Democrats subpoena more Trump aides, McGahn snubs committee

The U.S. House of Representatives committee that would handle any impeachment of President Donald Trump convened a hearing today with another empty chair at the witness table, as former White House counsel Don McGahn refused to testify.

U.S. president appeals unfavourable court ruling over financial records

U.S. President Donald Trump has urged former White House counsel Don McGahn, shown here on Capitol Hill last year, to disregard a subpoena from the House Democrat-led panel. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

A U.S. House committee chairman on Tuesday subpoenaed two more former White House aides, just hours after former White House counsel Don McGahn refused to testify before the panel at President Donald Trump's request.

As tensions rose between the Republican president and the Democrats who control the House of Representatives, lawmakers also negotiated for future testimony by special counsel Robert Mueller on his Russia investigation, and debated whether to launch high-stakes impeachment proceedings against Trump.

The House committee would handle any impeachment of the president, and is investigating Trump and Mueller's inquiry into Russian election meddling and contacts between Trump's campaign team and Moscow.

Undeterred in a growing struggle between Trump and Congress over its power to investigate him, committee chairman Jerry Nadler announced he had issued fresh subpoenas to Hope Hicks, former White House communications director and trusted Trump aide, and to Annie Donaldson, McGahn's former chief of staff.

In the early days of Trump's presidency, few aides had more frequent access to him than Hicks, a former model and public relations consultant who Trump hired into the White House from his daughter Ivanka Trump's staff. She rose to communications director, but resigned from the White House in March 2018.

The subpoenas seek testimony and documents in connection with the committee's probe of whether the president obstructed Mueller's inquiry. 

Hope Hicks served as White House communications director until she resigned from the post last year. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Despite McGahn's absence, the committee held a half-hour hearing that featured an empty chair at the witness table. Nadler warned that "this committee will hear Mr. McGahn's testimony, even if we have to go to court to secure it."

In Mueller's report, McGahn was a key witness regarding Trump's possible obstruction of justice. Career prosecutors 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.

Attorney General William Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, on May 2 also snubbed the committee, which later voted to hold him in contempt of Congress for not handing over an unredacted copy of Mueller's final report.

At the hearing that Barr skipped, an empty witness chair figured prominently and a Democratic committee member put a ceramic chicken on the table in front of it for the cameras. There was no sign of a repeat chicken appearance on Tuesday.

Trump is stonewalling numerous congressional inquiries into himself, his turbulent presidency, and his family and sprawling business interests, which he did not divest or put into a blind trust when he took office in January 2017.

Nadler called McGahn's failure to appear part of Trump's "broader efforts to cover up his misconduct," while 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, Georgia's Doug Collins, said after the hearing.

Could face contempt citation

Late on Monday, the Department of Justice issued a legal opinion saying McGahn did not need to appear at the hearing, while McGahn's lawyer, William Burck, wrote that his client would not testify before the committee unless it reached an agreement with the White House.

In a letter sent to McGahn, Nadler told the former White House counsel that he would "risk serious consequences" if he failed to show up to testify.

"Should you fail to do so, the committee is prepared to use all enforcement mechanisms at its disposal," Nadler wrote.

It was not immediately clear when Democrats might pursue a contempt citation against McGahn. The rules require 48-hour 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.

Any impeachment effort against the president would begin in the House, led by the judiciary committee, before action in the Republican-led Senate on whether to remove Trump from office. No U.S. president has ever been removed from office through impeachment, a process spelled out in the constitution.

House oversight committee chairman Elijah Cummings, who is locked in another legal battle with Trump over access to his financial records, told reporters Democrats are "moving more and more" toward using impeachment as an option in the showdown with Trump.

Taking it a step further, Democratic Rep. for New York Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told reporters, "It's time for us to, at the very least, open an impeachment inquiry."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has called for caution and expressed a preference for a more methodical approach, including already-unfolding court battles.

However, Pelosi has also summoned rank-and-file House Democrats to a meeting Wednesday to assess strategy.

House oversight committee chairman Elijah Cummings, seen here in 2018, suggested Democrats are looking more seriously at impeachment as an option against the president. (Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press)

Committee seeks Trump's financial records

On another front, in a legal setback for Trump, a U.S. judge on Monday ruled against him in a case involving another House panel. The House's oversight committee has subpoenaed Trump's financial records from his longtime accounting firm Mazars LLP.

In an unusual move, lawyers for Trump and the Trump Organization, his company, last month sued to try to block the subpoena. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington ruled against Trump and denied his request for a stay pending appeal.

Early on Tuesday, Trump appealed the judge's ruling, challenging "all aspects" of Mehta's decision.

As the confrontation between Trump and Congress has intensified, Democrats have raised growing concerns about the president's conduct, especially since the mid-April release of the Mueller report.

The redacted, 448-page report from special counsel Mueller, 22 months in the making, showed how Moscow interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Trump's favour and detailed Trump's attempts to impede Mueller's probe.

The report found there was insufficient evidence to allege a criminal conspiracy between Moscow and the Trump campaign. It made no recommendation on whether Trump obstructed justice, leaving that question up to Congress.