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Yesterday, a defiant George Bush insulted, mocked and dared Conressional Democrats to issue subpoenas to White House aides over the investigation into his firing of eight US Attorneys. In the process, he signalled that he was circling the White House wagons around Karl Rove, while making Attorney General Gonzales stand on the perimeter to fight off the enemy, some of whom look curiously like Republicans. Should Gonzales worry more about arrows coming from outside or inside the circle? From yesterday’s New York Times:

WASHINGTON, March 20 — President Bush and Senate Democrats clashed angrily this afternoon, as the president said he would not allow his key aides to testify under oath about the dismissal of United States attorneys, while the Democrats insisted they would settle for no less.

Mr. Bush reiterated his support for his embattled attorney general, Alberto R. Gonzales, and said Mr. Gonzales would testify before the appropriate legislative committees. But Mr. Bush said he would only allow close White House aides to be interviewed privately by the lawmakers rather than be placed under oath.

“We will not go along with a partisan fishing expedition aimed at honorable public servants,” Mr. Bush said, vowing to fight any attempt by Congress to subpoena his top political adviser, Karl Rove; the former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers and others.

“Initial response by Democrats, unfortunately, shows some appear more interested in scoring political points than in learning the facts,” Mr. Bush said. “It will be regrettable if they choose to head down the partisan road of issuing subpoenas and demanding show trials when I have agreed to make key White House officials and documents available.”

Those e-mails we’ve been following only partly reveal the roles of Rove, White House Counsel Harriet Miers, and others in the WH; they apparently do not reveal the conversations the WH officials had internally with each other or with the President about the reasons for the USA firings and who actually made or influenced the decisions about who would be fired. That’s what the Democrats want to know, because they’re convinced that the firing decisions were motivated by the desire to remove USAs who showed either excessive zeal in prosecuting Republicans (as in Lam nailing Cunningham and threatening Lewis) or insufficient zeal in going after Democrats.

The President’s offer is calculated to inflame the Democrats: Rove and his WH colleagues may be privately interviewed without recordings, but they will not respond to subpoenas nor testify in public or under oath. Jane explained how that works.

The Democrats will likely take the bait and move forward with subpoenas, because they can hardly back down after proclaiming that nothing short of testifying under oath would do. Do they know where they’re going next?

As I mused last week, we may be looking at the opening moves of the end game that determines whether we are headed towards impeachment and/or possible resignation or whether the President’s protectors can forestall that and “run out the clock,” not just with the US Attorney investigation, as Kyle Sampson suggested in one of his e-mails, but with the entire Bush presidency.

I’m still surprised that of all the lies, crimes and outrages in the Bush/Cheney regime, the USA matter could become the vehicle for the Bush vs Congressional confrontation. The firings may yet become the major scandal we all suspect it is, a key piece of the political subversion of the Justice Department, but getting the underlying facts to support obstruction of justice charges will take more digging and some luck. And the President’s end-game counsel, Fred Fielding, may well be betting Bush’s presidency on the hope that there’s not enough there there to take down a President. My guess is that he’d rather take his chances on this issue than the more obvious lawbreaking still being committed by, e.g., the FBI and NSA and the interrogators at Guantanamo.

There’s no reason why the Democrats should allow the White House to define the playing field or limit the issues they can explore via White House subpoenas. My hope, FWIW, is that the Democrats announce they intend to use the full extent of Congress’ investigative powers across the entire spectrum of Administration lawbreaking. Why not, for example, announce a broad investigation over the abuse of justice and disregard of the rule of law in the Bush/Gonzales Justice Department, and then fold the firing of the US Attorneys into that broader investigation. If the issue of subpoenas is headed to the Supreme Court, let the justices see the full pattern of lawnessness, including the DOJ’s manipulation of the courts in the detention and NSA cases, the FBI’s abuse of national security letters, Gonzales’ complicity in quashing any investigation into the DoJ’s role in NSA spying, the failure to pursue Rove’s role in the Plame outing and on and on . . . Show them the whole egregious pile and then suggest we need to know whether Rove is one of the ponies, part of a pattern of coverups, not just whether Karl Rove should testify in public about the firing of US attorneys. To get the public behind them, the Democrats need to reveal the full picture of DOJ’s lawlessness and show the USA matter was part of this broader pattern — just as though they were laying the groundwork for an impeachment resolution, whether for Gonzales or Bush.

As Atrios notes we’ve been here before. More from digby and Glenn Greenwald, and a NYT editorial.

UPDATE: (h/t Frank Probst) Josh’s rakers find an 18-day gap! Oh, Rosemary!