Bush aide will stonewall Congress

President Bush’s former political director says she intends to follow his directive and not answer questions about her role in the administration’s firing of federal prosecutors — unless a court directs her to defy her former boss.

“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,” Sara M. Taylor, who left her White House job two months ago, said in remarks prepared for presentation to the Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

“Thank you for your understanding,” she added in the statement, made available in advance of the midmorning hearing.

Democrats insist that there are plenty about the firings that Taylor can discuss — and is compelled to reveal under a subpoena — that are not covered by Bush’s executive privilege claim.

Her lawyer was expected to advise her as the hearing progressed on which questions she could or could not answer under the president’s directive.

The same goes for a second former Bush aide, one-time White House counsel Harriet Miers, Democrats say. Miers, subpoenaed to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, 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.

The two former aides are now private citizens, and some congressional officials have argued that it is not clear Bush’s executive privilege claim covers them even though White House Counsel Fred Fielding 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.

So opens the latest round in the dispute over the administration’s firing last winter of eight federal prosecutors. The congressional probe, now in its seventh month, has morphed into a broader standoff over what information the president may keep private and what details Congress is entitled to receive as part of its oversight of the executive branch.

The Taylor and Miers appearances this week are as much about Congress pushing back against Bush’s executive privilege claim on subpoenaed documents and testimony as they are about the firings.

Claims for executive privilege are based upon the separation of powers set forth in the Constitution. As a separate but equal branch of government, it is argued, the executive can resist efforts by the legislative and judicial branches to encroach on its authority. Presidents have argued against releasing some documents to Congress and against forcing administration officials to testify about private discussions, contending that such disclosures could damage the executive branch’s ability to function independently.

Most presidents have also added a practical argument: They say they won’t be able to get unvarnished advice from advisers who worry that their words will be made public later.

Also looming over the proceedings is the fate of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Democrats have widely called for his resignation and a few Republicans have joined them. But Bush remains supportive of his longtime friend, and Gonzales shows no signs of stepping down.

Taylor and Miers were among Bush’s closest aides during the period the firings were planned. E-mails released by the Justice Department up to, including and in the aftermath of the firings show Taylor and Miers were participants in the exchanges. At one point, the White House has said, Miers proposed firing all 93 of the nation’s prosecutors, but Gonzales rejected that suggestion.

Democrats want to know if the prosecutors were fired at the White House’s direction, perhaps to make room for Bush loyalists. Bush and Gonzales have denied that there were improper political motives behind the firings. The White House has pointed out that federal prosecutors are political appointees, and the president can hire and fire them for almost any reason.