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Let them testify

Bush should compromise with congressional Democrats who want to question White House aides.

March 22, 2007

PRESIDENT BUSH'S combative response to a congressional investigation of the firing of eight U.S. attorneys might have made sense when Republicans controlled Congress and Alberto R. Gonzales had a secure hold on the job of attorney general. In that parallel universe, Bush also would have received a more respectful hearing for his argument that were Karl Rove and other present and former White House officials to testify under oath about their part in the purge, it would set a troubling precedent for executive privilege.

But Bush isn't operating from a position of strength. The change in control of Congress is one factor, but so is the way the Justice Department has mishandled what Gonzales initially called an "overblown personnel matter."

Instead of sticking with his old compadre from Texas, Bush should have sent Gonzales back to private life with the same appreciation for his public service that the president belatedly offered the fired prosecutors. And he should have offered Congress more than private briefings at which Rove et al would speak off the record.

Instead, Bush is hanging tough, clinging to Gonzales and insisting that it is "reasonable" for Rove to speak without a transcript being made. As a reporter pointed out to Press Secretary Tony Snow on Wednesday, the White House makes a transcript of Snow's media briefings so that it can contest what it considers mischaracterizations of what was said. Yet the administration is willing to allow Rove's comments to be mediated through the memories of hostile members of Congress? It doesn't make sense.

For what it's worth, the president is right that congressional Democrats are reveling in the administration's incompetence (at best) or corruption (at worst). But as former Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld might say, you deal with the Congress you have, not the one you want. The administration's shifting explanations for the dismissals, coupled with copious evidence of kibitzing by political actors in the administration of justice, has made it easy for the Democrats to seize the high ground.

Instead of hanging tough and inviting a mini-constitutional crisis, the president should be open to a middle ground between what he has proposed and the demand by congressional Democrats that White House officials testify under oath. If a transcript is good enough for Tony Snow, it should be good enough for Karl Rove.

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