Following a vote by the House to formally recognize an existing impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Thursday, federal courts weighed whether the administration has a legal right to block witnesses from testifying.
Attorneys for the Justice Department argued in U.S. District Court that House Democrats can’t force any member of the Trump administration by subpoena to appear for testimony, such as former White House counsel Don McGhan.
An eventual decision by Judge Katanji Brown Jackson will have major influence on the current impeachment inquiry, which is not the same, traditionally, as a regular impeachment probe because the House has yet to return articles of impeachment and vote on them.
Still, so far the Trump administration has been mostly successful in blocking administration figures from providing testimony and cooperating with the inquiry.
That’s a change in tactics, considering that the Trump administration cooperated fully with former special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into alleged Russian collusion.
A separate legal challenge, brought by former deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman, asks a federal court to decide whether he has to appear for a deposition or comply with the White House’s order for him to ignore a subpoena.
“Kupperman is in a classic catch-22,” his attorney, Charles Cooper, said at one of the hearings in Washington, D.C., federal court Thursday. “He cannot satisfy both of them, but he is perfectly prepared to satisfy whichever command this court says is valid.”
Judge Richard Leon set a Dec. 10 court date for oral arguments in the Kupperman suit. However, it’s likely House investigators will move to depose him way before that.
Both cases will most likely have a major lasting impact on how the House proceeds with its impeachment inquiry.
The White House is arguing that Trump administration officials have “complete immunity” from congressional subpoenas, and that the president has the right to exercise executive privilege — at least until articles of impeachment are returned and a formal impeachment begins.
At that point, the president’s legal team will have the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses, as will Republicans.
As for Democrats, they argue the administration’s claims are groundless, pointing to legal precedents that involve the administrations of former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.
In those cases, federal courts ruled that aides and staffers must to comply with congressional subpoenas.
But the Justice Department argues those rulings were in error and are thus not binding for the Trump administration.