WASHINGTON – A Senate chairman acknowledged explicitly on Thursday that President Bush was not involved in the firings of U.S. attorneys last winter and therefore ruled illegal the president's executive privilege claims protecting his chief of staff, John Bolten, and former adviser Karl Rove.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy directed Bolten, Rove, former White House political director Sara Taylor and her deputy, J. Scott Jennings, to comply "immediately" with their subpoenas for documents and information about the White House's role in the firings of U.S. attorneys.
"I hereby rule that those claims are not legally valid to excuse current and former White House employees from appearing, testifying and producing documents related to this investigation," Leahy wrote.
The ruling is a formality that clears the way for Leahy's panel to vote on whether to advance the citations to the full Senate.
The executive privilege claim "is surprising in light of the significant and uncontroverted evidence that the president had no involvement in these firings," Leahy, D-Vt., wrote in his ruling. "The president's lack of involvement in these firings — by his own account and that of many others — calls into question any claim of executive privilege."
White House officials were "baffled" by the ruling, since Democrats have long said they wanted to know what Bush knew of the firings, said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino. With Leahy acknowledging that he has the answer — Bush was not involved — Congress should focus on such pressing matters as the federal budget.
"If he is now saying that the president wasn't aware of it, as we have said from the beginning, then I don't understand why he continues to have this rope-a-dope that's not going to go anywhere," Perino told reporters.
But Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Leahy had no choice.
"It's a bad idea to have subpoenas issued and then not to act on them," said Specter, the panel's ranking Republican and a former chairman. "If you cry wolf, you ought to follow up."
What happens now is not clear. Leahy did not set a deadline for the subjects of the subpoenas to comply. He could bring the contempt citations before the committee, but there were no plans to do that, according to officials close to the panel.
The ruling was the latest salvo in a nearly yearlong controversy spawned by the firings of at least nine U.S. attorneys that ultimately cost former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales his job. Leahy presided over the confirmation hearings of Gonzales' successor, Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who was confirmed and took office earlier this month.
Unlike Gonzales, Mukasey did not rule out allowing a federal prosecutor to take the case of any contempt citations passed by Congress. House leaders also have filed a contempt citation in their chamber against Bolten and former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, but no floor vote has been scheduled.
Likewise, a new attorney general scrambled the political calculus for citations in the Senate. Leahy held off on his ruling while the committee moved Mukasey's nomination, in part because committee officials felt there seemed little point in pursuing citations the White House seemed certain to block.
But Mukasey's testimony and his promise to quit if Bush ignored his legal advice gives any citation — even the threat of one — more weight.
It was not clear, however, that Leahy's ruling Thursday would amount to more than a threat before Congress adjourns next month for the holidays.