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"Bud is lazy – which is why we got rid of him in the first place."

That's what Sara Taylor, Karl Rove's senior aide, wrote to Kyle Sampson in February of this year. During the hearing this morning, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) wanted to know: who was "we"?* Who'd decided that U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins was lazy? And who decided on that basis to "get rid of him?" It certainly doesn't sound from the email that this was the Justice Department's decision.

A few answers, several digressions, and many minutes later, Taylor finally refused to answer the question and invoked executive privilege to protect internal White House deliberations.

Sen. Whitehouse responded that it was a prime example of the "ludicrous and extreme" assertion of privilege by the administration that Taylor couldn't testify about an email that the committee already had.

It's case in point for why Democrats want to hear more from Taylor and others to find out whether the White House was behind the firings.

*Note: "We," Taylor said, was "the administration" -- of which both Justice Department appointees and White House officials are a part.

Taylor apologized earlier in the hearing for calling Cummins lazy.

On the same day President Bush commuted Scooter Libby's prison sentence, Vietnam veteran Victor Rita reported for the start of his 33-month term.

The two cases are strikingly similar: both defendants were convicted of perjury and obstruction, both had a history of public service and both were sentenced to similar prison terms. Rita appealed his sentence to the Supreme Court, where he lost. Libby, of course, didn't spend a day behind bars.

Rita's attorney, Tom Cochran, a public defender from North Carolina, testified before a House Judiciary Committee hearing today on the president's commutation power. Here, he lays out the similarities between his client's case and Libby's:

Later in the hearing Cochran explained that his complaint is not that Bush commuted Libby's sentence.

"It's an issue of fairness," he said.

Harriet Miers' attorney has told the House Judiciary Committee that she will not appear for her scheduled hearing tomorrow -- taking a much different tack from that taken by Sara Taylor today.

In his letter to the committee sent last night, Miers' attorney George Manning referred back to his letter sent Monday, in which he said that "Ms. Miers has no choice other than to comply with direction given her by Counsel to the president."

As Marty Lederman lays out here, the president's assertion of executive privilege is not legally binding -- but the committee's subpoena is. Miers could defy the president's direction (such as it is), or take the approach Taylor chose and refuse to answer certain questions.

Chairman Conyers responded in a letter to Manning:

"A congressional subpoena, such as the one issued to Ms. Miers, carries with it two obligations: the obligation to appear, and the obligation to testify and/or produce documents. Even if a witness intends to assert privilege in response to a subpoena, that intention to assert privilege does not obviate the obligation to appear....

A refusal to appear before the Subcommittee tomorrow could subject Ms. Miers to contempt proceedings, including but not limited to proceedings under 2 U.S.C. § 194 and under the inherent contempt authority of the House of Representatives.

We are prepared at the hearing tomorrow to consider and rule on any specific assertions of privilege in response to specific questions. We strongly urge you to reconsider, and to advise your client to appear before the Subcommittee tomorrow pursuant to her legal obligations.

The committee will meet tomorrow morning, regardless of whether Miers shows.

The family that's investigated together, stays together.

Sen. Ted Stevens' (R-AK) said his fellow senators have stood by him now that he faces federal scrutiny for his involvement with oil field services company Veco Corp.

During an interview with reporters last week in Alaska, a local public radio station grabbed audio of Stevens saying:

There is sort of a cloud out there, but it's not harmed my role as a senator for Alaska, if anything, it's is a strange thing, it's enhanced it because senators read papers too, and it's sort of a family, the senate family comes around when someone's got a problem. And they've all encouraged me: "Don't get excited about this because so many people have been through it in their own states and it's not an easy thing."

Too bad Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) wasn't around to provide a shoulder to cry on.

The audio is online here.

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a former U.S. attorney himself, pursued the most grueling, unrelenting and outright damning line of questioning of the day.

Whitehouse wanted an answer to a simple question. The topic was those by-now famous briefings that Karl Rove and his aides (Taylor included) gave at a number of agencies throughout the federal government. The slides from one of those briefings, given at the General Services Administration, showed that Rove's aides had briefed officials there on which Republican Congressional candidates were in danger.

Whitehouse wanted to know: during those briefings that Taylor gave, did she mention the "names of particular candidates?"

It took about three minutes for a rambling, stuttering Taylor to admit it. Taylor didn't want to. She talked about how the briefings were "informative," how they were meant to "thank employees," how they were meant to impart some knowledge about the "political landscape." Finally, she admitted, "It's hard to give the landscape without talking about the people who were the stars in the show."

But she wanted to make clear: “The purpose of those briefings was to inform people, it was not to direct people.” That, of course, is the narrow distinction on which Rove has relied.

"I took an oath the president, and I take that oath very seriously," Sara Taylor said in answer to a question early in the hearing.

And right after a break, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) asked her if she was sure about that. "Did you mean, perhaps, you took an oath to the Constitution?" Leahy asked. It was a telling exchange.

"I know that the president refers to the government being his government -- it's not," Leahy reminded her.

A couple revealing moments from the hearing:

Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) asked Taylor whether any other administrations had fired 10% of the U.S. attorneys in the middle of a term. The answer is no. But Taylor wasn't sure -- maybe Clinton or Reagan had done it in a "more artful" way?

Later, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) wanted to know whether Taylor had ever gotten specific complaints from Republicans around the country about certain U.S. attorneys. Taylor said she couldn't remember, because she'd gotten so many complaints about so many things. In fact, Taylor said, “I can’t remember what I had for breakfast last week.”

The former U.S. Attorney for Little Rock Bud Cummins was going to step down, and Karl Rove's former aide Timothy Griffin was just the logical one to replace him -- that's the story Sara Taylor told today, under questioning from Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA).

You can see her lay it out here:

It all sounds so harmless. But there's a number of problems with that. First, if Bud Cummins had long planned to step down, no one told him that. Taylor cited press accounts that Cummins was looking to retire as U.S. attorney, but Cummins had not informed his superiors at the Justice Department that he was leaving and had not requested to be replaced. And when Deputy Attorney General Paul McNulty testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last February, he said that Cummins had been fired in order for Griffin to take his place.

Taylor couldn't account for that discrepancy, only saying that everything would gone better (it was "awkwardly handled") if there had been "better communication."

But there's another problem with that, which Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) pointed out in her questioning.

Taylor had written in an email to Kyle Sampson after the firings that Cummins was "lazy," which was "why we got rid of him in the first place."

Taylor apologized to Feinstein for that "unnecessary comment" and said that she'd "heard that," but that it was not a fair comment.

Karl Rove and his aides at the White House have regularly used email accounts provided by the Republican National Committee to send and receive emails that should have been sent and received on the official White House system under the Presidential Records Act. When Sen. Leahy asked Taylor about this, she said that the email system had been created in order to avoid violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits the use of government resources for political means.

That's true, of course, except that Rove and his aides seem to have used the RNC emails for just about everything, regardless of whether it was a political matter. When Leahy pressed Taylor as to why she'd emailed Justice Department aide Kyle Sampson about the replacement of U.S. attorneys using her RNC account, Taylor answered that she'd done it as "someone trying to be efficient with their time." If so, Rove's shop must have been very efficient.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) wanted to know: Since the 2004 election, had Sara Taylor spoken with the president about replacing U.S. attorneys?

Taylor declined to answer, citing the president's invocation of privilege. Leahy replied that he wasn't after the content of the discussion, just whether it occurred. Taylor declined again.

It's just a sample of the testimony as it's progressed this morning, where Taylor has actually answered a number of questions that would seem to be covered by privilege, but not others. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) later remarked that Taylor's willingness to answer certain questions had "weakened" the White House's claim of privilege.

Update: Later in the hearing, Taylor answered the question -- it was no.