THE clash between US President Donald Trump and the Democratic majority in Congress intensified on Monday, with the White House telling the president’s former lawyer to ignore a subpoena to testify about Trump’s alleged obstruction of justice in the Russia probe.
And in a big setback for Trump, a federal judge denied the president’s attempt to quash another subpoena from Democratic lawmakers ordering an accounting firm to release years of Trump’s financial documents dating from before he took office.
That decision marks the first time US courts have waded into the conflict that pits the president against Democrats who have opened a raft of probes into his administration since they took control of the House of Representatives in January.
In a sign of the uphill battle their investigations face, an attorney for Trump’s former lawyer Don McGahn said his client would follow the White House’s instructions and not testify about Trump’s alleged obstruction of justice at a House Judiciary Committee hearing set for Tuesday.
“Under these circumstances, and also conscious of the duties he, as an attorney, owes to his former client, Mr McGahn must decline to appear at the hearing tomorrow,” his attorney William A Burck wrote to the committee, adding that his client “understands from your prior correspondence that the Committee would vote to hold him in contempt should he not appear.”
Earlier in the day, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler called the White House’s move “the latest act of obstruction”, and said “the Committee will convene as planned tomorrow morning, and Mr McGahn is expected to appear as legally required”.
“The first thing we’re going to have to do is hold McGahn in contempt,” Nalder told CNN in an interview late on Monday.
He added: “You’re dealing with a lawless president willing to go to any lengths to prevent testimony that might implicate him – that does implicate him.”
Democrats want McGahn to talk about special counsel Robert Mueller’s sprawling, 22-month probe into whether Trump colluded with Russians while running for president and then tried to impede the probe into that question after he was elected.
In his final report, released in mid-April, Mueller said he hadn’t gathered evidence of collusion that would warrant charges of criminal conspiracy.
But it detailed a series of moves by the presidency against Mueller’s investigation, including an attempt to sack Mueller that was blocked by McGahn.
Trump has hit back against these investigations, saying he’s a victim of “harassment”.
“The Democrats do not like the conclusion of the Mueller investigation … and want a wasteful and unnecessary do-over,” his spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said on Monday.
The White House has also refused to cooperate with a Democrat-led investigation of Trump’s finances prior to his election.
Last month, lawmakers issued a subpoena for records dating back to 2011 after Trump’s one-time lawyer Michael Cohen testified that his boss would often change the estimated value of his assets and liabilities on financial statements as he felt was needed for various purposes.
Trump and affiliated organisations and entities then filed a suit requesting that the court declare the subpoena “invalid and unenforceable” as it questioned the legislative validity of the Democrats’ demands.
US District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington on Monday refused to block the subpoena, saying, “it is not for the court to question whether the committee’s actions are truly motivated by political considerations”.
In another twist to this saga, the House Intelligence Committee on Monday made public the transcripts of testimony by Cohen, who is currently serving a prison sentence in part for lying to Congress, made to lawmakers behind closed doors.
According to the transcripts from hearings held earlier in the year, Cohen said he had followed directions from Trump’s personal lawyer to lie about when a proposed Trump Tower project in Moscow was called off.
“Make no mistake, any attempt by the president, his associates or administration to suborn perjury, obstruct our investigation or mislead the public will not be tolerated – and will be exposed,” intelligence committee chairman Adam Schiff said in a statement.