WASHINGTON: A US appeals court on Friday began hearing arguments in a bid by President Donald Trump’s administration to block former White House Counsel Don McGahn from testifying to a congressional committee as part of the impeachment effort against Trump.
The case was being heard by a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The arguments came in the administration’s appeal of a Nov 25 ruling by US District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson that McGahn must comply with an April subpoena from the Democratic-led House of Representatives Judiciary Committee.
The panel filed suit seeking to enforce its subpoena for McGahn to testify about Trump’s efforts to impede former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that documented Russian interference in the 2016 election and numerous contacts between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.
The administration has directed current and former officials not to comply with congressional subpoenas for testimony and documents. McGahn, who left his post in October 2018, defied the subpoena but has said he would comply if ordered to by a court.
The committee’s lawsuit was filed in August, a month before the House launched its impeachment inquiry against the Republican president centering on his request that Ukraine investigate Democratic political rival Joe Biden and his son.
The House on Dec 18 passed two articles of impeachment — formal charges —accusing Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
In a court filing, House lawyers said McGahn’s testimony was still vital to the impeachment proceedings and could affect the House’s strategy for the expected trial in the Republican-led Senate to determine whether Trump will be removed from office. The House has also not ruled out McGahn’s testimony giving rise to an additional article of impeachment.
Trump has denied wrongdoing and accused Democrats of trying to nullify the results of the 2016 election that brought him to power.
The three appeals court judges are Republican appointees Thomas Griffith and Karen Henderson and Democratic appointee Judith Rogers.
The Trump administration has argued that senior presidential advisers are “absolutely immune” from being forced to testify before Congress about official acts. The lower court judge rejected that argument, declaring that “no one is above the law.” A report by Mueller, released by the Justice Department in redacted form in April, portrayed McGahn as one of the few figures in Trump’s orbit to challenge him when he tried to have the special counsel, who was appointed by the Justice Department in May 2017, removed.
According to the Mueller report, McGahn told Mueller’s team that Trump repeatedly instructed him to have the special counsel ousted and then asked him to deny having been so instructed when word of the action emerged in news reports. McGahn did not carry out either instruction.
Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer is pressing for the Senate to hear testimony during the impeachment trial from current and former Trump aides who refused to cooperate with the House impeachment inquiry.
The appeals court will also hear arguments on Friday in a separate lawsuit by the House Judiciary Committee seeking access to grand jury evidence from the Mueller investigation. A judge ruled in October that the information should be produced to Congress, rejecting the Justice Department’s arguments that by law it must be kept confidential.