Donald Trump’s efforts to prevent his top aides from giving evidence in his impeachment hearing have been dealt a blow after a federal judge ordered former White House counsel Donald McGahn to appear before Congress.
The decision could lead to renewed efforts by Democrats to compel evidence from other high-ranking officials, including former national security adviser John Bolton.
Mr McGahn was a star witness in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, and Democrats want to question him about possible obstruction of justice by the president.
That came just months before the House opened an impeachment inquiry into Mr Trump‘s effort to get Ukraine to announce an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden.
The White House is set to appeal, arguing Mr McGahn and other witnesses have “absolute immunity” from giving evidence.
But Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson disputed the administration’s reasoning 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.
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Whether Mr McGahn has to provide all the information Congress seeks is another matter, the judge wrote. The president may be able to assert “executive privilege” on some sensitive issues, she said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement saying the decision was “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”.
Mr McGahn was a vital witness for Mr Mueller, whose April report detailed the president’s outrage over the investigation into Russian meddling 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 17 June 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.
House Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry have yet to try to force Mr Bolton to give evidence, and a subpoena for his former deputy, Charles Kupperman, to appear was withdrawn.
Democrats have said they do not want to get bogged down in court fights over evidence.