Just four days before he left office, President Bush instructed former White House aide Karl Rove to refuse to cooperate with future congressional inquiries into alleged misconduct during his administration.
On Jan. 16, 2009, then White House Counsel Fred Fielding sent a letter (.pdf) to Rove's lawyer, Robert Luskin. The message: should his client receive any future subpoenas, Rove "should not appear before Congress" or turn over any documents relating to his time in the White House. The letter told Rove that President Bush was continuing to assert executive privilege over any testimony by Rove—even after he leaves office.
A nearly identical letter (.pdf) was also sent by Fielding the day before to a lawyer for former White House counsel Harriet Miers, instructing her not to appear for a scheduled deposition with the House Judiciary Committee. That letter reasserted the White House position that Miers has "absolute immunity" from testifying before Congress about anything she did while she worked at the White House—a far-reaching claim that is being vigorously disputed by lawyers for the House of Representatives in court.
The letters set the stage for what is likely to be a highly contentious legal and political battle over an unresolved issue: whether a former president can assert "executive privilege"—and therefore prevent his aides from testifying before Congress—even after his term has expired.
"To my knowledge, these [letters] are unprecedented," said Peter Shane, an Ohio State University law professor who specializes in executive-privilege issues. "I'm aware of no sitting president that has tried to give an insurance policy to a former employee in regard to post-administration testimony." Shane likened the letter to Rove as an attempt to give his former aide a 'get-out-of-contempt-free card'."
The issue arose this week after House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers announced that he had subpoenaed Rove to be deposed under oath next Monday to answer questions about his alleged role in the firing of U.S. attorneys and the prosecution of the former Democratic governor of Alabama, Don Siegelman. Conyers, whose panel extensively investigated both matters last year, signaled that he has no intention of dropping them now just because Bush has left office. "After two years of stonewalling, it's time for him [Rove] to talk," Conyers said in a press release.
But it is unclear whether Rove—or Miers, who was found in contempt of Congress last year when she refused to honor an earlier subpoena—is close to doing so. Luskin said he did not solicit the letter from Fielding, but maintains that its contents give his client little choice in the matter.
Fielding's letter cited the aggressive position of the Bush Justice Department on executive-privilege issues. That doctrine essentially held that White House aides not only did not have to answer specific questions before Congress about their presidential duties, they didn't even have to show up in response to subpoenas because they had "absolute immunity."
"We anticipate that one or more committees of the United States Congress might again seek to compel Mr. Rove's appearance, testimony or documents on the subject of the U.S. attorneys matter," Fielding wrote. "Please advise Mr. Rove ... that the President continues to direct him not to provide information (whether in the form of testimony or documents) to the Congress in this matter …"
Reached Wednesday afternoon, Fielding declined to comment. But a former presidential aide, who asked not to be identified talking about sensitive matters, said that the letter to Rove was "basically the same" as the one sent to Miers (and a third letter sent to former White House chief of staff Josh Bolten). "If the president was going to assert privilege," this source said, he had to do it before he left office on Jan. 20.
Luskin said that he forwarded a copy of Fielding's letter, as well as the subpoena he got from Conyers, to Obama's White House counsel, Greg Craig, and essentially asked for the new president's position on these matters.
So far, he said, Craig hasn't responded; Luskin also says he has asked the House Judiciary Committee to postpone its deposition of Rove until he hears back. The committee has agreed to put off the deposition—but only for a few weeks.
The issue is likely to come to a head soon. The Justice Department is due to state its position on executive privilege to the U.S. Court of Appeals in a few weeks in response to the House's attempt to enforce its previous subpoenas for Miers and Bolten, who were subpoenaed to turn over documents relating the U.S. attorneys firings. Both refused to comply, or even show up—relying on the Bush Justice Department's sweeping position on "absolute immunity" from testifying before Congress.
Few legal observers expect the Obama Justice Department to endorse that position, but it remains an open question how the new administration will define the scope of presidential privilege. Bush's attempt to assert privilege even after he leaves office throws a new wrinkle into the dispute.
"We're in uncharted territory," Luskin said to NEWSWEEK when asked whether a former president can still assert executive privilege after he leaves office. He added that Rove has no personal objection to testifying and will cooperate with an ongoing Justice Department inquiry into the U.S. attorneys firing—although Luskin says he has not yet been contacted. (Rove is an occasional contributor to Newsweek).
A White House aide said Wednesday afternoon that Craig's office was still reviewing the issue.