The Senate Judiciary Committee’s effort to land presidential adviser Karl Rove as a witness runs headlong into the Bush White House’s well-established reluctance to subject high-level staffers or internal documents to Congressional scrutiny.
But intense political pressure surrounding the U.S. attorneys scandal — in which Rove has become a prominent player — could overwhelm the administration’s opposition.
Charles Cooper, a former assistant attorney general under former President Ronald Reagan, said it would be “extraordinary” if Rove were permitted to come to Capitol Hill.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen because I think the president is going to react very negatively,” Cooper said. The president has a “very serious attitude towards ... protecting the prerogatives and dignity of his office.”
In fact, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers put out a statement Friday saying the White House had failed to meet a deadline for reaching agreement on providing documents — and testimony from Rove and others — and that he would schedule a vote on issuing subpoenas.
A scant few presidential advisers have testified before Congress since Bush was elected in 2000, and those instances have been extremely controversial.
Condoleezza Rice, then national security adviser, initially declined, and then agreed, to testify before the Congressionally mandated 9/11 commission in April 2004. As assistant to the president for Homeland Security — a staff- rather than Cabinet-level position — Tom Ridge testified on several occasions before the House and Senate in 2002, but not without resistance from the White House, according to a 2004 Congressional Research Service report.
Rove — one of Bush’s closest allies and friends — never has testified before Congress and it is unclear under what circumstances, if any, he would testify, even as his role in the U.S. attorneys scandal widens. Media reports last week revealed Rove asked about the firings of U.S. attorneys in January 2005, long before he previously was thought to be involved.
The White House aide could be deposed in some kind of informal arrangement with the Judiciary Committee, which could include a private interview with questioning limited directly to the topic.
Cooper said that’s how information often was extracted from officials in the Reagan White House, for instance.
“I would strongly suspect that this kind of issue would be worked out through that type of compromise,” Cooper said.
Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee authorized the issuing of subpoenas for five senior Justice Department aides to serve as witnesses in explaining how and why at least eight U.S. attorneys were fired for apparently political reasons in 2006. Aides still are working out the details of how they will provide information to the committee.
But Democrats delayed issuing subpoenas for Rove and ex-White House counsel Harriet Miers — instead they invited them in letters to appear voluntarily — apparently in hopes of striking a deal with the White House. White House counsel Fred Fielding was on the Hill last week meeting with key lawmakers and seemed to suggest that the officials would be made available under certain circumstances.
In the past, Bush has not been shy in asserting executive privilege or separation of powers arguments in protecting presidential documents and aides.
But this is an instance where political considerations may trump legal ones as the scandal grows and continues to irk Hill Democrats and make front-page headlines.