House Democrats began laying the groundwork for finding former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers in contempt of Congress on Thursday when, as expected, she failed to appear at a congressional hearing on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys last year.
In a party-line 7-5 vote, a House judiciary subcommittee dismissed claims of executive privilege that Miers invoked through her lawyer in refusing to appear despite a subpoena. The vote opened a process that could eventually lead to Miers being found in contempt.
“I can’t fathom a private citizen getting a subpoena to come before this body and not showing up,” said Rep. Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.). He added: “What we’ve got here is an empty chair. I mean, that is as contemptuous as anybody can be of the government, of the process, of the country.”
Miers’ absence from the subcommittee on commercial and administrative law came a day after former White House political affairs director Sara M. Taylor, under subpoena, answered some questions before the Senate Judiciary Committee about the firings case.
The White House had ordered Miers and Taylor not to answer questions, citing executive privilege. White House Counsel Fred F. Fielding advised Miers on Tuesday that she need not attend the hearing to assert the privilege.
Democrats have taken up the cause of the fired prosecutors -- all Bush appointees -- because of concerns that the prosecutors were dismissed to make way for attorneys who would better serve Republican interests. U.S. attorneys, the Justice Department’s top representatives in each state, are expected to enforce federal laws without regard to political loyalties.
Republicans in Congress have countered that Bush has the right to fire U.S. attorneys for any reason, and that the months-long investigation has turned up no hard evidence of criminal misconduct.
Miers’ empty chair Thursday prompted sometimes-rancorous exchanges among committee members. Democrats accused the administration of stonewalling in a way that had not been seen on Capitol Hill since the Watergate era.
President Nixon once “famously argued that -- I think this is a quote -- ‘Everything the president does is legal,’ ” observed Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-San Jose), who was a judiciary committee staffer during the Nixon impeachment inquiry. “It appears that this administration is apparently adding, ‘Everything the president, his advisors and his former advisors say or do is privileged.’
“That is not the state of the law.”
The ranking Republican on the subcommittee, Rep. Chris Cannon of Utah, accused the majority of orchestrating “a gigantic spin game frittering away the precious time of this 110th Congress.”
The White House has offered to make Miers and a few other officials available for interviews in private, without an oath, transcript or opportunity for follow-up questions. Democrats have said those conditions are unacceptable.
Calling the subpoena for Miers premature, Cannon said the majority was making a mistake by declining to interview her on White House terms.
“Not having interviewed Ms. Miers leaves us with some questions but with no hard evidence of criminality,” so a court probably won’t enforce the subpoena and override the White House’s assertion of executive privilege, Cannon said.
“We can’t produce the evidence of misconduct -- because the witness won’t come,” responded House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.).
He added: “The take-it-or-leave-it offer that you referred to would be unacceptable to a high school student.
“I mean, no transcripts, no oath, no nothing -- we could meet in a pub and have refreshments and do that.”
The panel also authorized Conyers to subpoena the Republican National Committee for e-mail accounts used by Bush counselor Karl Rove and other White House officials linked to the firings.
The White House has already indicated that it believes those documents are privileged and off-limits.
“They are protected, and the White House does not intend to authorize their release,” spokesman Tony Fratto said Thursday.