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White House swiftly pushes back on Solyndra subpoena

Obama White House officials mounted a swift counter-offensive Thursday over a congressional vote to subpoena internal emails relating to the Solyndra loan, calling the vote by the House Energy and Commerce committee an unprecedented and unjustified intrusion on confidential executive branch communications.

The subpoena "is a fishing expedition {and} a political stunt and which is designed to tie up White House staff," one senior administration official told NBC News. Officials signaled they are prepared to invoke executive privilege, if necessary, setting up a potential political and constitutional showdown between the president and the GOP controlled House.

The committee’s 14 to 9 vote follows a months-long investigation into a problem plagued Energy Department loan that has cost taxpayers $535 million. It also came just hours after the White House released more embarrassing emails relating to Solyndra, indicating that officials were well aware of potential problems with the solar maker well before the company filed for bankruptcy.

On Nov. 3, 2010, for example, Kenneth Baer, a senior Office of Management and Budget communications official, forwarded an email to senior officials throughout the administration containing a trade press story with the headline: "Solyndra Spells Disaster for DOE Loan Guarantee Program."

Six minutes later, Rod O’Conner, Energy Secretary Steve Chu’s chief of staff, replied: "Great day all around. Want to kill someone."

"You are not alone," Heather Zichal, deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change policy, replied four minutes after that.

Last September, Solyndra filed for bankruptcy and its offices were raided by the FBI, part of a federal probe into the firm’s dealings with the government. Republicans say they want to know whether the decision to grant the loan was influenced by political cronyism since one of the lead investors in Solyndra was a prominent political donor to the president, Tulsa billionaire George Kaiser, who had multiple meetings at the White House.

"It's time we get to the bottom of his whole mess," said Rep. Fred Upton, the chairman of the House panel, during today’s committee vote.

But White House officials say they have already turned over thousands of pages of documents containing communications between White House officials and the Energy Department. None back up the "political influence" charge, they say. They also say they have tried without success to negotiate a compromise with House Republicans over those documents still being sought- internal White House memos and emails, including those sent from the president’s BlackBerry, that mention the word "Solyndra." One official said that the material being sought could involve "tens of thousands of pages" but that most of them are press clips and routine communications among the president’s advance staff involving President Obama’s visit to Solyndra in May 2010.

Still, the subpoena could put Obama in an awkward position since he had sharply criticized President Bush for invoking executive privilege. (At the top of their press release Thursday announcing the subpoena vote, House Republicans recycled a quote from President Obama the day after he took office: "The government should not keep information confidental merely because public official smight be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.")

But Obama officials noted today that the president’s previous criticism of Bush’s executive privilege claims was restricted to cases where documents were being sought for investigations looking into serious wrongdoing involving the Bush administration.

While acknowledging that Solyndra may have been a "bad loan," one White House official said: "Where is the evidence of wrongdoing?"

Although they wouldn’t address the question directly, White House officials appeared to leave little doubt they are prepared to make an executive privilege if House Republicans won’t compromise. A recent letter from Kathryn Ruemmler, White House counsel, described the request for documents as encroaching upon ng "longstanding and significant institutional Executive Branch confidentiality interests" -- standard language that precedes executive privilege claims.