President George W. Bush Wednesday barred his political guru Karl Rove from testifying to Congress in a furious political row sparked by a mass firing of federal prosecutors.
Bush invoked “executive privilege” to prevent Karl Rove and Scott Jennings, deputy White House political director, from providing documents and testimony under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Thursday.
The move represented another step closer to a court showdown between Congress and the White House over the row, sparked by the sacking of nine federal prosecutors. Bush critics say the sackings were politically motivated.
“The president has decided to assert executive privilege as to both the requested documents and testimony,” White House counsel Fred Fielding wrote in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy.
Rove, Bush’s top political advisor, and Jennings were subpoenaed last week, one day after the House Judiciary Committee issued contempt of Congress citations against White House chief of staff Joshua Bolten and ex-legal counsel Harriet Miers, after they ignored subpoenas arising from the prosecutors row.
Fielding also claimed that, as a close presidential advisor, Rove was immune from testifying to a Congressional committee.
A similar claim was not made for Jennings, so he is expected to show up as planned at Thursday’s hearing, though he is likely to refuse to answer questions he believes are covered by Bush’s order.
Leahy reacted furiously to Bush’s move.
“Why is the White House working so hard to hide Karl Rove’s involvement,” he asked in a statement.
“It is a shame that this White House continues to act as if it is above the law, that is wrong.”
Presidents invoke the doctrine of executive privilege to deprive other branches of the US government from documents or testimony they believe is vital to the confidential running of their office.
Democrats have demanded a perjury probe against Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who is at the center of the fired prosecutors saga, and has denied wrongdoing.
The White House accuses Democrats of using the affair to fire up their political base.
Gonzales is also in hot water after Robert Mueller, director of the FBI last week appeared to contradict his testimony to a Senate committee.
At the center of the latest storm is a March 2004 meeting between White House aides and lawmakers and a visit to the bedside of the then-seriously ill attorney general John Ashcroft, while Gonzales was a White House official.
Gonzales maintains the meeting addressed “intelligence activities” that were under legal dispute and has denied it focused on warrantless wiretaps.
But Mueller appeared to contradict that, in testimony before the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee on Thursday, saying it was a discussion on an NSA (National Security Agency) program “that has been much discussed,” referring to the wiretap operations.
Leahy on Wednesday accused Gonzales of sending him a “legalistic” letter to explain the discrepancies, and gave him until the end of the week to do better.