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Political Animal

Tick, Tick, Tick

By Brian Morton | Posted 7/11/2007

By the time this column sees print, we will know if we are one step closer to a full constitutional clash between the White House and Congress that can only be sorted out by the Supreme Court. What's worse, with the total politicization of the judicial branch, from top to bottom, we can't even say for sure if the court's decision will be a sane one.

Today, July 9, as City Paper is being prepared for press, former White House political director Sara Taylor is under subpoena to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Except the White House is trying to claim executive privilege and has told Taylor to ignore the subpoena.

Think about that for a minute. The president of the United States is ordering a private citizen to disobey a legal summons to testify. Now remember back about 10 years ago, when all we heard from every legal talking head on television was "Rule of law! Rule of law!" This is exactly where the rubber meets the road when it comes to whether we are a nation of laws or of men. There's an argument to be made that the president deserves the right to get advice from his aides, but the American people have a right to answers. And I have yet to find anywhere in any body of U.S. law where the president has the right to tell a private citizen--since Taylor no longer works at the White House--to clam up and ignore a congressional subpoena.

A little over 30 years ago, we saw this kind of stonewalling between the White House and Congress, but even Richard Nixon didn't have the balls to make these outlandish legal arguments. What's funnier is that many of the players then are players now--Dick Cheney was Gerald Ford's deputy chief of staff after Nixon resigned, and Fred Fielding, counselor to the president then, is counselor to the president now.

The difference between the Nixon and Bush administrations is pretty obvious--George W. Bush, led by Cheney, is willing to go as far as necessary to ensure that the curtain surrounding their likely extralegal activities will never be drawn aside. As former Nixon counsel John Dean noted, the Bush White House can't be bothered with petty things like the War Powers Act, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the War Crimes Act, the Presidential Records Act, and the Geneva Conventions. It was Nixon who originally said, "If the president does it, that means it is not illegal."

It's not hard to imagine why Bush and Cheney are withholding records and trying to prevent a former employee from testifying--all you need to do is look back to the events surrounding Nixon's downfall in the summer of 1974. Right now, as they did then, the president's spokespeople are claiming that nothing illegal has occurred, despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. Then John Dean went and testified before Congress and let the cat out of the bag. After that, the Nixon administration tried to argue that it was Dean's word against the president's. After a young Republican attorney named Fred Thompson asked former Nixon aide Alexander Butterfield about the existence of a taping system in the White House, it was just a matter of time before the tapes emerged and the articles of impeachment introduced in the House of Representatives forced Nixon to go.

(One more interesting fact: Nixon's successor, Ford, vetoed a sizable expansion of the Freedom of Information Act, which came about as part of the reforms enacted after Watergate. Originally, Ford was in favor of the FOIA changes, but he was talked into the veto by his chief of staff and deputy chief of staff--Donald Rumsfeld and Cheney. Congress overrode the veto.)

We know Vice President Cheney is a student of history, which is why this White House will go to any lengths to make sure any physical evidence proving wrongdoing will never be found. Former Nixon counsel Dean pointed out in a recent column out that neighbors of the vice-presidential mansion regularly saw a truck for a document shredding company parked in Cheney's driveway. And as long as no documents come out proving the administration has been lying all along in its attempts to completely politicize the Justice Department, then it can continue to claim that nothing untoward has happened, and it's their word against the U.S. attorneys whose firing started the whole imbroglio.

Sooner or later, we may find out if this president has the temerity to say that even his former employees can't talk about him without his permission. If that happens, set the countdown clock, because it will then be a race between whether Bush's newly enshrined Republican Supreme Court will exonerate him, or whether Bush will slide down his slippery slope and out the door in January 2009 still saying, "You didn't lay a glove on me." Either way, look for the next Republican president, whenever that person is elected, to take up where Bush left off.

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