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New Testimony on Fired Federal Prosecutors

July 11, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Now in Congress, the continuing confrontation over the fired prosecutors investigation. NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman has that story.

KWAME HOLMAN: Sara Taylor, the one-time political director at the White House, came before the Senate Judiciary Committee this morning under force of subpoena to talk about her involvement in the firings of nine U.S. attorneys last year.

For months, Democrats have alleged improper political meddling by the White House and Justice Department in those ousters. But the 32-year-old Taylor answered few questions, adhering to a broad claim of executive privilege stated in a letter from White House counsel Fred Fielding.

Chairman Patrick Leahy blasted the White House assertion immediately and told Taylor she was in danger of drawing a criminal contempt of Congress citation. The chairman’s opening line of questioning drew what became a stock response from Taylor.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY (D), Vermont: Did you speak with President Bush about replacing U.S. attorneys?

SARA TAYLOR, Former White Aide: Senator Leahy, as you know, I have a letter from…

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: That’s not my question. I’m not asking you what was said or anything else. Did you speak with the president replacing U.S. attorneys — not what the content of the discussion on — but did you speak with him, yes or no, about replacing U.S. attorneys?

SARA TAYLOR: Senator, I have a very clear letter from Mr. Fielding. That letter says and has asked me to follow the president’s assertion of executive privilege. And as I read that, I determine my acknowledging whether a conversation occurred or did not occur would, in fact, be part of the deliberations.

Questions about Arkansas attorney

KWAME HOLMAN: Eventually, Taylor said she had not discussed with the president plans to fire the attorneys nor been in any meetings attended by Mr. Bush where the issue was discussed.

There were specific questions about the firing of Arkansas attorney Bud Cummins. He was replaced by a protege of Karl Rove, who was Taylor's boss at the White House. Arlen Specter, the committee's ranking member, was the only Republican -- except for a brief stop by Iowa's Chuck Grassley -- to attend the hearing. Specter focused on how the Rove protege, Tim Griffin, was appointed.

SEN. ARLEN SPECTER (R), Pennsylvania: There were also allegations that Ms. Miers, then-White House counsel, had intervened, and also suspicions that Mr. Karl Rove had intervened to replace Mr. Griffin in place of Mr. Cummins. What knowledge do you have of those matters?

SARA TAYLOR: Again, I'm trying to follow sort of this process here so that I'm respectful of the president's assertion of executive privilege. All I can say about Tim is that Tim worked in the White House. He worked with a lot of people. He worked with people at the Justice Department, because he did a tour of service there. He worked with people in Arkansas. A lot of people knew this individual, and a lot of people thought very highly of him.

KWAME HOLMAN: Taylor's answers prompted New York Democrat Chuck Schumer to wonder if she still was adhering to the president's claim of executive privilege.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D), New York: She did talk about, for instance, the view within the White House of Mr. Griffin. That's an internal communication. We're not here weighing which ones are harmful and which ones aren't harmful to the White House or to what anyone's pursuing. That's not how privilege works.

SARA TAYLOR: I will continue to try to be as cooperative as I can, and I guess, you know, the only alternative is to just sit here and not answer any questions.

Taylor says she can't recall

KWAME HOLMAN: Maryland Democrat Ben Cardin pushed Taylor for more answers.

SEN. BEN CARDIN (D), Maryland: You don't recall if someone called you to complain about a U.S. attorney?

SARA TAYLOR: Senator, I'm sure you can appreciate that somebody who was in my position, who got -- and I'm estimating here -- roughly 20 phone calls a day, roughly 300 e-mails a day, each and every day, about a myriad of topics, any and everything you could probably -- would not recall conversations or phone calls that came to her. Senator, I can't remember what I had for breakfast last week; I just don't recall any of those conversations.

SEN. BEN CARDIN: I assume what you had for breakfast last week has not been the subject of considerable national attention.

SARA TAYLOR: Good God, I would hope not.

SEN. BEN CARDIN: You seem to be selective in the use of the presidential privilege. It seems like you're saying that, "Yes, I'm giving you all the information I can," when it's self-serving to the White House, but not allowing us to have the information to make independent judgment.

SARA TAYLOR: Well, I appreciate your frustration. I noted that we would likely be frustrated at times during this hearing today.

Leahy questions executive privilege

KWAME HOLMAN: Chairman Leahy closed by again questioning the legitimacy of the claim of executive privilege by the president.

SEN. PATRICK LEAHY: I do note your answer that you did not discuss these matters with the president and, to the best of your knowledge, he was not involved is going to make some nervous at the White House because it seriously undercuts his claim of executive privilege if he was not involved.

KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, shortly after Taylor's appearance, the president directed another departed White House official, former counsel Harriet Miers, not to testify about the U.S. attorney firings at a House Judiciary Committee hearing scheduled for tomorrow.