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House Clears Way for Subpoenas on Attorney Firings

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And I'm John Ydstie, in for Alex Chadwick. In a few minutes, we speak to two Republicans who have two very different opinions on the fate of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in the wake of the U.S. attorney firings.

BRAND: The political fight between the White House and Congressional Democrats over those firings is getting more intense. Today, a House subcommittee agreed to authorize subpoenas if Karl Rove and other top White House aides who refused to testify under oath.

Yesterday, the president said he will not make them available for that. He says they can talk only if they are not under oath, in private and without a transcript.

NPR's White House correspondent David Greene is here now. And David, President Bush - when he made his offer yesterday - he said that was a reasonable proposal. How did that come about?

DAVID GREENE: Well, you got the sense, Madeleine, that the White House just made a decision after thinking about this for a few days that they were going to take a tough, tough stance.

And the president was out in Kansas City. He was supposed to give an energy speech. He cuts it short. He rushes back to Washington. He's in front of the cameras at the White House just in time for the evening news. And he lays out this proposal to - you know, offering up his aides, but with a lot of restrictions.

BRAND: Right. And so he says he doesn't want them to testify under oath. But if they're telling the truth, what's the difference?

GREENE: Well, that's a good question. And the answer is there's not a lot of difference. They have to tell the truth. It's actually a federal crime to lie to members of Congress when you're answering their questions.

And that question was actually posed at the White House this morning. What's the big deal here? Why not let Karl Rove and others testify under oath? Part of it's precedent. This president has been pretty careful to make clear that he thinks his advisers can give him candid advice knowing that they won't have to be forced to come out and talk about it in public.

And allowing them to testify under oath in the White House view just adds another step. It makes White House aides more accessible in a way the president doesn't want them to be.

But what the White House also said is that testimony under oath elevates the public nature of the testimony. To have Karl Rove out there taking an oath, sitting down to testify makes it appear more like a public spectacle.

BRAND: Well, it seems like the cat's already out of the bag on that front. It already is somewhat of a public spectacle.

GREENE: It is. And I think that's - they just want to avoid more of that. I mean, to have days of testimony is not what they want all over the cable news networks, especially if you're dealing with someone like Karl Rove with his involvement in the leak of a CIA operative's identity.

He's Mr. Bush's political guru. I think the White House knows that lawmakers would love nothing more than to bring him into their midst and pepper him with questions about a whole range of subjects.

So avoiding the klieg lights, as the president put it himself, is a big part of this strategy. But even though the White House has taken a tough line, they also have seemed to leave some bargaining space.

You know, there are questions who would conduct these interviews with White House officials? Could there be a transcript in the end?

And these seem like places where the White House and Democrats might find some room for negotiation if they're actually interested in negotiating with each other.

BRAND: Right. And so do we expect the Democrats to actually issue these subpoenas for Karl Rove and others?

GREENE: Well, it's sort of the Democrats' move now. The House, there was this vote to authorize subpoenas. We don't know if Democrats will actually issue them yet.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont on the Senate said has said he wants subpoena power. But he hasn't made clear if he'll use it. And there are risks on both sides.

The White House, of course, doesn't want top aides dragged before the cameras to testify. They also want to defend this prerogative of the president to keep his aides shielded.

And for Democrats, if they actually issue the subpoenas, we're talking about a prolonged court fight here. And will Americans view this as noble fighting to hold the Bush White House accountable? Or will they think Democrats are a little too obsessed with investigating?

BRAND: Thanks a lot, David.

GREENE: Thanks, Madeleine.

BRAND: That's NPR White House correspondent David Greene. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Madeleine Brand
Madeleine Brand is the host of NPR’s newest and fastest-growing daily show, Day to Day. She conducts interviews with newsmakers (Iraqi politicians, US senators), entertainment figures (Bernardo Bertolluci, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Ricky Gervais), and the everyday people affected by the news (an autoworker laid off at GM, a mother whose son was killed in Iraq).
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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