White House staff could be made to testify before Congress, according to a US Federal Judge who rejected the Trump administration’s claims of immunity.
Former White House Counsel Don McGahn will be compelled to testify to an inquiry into Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to the ruling.
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In her ruling, US District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson said: “No one is above the law.
“Executive branch officials are not absolutely immune from compulsory congressional process – no matter how many times the executive branch has asserted as much over the years – even if the president expressly directs such officials’ noncompliance.”
Judge Jackson added that the president does not have the power to stop his aides responding to subpoenas from congress.
But the administration will appeal the ruling, with White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham saying: “This decision contradicts longstanding legal precedent established by administrations of both political parties.
“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.
Republican Jerrold Nadler, the Judiciary Committee chairman, said he hoped Mr McGahn would “promptly appear before the committee.”
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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi released a statement calling 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,” Ms Jackson wrote in a 118-page ruling.
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 added.
Mr McGahn was a vital witness for Robert Mueller, whose April report detailed the president’s outrage over the investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election and 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.
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.
It’s unclear if Mr McGahn’s testimony would include any new revelations beyond what Mr Mueller has already released.
Mr Mueller concluded that he could not exonerate the president on obstruction of justice, but also that there was insufficient evidence to prove a criminal conspiracy between Mr Trump’s campaign and Russia.
House Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry have yet to try to force John Bolton to testify, and a subpoena for his former deputy, Charles Kupperman, to appear was withdrawn.
Democrats have said they don’t want to get bogged down in court fights over testimony.
Additional reporting by agencies