Washington President Bush ordered former White House Counsel Harriet Miers to stay away today from a House panel investigating last year's firings of nine U.S. attorneys, prompting the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee to threaten Miers with a contempt citation.
Miers had been expected to appear today before a Judiciary subcommittee but to decline to answer many questions because Bush has asserted that "executive privilege" shields his former staffers from testifying before Congress on the matter.
When Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., learned through Miers' attorney that the president was instructing Miers not to appear at all, Conyers shot off a letter warning that "a refusal to appear before the subcommittee could subject Ms. Miers to contempt proceedings" and that "we strongly urge you to reconsider."
The president's directive to Miers further escalated the conflict over the firings, and the back and forth moves by the White House and Congress pushed both sides closer to heading to court to seek a resolution to the dispute.
The genesis of the president's order was an opinion by White House Counsel Fred Fielding and the Justice Department, which was in a letter sent to the Judiciary Committee by Miers' attorney, George T. Manning.
Fielding concluded that Miers has "absolute immunity" from testimony including appearing before the committee and that forcing her to appear "would be akin to requiring the president himself to appear."
Conyers and Linda Sanchez, D-Calif., a chairwoman of a Judiciary subcommittee, challenged Fielding's opinion, saying that there is "absolutely no court decision that supports the notion that a former White House official has the option of refusing to even appear in response to a congressional subpoena."