House Democrats were fuming recently when Karl Rove defied a congressional subpoena and refused to show up at a House Judiciary Committee hearing into whether he meddled in Justice Department prosecutions. Instead of grilling the former White House political chief under oath, the members found themselves talking to an empty chair. What they didn't know is where Rove was that day: on a jet flying to a speaking engagement at Yalta, the historic Black Sea resort in Ukraine. Rove, who generally charges a reported $40,000 per talk, appeared on a premier panel (along with Democratic strategist Bob Shrum) on the upcoming U.S. election at the fifth annual conference of the YES Foundation, a confab of world luminaries bankrolled by billionaire Victor Pinchuk, the Ukrainian steel magnate and son-in-law of the country's former autocratic president, Leonid Kuchma.
Democrats on the judiciary panel were outraged when they heard about Rove's overseas jaunt on the day he'd been ordered to testify. "That's just extremely contemptuous—it shows the disdain that he has for Congress and which he has encouraged in the Bush White House," said Rep. Steve Cohen of Tennessee. But Robert Luskin, Rove's lawyer, said the criticism was "fatuous" because, before he took off, Rove had been directed by White House counsel Fred Fielding not to show up. The reason: as a former presidential adviser, the White House views anything he might say to the panel as covered by executive privilege. "What was he supposed to do, sit at home with his lights off?" said Luskin. "I understand that people are unhappy that he didn't show up." But the no-show "was not something we concocted so he could make money in Yalta." Rove himself did not respond to a request for comment. But last week in an appearance on Bill O'Reilly's Fox News show, Rove dismissed the Democrats' demand for his testimony: "They want a circus," he said.
The dispute is far from over. Democratic members and aides said they expect judiciary chair Rep. John Conyers to push for a vote holding Rove in contempt of Congress—an act that would likely end up as part of an ongoing court battle over another executive privilege dispute involving White House chief of staff Josh Bolton and former chief counsel Harriet Miers, both of whom also ignored subpoenas involving the U.S. attorney firings. (The White House also last week invoked executive privilege in refusing to turn over to another House panel an FBI interview of Vice President Dick Cheney in the CIA leak case.) Democrats acknowledge they have few good options to enforce their subpoenas. But they hope to vent their frustrations at an upcoming hearing called by Conyers on "the imperial presidency," where they will give Rep. Dennis Kucinich an opportunity to argue his case for President Bush's impeachment. Republicans, for their part, derided the upcoming hearing as a waste of time. This is "merely political theater," said Rep. Lamar Smith, the judiciary panel's ranking Republican.