A United States congressional committee chairman issued subpoenas to two more former White House aides hours after being spurned by White House Counsel Donald McGahn at a hearing on Tuesday.
Trump stands next to former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks outside of the Oval Office [File: Carlos Barria/Reuters]
The subpoenas came as Democratic politicians negotiated for testimony by Special Counsel Robert Mueller and debated impeaching President Donald Trump.
Heeding Trump’s instructions to ignore a subpoena from the Democratic-led House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, McGahn failed to show up for scheduled testimony before the panel on Thursday morning.
Undeterred in a growing conflict with Trump over congressional powers to oversee his administration, committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler announced he has issued fresh subpoenas to former White House Communications Director Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson, the former chief of staff to McGahn.
The subpoenas seek testimony and documents in connection with the committee’s probe into whether Trump obstructed Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US election.
Despite McGahn’s no-show, the committee held a hearing lasting about a half-hour that featured an empty chair at the witness table. Nadler said at the hearing, “Let me be clear: this committee will hear Mr McGahn’s testimony, even if we have to go to court to secure it.”
Attorney General William Barr, the top US law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, on May 2 snubbed the same committee, which later voted to hold him in contempt of Congress for not handing over a full, unredacted Mueller report.
At the hearing skipped by Barr, an empty chair also figured prominently and a Democratic committee member placed a ceramic chicken on the table in front of it for the cameras. The ceramic chicken did not make a repeat appearance on Tuesday.
After the hearing where McGahn was a no-show, several Democrats said the Judiciary Committee was negotiating with Mueller about his possible testimony. A redacted version of Mueller’s report was released by Barr last month.
“We are working with his team on that right now. I can’t tell you for sure if he’s going to come,” said Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a Democratic member of the committee.
Republicans derided Tuesday’s session as a political stunt and an abuse of the hearing process. “This is becoming a regular event. It’s called the circus of Judiciary,” the panel’s top Republican, Representative Doug Collins, said after the hearing.
In the early days of Trump’s presidency, few aides had more frequent access to him than Hicks, a public relations consultant that Trump hired into the White House from his daughter Ivanka’s staff. She rose to the position of communications director, but resigned from the White House in March 2018.
Trump, seeking re-election in 2020, is refusing to cooperate with many probes into his administration, his family and his business interests. The White House on Monday told McGahn, who left his post in October, to disregard the Judiciary Committee’s subpoena.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, who is locked in another legal battle with Trump over access to his financial records, told reporters on Tuesday that Democrats are “moving more and more” toward using impeachment as an option in the showdown with Trump.
Taking it a step further, Democratic Representative Diana DeGette said on Twitter: “The facts laid out in the Mueller report, coupled with this administration’s ongoing attempts to stonewall Congress, leave us no choice: It is time for Congress to officially launch an impeachment inquiry against the President of the United States.”
Other Democrats remained cautious, however, saying a federal judge’s decision against Trump on Monday in a subpoena case shows a step-by-step approach in the courts will bring results.
US District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington blocked a lawsuit by Trump that attempted to quash a subpoena sent by Cummings’ to Trump’s long-time accounting firm Mazars LLP seeking his financial records. Trump has appealed the case.
It was not immediately clear when Democrats might pursue a contempt citation against McGahn. The rules require 48-hours notice, but many House members will be flying out of town on Thursday for the Memorial Day holiday, a logistical challenge that means any contempt vote would be unlikely before June.
In the Mueller report, McGahn was a key witness regarding possible obstruction of justice by Trump. Career prosecutors who are not involved in the case have said the report contained strong evidence that Trump committed a crime when he pressured McGahn to fire Mueller and later urged him to lie about it.
Any impeachment effort would take place in the House, led by the Judiciary Committee, before trial in the Republican-led Senate would decide whether to remove Trump from office.
No US president has ever been removed from office through impeachment, a process spelled out in the Constitution.
Democrats have debated for months whether to initiate the process, with some legislators clamouring for it, but senior leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, has counselled caution for fear of a voter backlash that could benefit Trump.
The redacted, 448-page Mueller report, 22 months in the making, showed how Moscow interfered in the 2016 US presidential election in Trump’s favour and detailed Trump’s attempts to impede Mueller’s probe.
The report found there was insufficient evidence to conclude that a criminal conspiracy between Moscow and the Trump campaign had taken place. It made no recommendation on whether Trump obstructed justice, leaving that question up to Congress.