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Ex-White House political director testifies she didn’t talk to Bush about firing prosecutors

    WASHINGTON — President Bush’s former political director testified Wednesday that she knew of no involvement by the president in the firings of U.S. attorneys over the winter.
    Sara M. Taylor irked senators by refusing to answer many questions from a panel investigating whether the firings were politically motivated. Taylor, who said she was bound by Bush’s position that White House conversations were protected by executive privilege, was willing to say she had never heard the president talk about firing the prosecutors.
    ‘‘I did not speak to the president about removing U.S. attorneys,’’ Taylor said under stern questioning by Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy. ‘‘I did not attend any meetings with the president where that matter was discussed.’’
    When asked more broadly whether Bush was involved in any way in the firings, Taylor said, ‘‘I don’t have any knowledge that he was.’’
    Taylor, who left the White House eight weeks ago for reasons she said were unrelated to the firings, was treading a rough line between obeying Bush’s order not to reveal internal White House deliberations and responding to a congressional subpoena compelling her to do so. Her lawyer, Neil Eggleston, sat at the witness table to advise her.
    ‘‘I’m trying to be consistent and perhaps have not done a great job of that,’’ Taylor said. ‘‘I have tried.’’
    The committee’s ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, said that may not be enough to protect her from a contempt citation for failing to answer many of the committee’s questions.
    ‘‘There’s no way you can come out a winner,’’ said Specter, R-Pa. ‘‘You might have been on safer legal ground if you’d said absolutely nothing.’’
    As for the prospects of pursuing a criminal citation for contempt of Congress, Leahy said only, ‘‘That’s a decision yet to be made.’’
    The exchange was part of proceedings that were as much about the ongoing dispute over what information the White House can keep secret as it was about the stated topic — the firings over the winter of eight U.S. attorneys.
    Loyal to Bush even outside the White House, Taylor said she was trying not to answer questions that might violate the president’s claim of executive privilege. At one point she reminded the committee that as a commissioned officer, ‘‘I took an oath and I take that oath to the president very seriously.’’
    Seeing a chance to weaken Taylor’s observance of Bush’s executive privilege claim, Leahy corrected her: She took an oath to uphold the Constitution, he said.
    ‘‘Your oath is not to uphold the president,’’ Leahy lectured her.
    Taylor began by telling the committee she would observe Bush’s directive to defy the subpoena and refuse to answer questions covered by executive privilege, unless a court ordered her to do so.
    Democrats insisted that the decision to cooperate — or not — with the subpoena was hers.
    ‘‘It is apparent that this White House is contemptuous of the Congress and feels that it does not have to explain itself to anybody,’’ Leahy, D-Vt., said as he opened the hearing. ‘‘I urge Ms. Taylor not to follow that contemptuous position and not to follow the White House down this path.’’
    With that, Democrats began to try to unravel Taylor’s adherence to Bush’s directions and prod her into answering their questions about who ordered the firings and why.
    Democrats noted that Taylor, 32, is a private citizen compelled by subpoena to testify, under threat of being held in contempt of Congress. During a first round of questioning, Leahy asked Taylor repeatedly whether she had met with or talked to Bush about the replacement of U.S. attorneys. Taylor repeatedly refused to answer, citing Bush’s instructions.
    She got some backup — at first — from Specter.
    ‘‘I think your declining to answer the last series of questions by the chairman was correct under the direction from White House counsel,’’ Specter said.
    ‘‘Whether White House counsel is correct on the assertion of executive privilege is a matter which will be decided by the courts,’’ Specter added. But, in the senator’s view, ‘‘congressional oversight has the better of the argument.’’
    Some lawmakers said Taylor’s decision to answer some questions weakened Bush’s executive privilege claim.
    ‘‘I think sometimes you’ve stepped on one side of the line and then not wanted to step on the other,’’ said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. ‘‘This broad claim of privilege doesn’t stand up.’’
    Apart from her comments about Bush, Taylor revealed a few other details: She said she did not recall ordering the addition or deletion of names to the list of prosecutors to be fired. Taylor said she had no knowledge that Bush was involved in the planning of whom to fire, an assertion that echoed previous statements by Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, his former chief of staff Kyle Sampson and Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty.
    Taylor disputed Sampson’s account that she wanted to avoid submitting a new prosecutor, Tim Griffin, through Senate confirmation.
    ‘‘I expected him to go through Senate confirmation,’’ Taylor said under questioning by Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
    Taylor also issued a stiff defense of her colleagues in the Bush administration.
    ‘‘I don’t believe there was any wrongdoing by anybody,’’ she said.
    Democrats said the same standard applied to a second former Bush aide, one-time White House counsel Harriet Miers. Miers, subpoenaed to appear before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday, said through her lawyer that she ‘‘cannot provide the documents and testimony that the committee seeks.’’

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