WASHINGTON – Former White House political director Sara M. Taylor told a Senate panel Wednesday that she did not discuss or meet with President Bush about removing federal prosecutors before several of them were fired last year.
"I did not speak to the president about removing U.S. attorneys," Taylor told Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. "I did not attend any meetings with the president where that matter was discussed."
When asked more broadly whether the president was involved in any way in the firings, Taylor said she did not know.
"I don't have any knowledge that he was," Taylor said.
Taylor told the Senate panel Wednesday that she would follow the president's wishes that she not discuss internal conversations about the firing of federal prosecutors, but said she would do her best to cooperate with the investigation.
She raised her right hand and swore to tell the truth before the Senate Judiciary Committee, using her opening remarks to express her admiration for the president — for whom she worked for eight years.
"I am here today to testify pursuant to subpoena before this committee as a willing and cooperative private citizen," she said. "I must recognize, however, that the areas you would like to ask me about today arise out of my service to the president and the White House," she said.
Despite a high level of acrimony between Congress and the White House over the issue, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they had no intention of making an example of Taylor in the growing constitutional battle.
"I know it's not easy for you. I know you want to cooperate. Our quarrel is not with you. It's with those in the White House who wish to stymie our search for the truth," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said in his opening remarks.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said: "It is my hope that we will not proceed on the criminal contempt citation as to Ms. Taylor, because no matter how solid her reasons may be for not testifying, it will not be publicly understood. I do not think that a criminal contempt citation is appropriate here for anyone."
Taylor told the panel she received a letter asking her not to speak about a wide range of matters regarding the investigation, including: "White House consideration, deliberation, communication, whether internal or external, relating to the possible dismissal or appointment of the United States Attorneys," and including preparation of responses to lawmakers' and press inquiries.
Taylor then said that she would testify on those matters only if the courts deemed it necessary.
"While I may be unable to answer certain questions today, I will answer those questions if the courts rule that this committee's need for the information outweighs the president's assertion of executive privilege," Taylor said.
The Senate and House Judiciary committees have held a number of hearings so far looking into the firings of several U.S. attorneys last year. It is chiefly Democrats who say the firings appear to be influenced by White House politics. The committees have issued subpoenas to Taylor and former White House counsel Harriet Miers, and the president has invoked executive privilege over the communications, setting the state for a constitutional show-down between the executive and legislative branches.
Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., opened the hearing with harsh words for the administration, and a plea to Taylor to be as open as possible.
"It is apparent that this White House is contemptuous of the Congress and feels that it does not have to explain itself to anybody," Leahy said. "I urge Ms. Taylor not to follow that contemptuous position and not to follow the White House down this path."
After Taylor's opening statement and questions began, it didn't take long for Taylor to invoke the president's request.
Asked a series of questions by Leahy about conversations regarding the firings, Taylor referred to her letter from White House counsel Fred Fielding.
''As I read that letter, I determine my acknowledgement whether a conversation occurred or did not occur would in fact be part of the deliberations" she was asked not to talk about, Taylor said.
Leahy followed with a separate question, and she responded: "I've been asked not to comment on the internal workings and deliberation of the White House."
Specter tried to offer some consolation to Taylor, who was being put on the hot seat in the hearing, saying that she appeared to be applying the White House's letter correctly, but "whether White House counsel is correct on the assertion of executive privilege is a matter for the courts."
Leahy had met with Taylor and her lawyer just before the hearing started, and took the unusual step of allowing her lawyer, Neil Eggleston, to be seated next to her during the hearing for any advice she might need.
While the executive privilege claim came up early, Taylor did answer a number of questions surrounding the circumstances of the firings. In one instance, she apologized for a comment she made about former U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins in which she called him "lazy."
Miers also has been subpoenaed to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, but she has said through her lawyer this week that she "cannot provide the documents and testimony that the committee seeks."
"Ms. Miers is thus subject to conflicting commands, with Congress demanding the production of information that the counsel to the president has informed her she is prohibited from disclosing," Miers' lawyer, George Manning, wrote to House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers of Michigan and ranking Republican Lamar Smith of Texas.
Both Taylor and Miers are now private citizens, and some congressional officials have argued that it is not clear whether Bush's executive privilege claim covers them. Fielding, however, told lawyers for Miers and Taylor that the president was directing them not to answer questions or provide any information about the firings.
"Ms. Miers has no choice other than to comply with the direction given her by counsel to the president in his letters," Manning wrote.
Taylor's message was much the same. "I intend to follow the president's instruction," she said in her statement.
A court fight could take years, dragging on even after Bush leaves office.
Taylor and Miers were among Bush's closest aides during the period when the firings were planned.
Democrats want to know if the prosecutors were fired at the White House's direction, perhaps to make room for Bush loyalists. Bush has denied that there were improper political motives. Federal prosecutors are political appointees, and the president can hire and fire them for almost any reason.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.