ABC News’ Theresa Cook, Jason Ryan and Jennifer Duck Report: A seat at a witness table in a Senate hearing room reserved for Karl Rove remained empty Thursday, as the White House’s top political advisor did not comply with a subpoena issued in the ongoing investigation into the firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year.
Rove’s deputy J. Scott Jennings did attend the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, though he was not able to satiate the panel’s appetite for answers.
Jennings began the hearing by repeatedly declining to answer questions, invoking a claim of executive privilege. Late Wednesday, White House Counsel Fred Fielding issued a letter to the panel, notifying its members that the President chose to exercise the claim of executive privilege regarding the testimony of the aides.
Jennings repeatedly answered, "Senator, pursuant to the president’s assertion of executive privilege, I must respectfully decline to answer."
"It sounds to me like the American taxpayers are paying you to stonewall," Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., told Jennings after his refusal to answer during Leahy’s first round of questions.
Leahy called the executive privilege claim "bogus," and said the executive branch has shown a "total lack of cooperation" and has just been "stonewalling."
But Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, criticized the Democrats’ actions in the ongoing investigation into the U.S. attorney firings.
"They chose to ask questions they know witnesses cannot answer and then they yell about a cover-up," Hatch charged.
"I wish that they had followed another course," Hatch said of the Democrats’ wrangling.
He said the result has been the "trashing of reputations and undermining of careers of hard-working career or public servants and the misleading of the American public about the proper relationship between the legislative and executive branches."
White House Press Secretary Tony Snow was asked in Thursday’s press briefing why Jennings appeared before Congress, but not Rove.
When it comes to executive privilege, those who are not required to testify are those who meet on a regular basis with the president," Snow explained. "Scott Jennings was not somebody who met on a regular basis with the president."
"On the other hand, when matters of executive privilege do come up, they’re not compelled to give testimony or hand over documents," Snow added.
Snow’s reasoning echoes the letter from Fielding, which specifically cites Rove, noting that he is an immediate presidential advisor and therefore is "immune and compelled from congressional testimony."
Congressional committees have also issued subpoenas to former White House counsel Harriet Miers, former political director Sara Taylor, chief of staff Joshua Bolten and the Republican National Committee.
Miers did not show up for a scheduled hearing last month, and the White House also declined to allow Bolten to turn over documents the members of Congress were seeking. Late last month, the House Judiciary Committee voted along party lines to advance contempt charges against Miers and Bolten to the full House of Representatives.
Taylor did appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee July 11, but provided few answers, citing the President’s directive.
The RNC faced a July 31 deadline to respond its subpoena. The House Judiciary Committee confirmed Thursday that the RNC is withholding some documents the committee is seeking, citing instructions from the White House.