Wednesday, March 21, 2007
In nasty and bumbling comments made at the White House yesterday, President Bush declared that “people just need to hear the truth” about the firing of eight United States attorneys. That’s right. Unfortunately, the deal Mr. Bush offered Congress to make White House officials available for “interviews” did not come close to meeting that standard.
Mr. Bush’s proposal was a formula for hiding the truth, and for protecting the president and his staff from a legitimate inquiry by Congress. Mr. Bush’s idea of openness involved sending White House officials to Congress to answer questions in private, without taking any oath, making a transcript or allowing any follow-up appearances. The people, in other words, would be kept in the dark.
The Democratic leaders were right to reject the offer, despite Mr. Bush’s threat to turn this dispute into a full-blown constitutional confrontation.
Congress has the right and the duty to fully investigate the firings, which may have been illegal, and Justice Department officials’ statements to Congress, which may have been untrue. It needs to question Karl Rove, Mr. Bush’s chief political adviser, Harriet Miers, the former White House counsel, and other top officials.
It is hard to imagine what, besides evading responsibility, the White House had in mind. Why would anyone refuse to take an oath on a matter like this, unless he were not fully committed to telling the truth? And why would Congress accept that idea, especially in an investigation that has already been marked by repeated false and misleading statements from administration officials?
The White House notes that making misrepresentations to Congress is illegal, even if no oath is taken. But that seems to be where the lack of a transcript comes in. It would be hard to prove what Mr. Rove and others said if no official record existed.
The White House also put an unacceptable condition on the documents it would make available, by excluding e-mail messages within the White House. Mr. Bush’s overall strategy seems clear: to stop Congress from learning what went on within the White House, which may well be where the key decisions to fire the attorneys were made.
The White House argued that presidential advisers rarely testify before Congress, but that is simply not true. Many of President Clinton’s high-ranking advisers, including his White House counsels and deputy chief of staff, testified about Whitewater, allegations of campaign finance abuses and other matters.
The Bush administration is trying to hide behind the doctrine of “executive privilege.” That term does not appear in the Constitution; the best Mr. Bush could do yesterday was a stammering reference to the separate branches of government. When presidents have tried to invoke this privilege, the courts have been skeptical. President Richard Nixon tried to withhold the Watergate tapes, but a unanimous Supreme Court ruled against him.
It is no great surprise that top officials of this administration believe they do not need to testify before Congress. This is an administration that has shown over and over that it does not believe that the laws apply to it, and that it does not respect its co-equal branches of government. Congress should subpoena Mr. Rove and the others, and question them under oath, in public. If Congress has more questions, they should be recalled.
That would not be “partisanship,” as Mr. Bush wants Americans to believe. It would be Congress doing its job by holding the president and his team accountable — a rare thing in the last six years.