WASHINGTON • Former White House counsel Don McGahn has defied a congressional subpoena by declining to testify before the House Judiciary Committee about the Russian investigation at the direction of the White House.
The hearing room chair reserved for Mr McGahn yesterday sat empty behind microphones, as committee chairman Jerrold Nadler opened the hearing.
"This conduct is not remotely acceptable," Mr Nadler said, referring to the White House's instruction to Mr McGahn not to appear. "Let me be clear: This committee will hear Mr McGahn's testimony, even if we have to go to court to secure it."
"We will hold this President accountable - one way or the other," said Mr Nadler, who had warned earlier that Mr McGahn could be held in contempt for not testifying.
The committee is investigating whether President Donald Trump illegally obstructed the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 election that put him in office. It wants to quiz Mr McGahn after he figured prominently in a report by special counsel Robert Mueller about the Russia probe and whether Mr Trump had committed obstruction of justice.
But in a letter to the committee on Monday, White House counsel Pat Cipollone said Mr McGahn should not appear due to both "constitutional immunity" and "in order to protect the prerogatives of the Office of the Presidency". Mr Nadler responded by saying Mr Trump was trying to block damaging testimony about his obstruction of justice.
"The President acted again and again - perhaps criminally - to protect himself from federal law enforcement. Don McGahn personally witnessed the most egregious of these acts," Mr Nadler said.
"President Trump knows this. He clearly does not want the American people to hear firsthand about his alleged misconduct."
In his report, Mr Mueller cited Mr McGahn as saying that Mr Trump called him several times in June 2017 to tell him to direct the Justice Department to remove Mr Mueller because of conflicts of interest.
Mr McGahn did not carry out Mr Trump's order. Later, when news articles about the incident surfaced, Mr McGahn told Mr Mueller's investigators that Mr Trump tried to get him to dispute the accuracy of the reports. Mr McGahn again refused.
Many Democratic lawmakers, as well as many former prosecutors not involved in the investigation, have said the alleged order by the President to fire Mr Mueller and attempt to coerce Mr McGahn to lie about it could amount to committing the crime of obstruction. Mr Trump has denied any wrongdoing and said he did not ask Mr McGahn to have Mr Mueller removed.
Mr Mueller's report described numerous links between Mr Trump's 2016 campaign and various Russians but did not find sufficient evidence to establish there was a criminal conspiracy with Moscow.
Mr Mueller also described numerous attempts by Mr Trump to impede the investigation, but stopped short of declaring that the President had committed a crime.
US Attorney-General William Barr determined after reviewing Mr Mueller's findings that there was insufficient evidence to bring criminal obstruction charges against the President.
Mr Nadler's committee has been locked in multiple battles with the Trump administration over access to information contained in Mr Mueller's report.
Mr Trump had said after the release of the report in March that it showed he was exonerated of colluding with Russia and obstruction of justice. He has hardened his administration's position of defying the legal demands of Democrats in Congress, who want more information on the Russia investigation and Mr Trump's taxes and business dealings.
Earlier this month, the committee voted to hold Mr Barr in contempt after he defied a subpoena seeking an unredacted copy of the Mueller report and its underlying investigative materials.
The latest direction from the White House to ignore the subpoena against Mr McGahn has angered Democrats, leading several to issue calls to begin impeachment proceedings.
"Stonewalling Congress on witnesses and the unredacted Mueller report only enhances the President's appearance of guilt, and as a result, he has pushed Congress to a point where we must start an impeachment inquiry," said Democrat Mark Pocan, who leads the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
House Democrats have scheduled a meeting for this morning for party members to get an update on oversight and investigations, according to a House Democratic aide.