Friday 6 December 2019

Judge orders Trump's former counsel to testify to Congress

Testimony: Former White House counsel Donald McGahn spoke to the Mueller probe. Photo: Tom Williams/Pool via Reuters
Testimony: Former White House counsel Donald McGahn spoke to the Mueller probe. Photo: Tom Williams/Pool via Reuters

Mark Sherman

A federal judge has ordered former White House counsel Donald McGahn to appear before Congress in a setback to US President Donald Trump's effort to keep his top aides from testifying.

The outcome could lead to renewed efforts by House Democrats to force testimony from other high-ranking officials, including former national security adviser John Bolton.

Not even the Republican president's closest aides who receive subpoenas from Congress can "ignore or defy congressional compulsory process, by order of the president or otherwise", Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote in ruling on a lawsuit filed by the House Judiciary Committee.

"Stated simply, the primary takeaway from the past 250 years of recorded American history is that presidents are not kings," Judge Jackson wrote. "This means they do not have subjects, bound by loyalty or blood, whose destiny they are entitled to control."

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Mr McGahn was a star witness in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, and Democrats wanted to question Mr McGahn about possible obstruction of justice by Mr Trump. That was months before the House started an impeachment inquiry into Mr Trump's effort to get Ukraine to announce an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden.

The administration said it will appeal the ruling.

"This decision contradicts long-standing legal precedent established by administrations of both political parties," White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said.

"We will appeal and are confident that the important constitutional principle advanced by the administration will be vindicated."

The Justice Department will seek to put the ruling on hold in the meantime, department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said.

William Burck, an attorney for Mr McGahn, said the former White House counsel will comply with the subpoena, absent a court-imposed stay.

Democratic Congressman Jerrold Nadler, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said he hoped Mr McGahn would "promptly appear before the committee".

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement calling Judge Jackson's decision "yet another resounding ruling that the administration's claim of 'absolute immunity' from Congress's subpoenas has no basis in the law or our democracy, and must immediately cease".

The White House has argued that Mr McGahn and other witnesses have "absolute immunity" from testifying.

But such immunity "simply does not exist," Judge Jackson wrote in a 118-page ruling.

"That is to say, however busy or essential a presidential aide might be, and whatever their proximity to sensitive domestic and national-security projects, the president does not have the power to excuse him or her" from complying with a valid congressional subpoena, Judge Jackson wrote. She is an appointee of former president Barack Obama.

Whether Mr McGahn has to provide all the information Congress seeks, though, is another matter, the judge wrote. The president may be able to assert "executive privilege" on some sensitive issues, she wrote.

Mr McGahn was a vital witness for Mr Mueller, whose April report detailed the president's outrage over the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and Mr Trump's efforts to curtail it.

In interviews with Mr Mueller's team, Mr McGahn described being called at home by the president on the night of June 17, 2017, and being directed to call the Justice Department and say Mr Mueller had conflicts of interest and should be removed. Mr McGahn declined the command, deciding he would resign rather than carry it out, the report said.

Once that episode became public in the news media, the report said, the president demanded that Mr McGahn dispute the news stories and asked him why he had told Mr Mueller about it and why he had taken notes of their conversations.

Mr McGahn refused to back down.

Irish Independent

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