President George W. Bush will move closer to a courtroom showdown with Congress over the firing of federal prosecutors on Wednesday, when a former White House official is expected to defy a demand for her to testify about the case on Capitol Hill.
The White House announced on Monday that it had instructed Sara Taylor, former White House political director, to ignore a subpoena requiring her to give evidence to the Senate judiciary committee. A gagging order was also issued to Harriet Miers, former White House counsel, who was scheduled to appear before a House panel on Thursday.
The intervention marked the second time in a month that Mr Bush has rejected congressional subpoenas demanding access to White House officials and documents as part of the investigation into last year’s controversial firing of several federal prosecutors.
Democrats hoped Ms Taylor and Ms Miers would shed light on the White House’s role in the purge, amid suspicion that attorneys were targeted for partisan political reasons.
Congressional committee leaders have vowed to enforce the subpoenas through the courts if Mr Bush refused to back down – a move that threatens to poison further the rancorous relationship between the White House and Democratic-controlled Capitol Hill.
The White House argues the information sought by Congress is subject to a constitutional privilege that protects the privacy of internal deliberations within the executive branch of government.
In a letter to the House and Senate judiciary committees this week, Fred Fielding, White House counsel, said privacy was essential for the president to “receive candid advice from his advisers and that those advisers be able to communicate freely and openly”.
But Democrats accuse Mr Bush of obstructing a legitimate investigation into alleged abuse of power by his administration.
“The president seems to think that executive privilege is a magic mantra that can hide anything, including wrongdoing,” said Charles Schumer, a Democratic member of the Senate judiciary committee.
The purge of federal prosecutors has become the main focus of a broader Democratic inquiry into White House influence over the Department of Justice and the aggressive use of executive power by Mr Bush and Dick Cheney, vice-president.
Democrats have accused the White House of orchestrating the removal of federal attorneys for failing to pursue alleged cases of Democratic voter fraud or for prosecuting corruption charges against Republicans with too much vigour.
The allegations were given weight by the discovery of a justice department e-mail that rated prosecutors according to whether they were “loyal Bushies”.
Nearly six months into the investigation, however, Democrats have so far failed to establish who instigated the purge and how the list of targeted attorneys was drawn up.
Most Republicans have dismissed the inquiry as a “fishing expedition” with no purpose other than to cast the widest possible net in search of incriminating information about the Bush administration.
The White House insists the dismissals were based on performance not politics, and stresses the hiring and firing of US attorneys is a presidential prerogative. “This is a big tempest in a teapot,” said Orrin Hatch, a Republican member of the Senate judiciary committee. “In all of the hearings we've had . . . there hasn't been one indication of any real impropriety.”
The subpoenas for Ms Taylor and Ms Miers were widely viewed as an attempt to redirect the probe towards the White House after months of inconclusive testimony by senior justice department officials, including Alberto Gonzales, the attorney-general.
Many Republicans believe the Democrats’ aim is to ensnare Karl Rove, the top White House political adviser and architect of Mr Bush’s presidential election victories. But the investigation is more than a purely partisan exercise. The three top Republicans on the Senate judiciary committee backed the issuing of subpoenas for Ms Taylor and Ms Miers, reflecting bipartisan concern about alleged politicising of the justice department since Mr Bush took office.
“I think it's very important that we get to the bottom of this as soon as possible because Attorney-General Gonzales continues to serve and the Department of Justice is in total disarray,” said Arlen Specter, the top-ranking Republican committee member.
To enforce the subpoenas, the congressional committees must seek consent from the full Congress to pursue contempt charges against Ms Taylor and Ms Miers through the courts – a step not taken since the 1980s. But Mr Specter warned a court battle would drag on until after Mr Bush left office in 18 months and risked distracting attention from the urgent need to tackle problems at the justice department.
As former employees, Ms Taylor and Ms Miers are not bound by Mr Bush’s instruction for them not to testify. But neither is expected to defy their former boss.