Trump

In June 2017, according to the Mueller report, President Donald Trump directed Brigantine native and then-White House Counsel Don McGahn to call Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who oversaw the probe, and say Mueller must be ousted because he had conflicts of interest. McGahn refused, deciding he would rather resign than trigger a potential crisis akin to the Saturday Night Massacre of Watergate firings fame.

WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee asked a federal judge on Wednesday to compel testimony from former White House counsel Donald McGahn, whom lawmakers consider their “most important” witness in any potential impeachment proceeding against President Donald Trump.

McGahn figured prominently in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of whether Trump obstructed justice during the Justice Department’s probe of Russian interference in the 2016 election.

The committee subpoenaed him in April, but the White House blocked his testimony, claiming McGahn had “absolute” immunity.

McGahn is a graduate of Holy Spirit High School in Absecon, and his parents, Donald Sr. and Noreen, live in Brigantine.

Lawyers for the committee’s Democrats call the assertion “spurious” and say it has no grounding in case law.

The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, escalates the months-long feud between congressional Democrats and the president. It marks the first lawsuit Democrats have filed to force a witness to testify since they regained control of the House in the fall and subsequently launched a series of investigations into the president’s conduct and finances.

The House has not formally voted to launch impeachment proceedings, but Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has said the panel is pursuing an impeachment investigation.

“Given McGahn’s central role as a witness to the president’s wide-ranging, potentially obstructive conduct, the Judiciary Committee cannot fulfill its constitutional investigative, oversight and legislative responsibilities — including its consideration of whether to recommend articles of impeachment — without hearing from him,” the lawsuit says.

McGahn’s lawyer, William Burck, said in a statement that McGahn will abide by the president’s instructions absent a contrary decision from the court. McGahn, now a partner at Jones Day, “has an ethical obligation to protect client confidences,” Burck said. “Don does not believe he witnessed any violation of law. And the president instructed Don to cooperate fully with the special counsel but directed him not to testify to Congress unless the White House and the committee reached an accommodation.”

McGahn left the Trump administration in October.

The lawsuit says McGahn witnessed “nearly all of the most egregious episodes of possible presidential obstruction,” and his statements are mentioned in the special counsel’s 448-page report more than 160 times.

For instance, on June 17, 2017, three days after The Washington Post reported that the special counsel was investigating whether the president had obstructed justice and a month after Mueller was appointed, Trump called McGahn at home twice and directed him to fire Mueller over alleged conflicts of interest, the complaint says, citing the report.

McGahn declined, advising the president that this “would be ‘another fact used to claim obstruction of justice,’ ” the lawsuit says.

McGahn again resisted when the president sought to have him issue a public statement and a “letter” for White House records refuting media reports, published in January 2018, indicating that Trump had ordered McGahn to have Mueller fired the previous summer, according to the suit.

And he rebuffed the president’s effort in March 2017 to get him to pressure then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from the Russia probe, the lawsuit says. When McGahn declined, Trump “expressed anger at McGahn about the recusal,” the complaint says.

McGahn also was a “key witness” to the events leading up to Trump’s decisions to fire his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and then-FBI director James Comey in apparent attempts to end the Justice Department probe into Russia’s election interference and possible coordination with Trump associates, the complaint stated.

“McGahn is uniquely positioned to explain those events, bring additional misconduct to light, and provide evidence regarding the president’s intent,” the complaint says, noting that Trump has disputed significant portions of these events and accused McGahn of fabricating facts. “Live testimony from McGahn is essential” to resolving any conflicting accounts, it says.

The “absolute immunity” doctrine has no grounding in the Constitution, any statutes, or case law and never has been accepted by any court, Democrats argued in the lawsuit, which filed by House General Counsel Douglas Letter. The only federal judge to consider the issue was in the same courthouse more than a decade ago, the lawsuit notes. The judge in that case rejected the George W. Bush Administration’s claim of immunity for then-White House counsel Harriet Miers. As a result, she was forced to testify before the House Judiciary Committee over her role in the controversial firings of U.S. attorneys.

House Democrats are sharply divided on the question of impeachment, with just over half, including Nadler, favoring proceedings. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has argued that Democrats ought to use the courts to make their case against the president, and she has repeatedly pointed out that voters are less interested in impeachment than they are in issues like health care and the economy.

According to a recent poll, about 37 percent of Americans favor impeachment.

The lawsuit follows the committee’s motion filed in the same court last month to force the Justice Department to turn over grand jury information related to the Russia probe, which concluded in March after nearly two years.

Committee lawyers have been negotiating with McGahn and the White House for months, trying to secure his testimony. They reached an agreement with the White House in recent days for McGahn’s documents but hit an impasse on his appareance, leading to the lawsuit, they said.

They believe that McGahn can offer critical details about Trump’s intent and “emotional state” during the episodes described by Mueller’s report, which would help establish whether the president meant to obstruct justice or not, the lawyers said in a press call.

A favorable ruling would enable not only McGahn’s testimony but that of several others such as former communications director Hope Hicks, whose appearance the White House is blocking with a similar argument, the lawyers said.

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