WASHINGTON - President Donald Trump directed former White House Counsel Don McGahn to defy a congressional subpoena, citing a Justice Department legal opinion that McGahn would have immunity from testifying about his work as a close Trump adviser.
Trump's action, the latest in his efforts to block every congressional probe into him and his administration, is certain to deepen the open conflict between Democrats and the president. They've accused Trump and Attorney General William Barr of trying to stonewall and obstruct Congress' oversight duties.
McGahn was a key figure in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, describing ways in which the president sought to curtail that federal probe.
The House Judiciary Committee has issued a subpoena to compel McGahn to testify by Tuesday, and the committee's chairman, Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., has threatened to hold McGahn in contempt of Congress if he doesn't testify. Nadler has also suggested he may try and levy fines against witnesses who do not comply with committee requests.
If McGahn were to defy Trump and testify, it could endanger his own career in Republican politics and put his law firm, Jones Day, in the president's crosshairs. Trump has mused about instructing Republicans to cease dealing with the firm, which is deeply intertwined in Washington with the GOP, according to one White House official and a Republican close to the White House not authorized to speak publicly about private conversations.
Administration officials mulled various legal options before settling on providing McGahn with a legal opinion from the Department of Justice to justify defying the subpoena.
"The immunity of the President's immediate advisers from compelled congressional testimony on matters related to their official responsibilities has long been recognized and arises from the fundamental workings of the separation of powers," the department's opinion reads. "Accordingly, Mr. McGahn is not legally required to appear and testify about matters related to his official duties as Counsel to the President."
The Judiciary Committee still plans on meeting even if McGahn doesn't show up.
McGahn's lawyer, William Burck, has said his client would wait for the White House and the committee to reach an agreement.
"As you will appreciate, Mr. McGahn, as a former assistant to the president and the most senior attorney for the president in his official capacity, continues to owe certain duties and obligations to the President which he is not free to disregard," Burck wrote in a letter to Nadler this month.
Trump has fumed about McGahn for months, after it became clear that much of Mueller's report was based on his testimony. The president has bashed his former White House counsel on Twitter and has insisted to advisers that the attorney not be allowed to humiliate him in front of Congress, much as his former personal legal fixer Michael Cohen did, according to the official and Republican.
The Justice Department has long held the opinion that close presidential advisers have "absolute immunity" from being compelled to testify before Congress about their work for the president.
A federal judge rejected a similar argument in 2008 in a dispute over a subpoena for Harriet Miers, who was White House counsel to George W. Bush. U.S. District Judge John Bates said it was an unprecedented notion that a White House official would be absolutely immune from being compelled to testify before Congress. Miers had to show up for her testimony, but still had the right to assert executive privilege in response to any specific questions posed by legislators, the judge said.
But in 2014, under the Obama administration, the Justice Department issued an opinion arguing that if Congress could force the president's closest advisers to testify about matters that happened during their tenure, it would "threaten executive branch confidentiality, which is necessary (among other things) to ensure that the President can obtain the type of sound and candid advice that is essential to the effective discharge of his constitutional duties."
The House Judiciary Committee voted earlier this month to hold Attorney General Barr in contempt after he defied a subpoena for an unredacted version of Mueller's report.
Associated Press writers Eric Tucker, Mary Clare Jalonick and Mark Sherman contributed to this report.