the subpoenas – a process that could drag on for years.
Patrick Leahy, chairman of the Senate judiciary committee, accused the White House of acting as if it was “above the law” and accused Mr Bush of “Nixonian stonewalling”.
Yesterday’s development marked the latest in a series of recent escalations in the dispute between the White House and Democratic-controlled Congress over the role of the Department of Justice in the Bush administration.
In addition to alleged political interference in the choice of federal prosecutors, Democrats are also investigating how Mr Bush secured justice department consent for the domestic surveillance programme he launched after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Mr Leahy’s committee issued further subpoenas against the White House on Wednesday seeking documents relating to the domestic eavesdropping, which a federal judge ruled last year was unconstitutional.
The administration has not yet responded to those subpoenas or to demands for testimony from former White House officials about the attorney firings, but yesterday’s step indicated that all congressional subpoenas were likely to be rejected by Mr Bush.
In a letter to Congress, Fred Fielding, White House counsel, said the protection of internal White House deliberations was a “bedrock presidential prerogative”.
“For the president to perform his constitutional duties, it is imperative that he receive candid and unfettered advice and that free and open discussions and deliberations occur among his advisers,” he said.
John Conyers, chairman of the House judiciary committee, said Mr Bush's assertion of executive privilege was “unprecedented in its breadth and scope” and displayed “an appalling disregard for the right of the people to know what is going on in their government”.
The subpoenas were issued to Harriet Miers, former White House counsel, and Sara Taylor, a former aide to Karl Rove, White House political director. Yesterday was the deadline for handing over the documents.