As President Bush and the Democratic Congress head for a confrontation over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, it is possible to see some justice on both sides. It would be best if they reached a compromise, but both sides seem to be spoiling for a fight.
The Senate and House judiciary committees have approved but not yet issued subpoenas for presidential adviser Karl Rove, former White House Counsel Harriet Miers, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and his resigned aide D. Kyle Sampson to testify under oath in open hearings. The White House complains that if key aides testify in such a fashion it could undermine the president’s ability to get candid advice from his aides. Will an aide speak freely (“you blew it that time, Mr. President”), if he or she might have to repeat the comments in open congressional hearings?
Presidential press secretary Tony Snow also argues the White House and Justice Department have already provided hundreds of e-mails that are not ordinarily released. If the object is to get to the truth, sworn testimony shouldn’t be necessary since it is already against the law to lie to Congress.
The White House wants to make the White House officials available for private, closed-session interviews, not under oath, and with no official transcript kept. One can understand the reluctance of congressional leaders to accept such an arrangement. They will be searching for inconsistencies as well as motives in the way officials tell the story of how the firings transpired, but without transcripts it is difficult to do side-by-side comparisons.
Considering that the worst allegation about the firings – that they were politically motivated – may be lamentable but hardly criminal, this seems like an issue on which the two sides could and should compromise. If they choose to make it a constitutional showdown determined by the courts, it will drag out the process and divert attention from more substantive issues like how to proceed in Iraq or what to do about the FBI’s apparent fumbling when issuing national security letters.
The issue at hand, however, may not be all that important. It is part of the rhythm of American politics that presidents who serve two terms run into serious trouble during their last two years in office — and insofar as that phenomenon weakens the institution of the presidency that’s not a bad thing for American liberties. The growing unpopularity of the war in Iraq compounds the problem for President Bush, but he would be weaker during this period compared with his first term, whatever the issues, if only because the political class has already begun to focus on his replacement.
Frustrated Democrats, now that they control Congress, want to exercise effective oversight and embarrass the administration. President Bush wants to dig in his heels and protect his legacy. Expect confrontation on a variety of issues.