COMMENTS: Duel on Pennsylvania Avenue

The President threw down the gauntlet yesterday. Today a House panel signaled that it intended to pick that glove up. George Bush led all three newscasts yesterday when he suggested that his aides talk to Congress informally about why those eight federal prosecutors were let go--instead of on the record and under oath. In response a sub-committee approved sub-poenas for White House operative Karl Rove and two colleagues insisting on formal testimony--although the summons have not yet been served. That procedural vote was the undeserved Story of the Day and the lead item on NBC's newscast. CBS led with the War on Drugs, ABC with Al Gore on global warming.

All that attention was undeserved because there was no substance to advance the US Attorneys story. None of the networks offered even a snippet of new information about the underlying circumstances of the firings. Instead we heard dueling soundbites as the tussle over testimony begins. NBC and CBS assigned the story to their White House correspondents. CBS' Jim Axelrod found "the battle lines now drawn" as "Congress is pushing back hard." NBC's David Gregory called it a "dispute about ground rules…a gathering political storm." ABC had Jake Tapper (subscription required) file from Capitol Hill but he came to the same conclusion: he found "a major showdown" with "each side waiting for the other to blink."

Justice Department correspondent Pete Williams followed up for NBC, but, again, not on the underlying story. He offered a primer on how rarely the White House claim of executive privilege has been invoked: "The number of actual big showdowns with subpoenas and court fights is quite small." In the past 60 years, 49 senior White House aides have testified under oath and only seven have refused. If this feud turns out to be an exception, CBS legal analyst Andrew Cohen suggested to Axelrod, "the executive branch has a trump card here, which is a quite conservative judiciary."


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