Former White House counsel Don McGahn. Picture: AFP/ BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI
Former White House counsel Don McGahn. Picture: AFP/ BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI

Washington — Amid growing talk in US Congress of impeaching President Donald Trump, the Democrat-led House of Representatives committee is set to hold a hearing on Tuesday, with or without testimony from Don McGahn, the White House’s former top lawyer.

McGahn, who left his post in October, was told by the Trump administration on Monday to disregard a House judiciary committee subpoena demanding that he appear at the hearing to discuss the Russian election meddling investigation.

In special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia report, McGahn was a key witness regarding possible obstruction of justice by the Republican president. Career prosecutors who are not involved in the case have said that the report contains strong evidence that Trump committed a crime when he pressured McGahn to fire Mueller and later urged him to lie about the episode.

The justice department issued a legal opinion saying McGahn did not need to appear. Late on Monday, McGahn’s lawyer, William Burck, wrote that his client would not testify before the committee unless the panel reached an agreement with the White House.

The committee’s Democratic chair, Jerrold Nadler, made clear the hearing would go ahead regardless. In a letter sent to McGahn late on Monday, Nadler told him he will “risk serious consequences” if he fails to show up to testify. “Should you fail to do so, the committee is prepared to use all enforcement mechanisms at its disposal,” Nadler wrote.

The White House’s open defiance of the committee follows a pattern of stonewalling of numerous congressional inquiries into Trump and his turbulent presidency.

Trump and most fellow Republicans in Congress dismiss the inquiries as political harassment ahead of the 2020 elections. However, House Republican Justin Amash, a frequent Trump critic and outspoken Michigan conservative, said over the weekend that the president “has engaged in impeachable conduct”.

Trump told reporters late on Monday outside the White House that Amash is “a loser”.

Second blow

On another front, in a legal setback for Trump, a US judge ruled against him on Monday in a case involving another House panel. The House oversight committee has subpoenaed Trump’s financial records from his long-time accounting firm Mazars.

In an unusual move, lawyers for Trump and the Trump Organization, his company, last month sued to try to block the subpoena. US district judge Amit Mehta in Washington ruled against Trump and denied his request for a stay pending appeal.

As a power struggle has escalated between Trump and Congress over its powers to investigate him, Democrats have raised growing concerns about the president’s conduct, especially since the mid-April release of the Mueller report. They also have accused him of ignoring the authority assigned to Congress under the constitution.

“We simply cannot sit by and allow this president to destroy the rule of law ... If Mr McGahn doesn’t testify tomorrow, I think it is probably appropriate for us to move forward with an impeachment inquiry,” Democratic Representative David Cicilline, a judiciary committee member, told MSNBC.

The redacted, 448-page report from Mueller, 22 months in the making, shows how Moscow interfered in the 2016 US presidential election in Trump’s favour and details Trump’s numerous attempts to impede Mueller’s probe.

The report found there was insufficient evidence to conclude that there was a criminal conspiracy between Moscow and the Trump campaign. It made no recommendation on whether Trump obstructed justice, leaving that question up to Congress.

“The president acted again and again — perhaps criminally — to protect himself from federal law enforcement. Don McGahn personally witnessed the most egregious of these acts ... [Trump] clearly does not want the American people to hear first-hand about his alleged misconduct,” Nadler said in a statement.

“Senior advisers to the president cannot simply refuse to appear in response to a congressional subpoena.” 

If McGahn fails to appear, he will follow the lead of attorney-general William Barr, who skipped a hearing before House judiciary committee on May 2.

The panel later voted to recommend that the full House hold Barr in contempt of Congress for refusing to release an unredacted version of the Mueller report. Nadler has threatened to hold McGahn in contempt if he fails to show up.

Earlier this month, Trump cited the controversial doctrine of executive privilege to block another judiciary committee subpoena seeking an unredacted version of Mueller’s final report.