WASHINGTON - The White House on Tuesday instructed Don McGahn, its former counsel, to refuse to comply with a congressional subpoena for documents related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry, intensifying a fight between President Donald Trump’s administration and Democratic lawmakers.
McGahn, who left his post as White House counsel last year, was directed not to produce White House records sought in the subpoena issued by the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, according to the current White House counsel, Pat Cipollone.
It was the latest episode in an escalating fight between the Republican president and Democrats, who control the House and are seeking documents and testimony relating to various investigations, ahead of the 2020 presidential election in which Trump is seeking a second four-year term.
Cipollone said in a letter to Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler that McGahn was given the documents during the investigation “with the clear understanding that the records remain subject to the control of the White House for all purposes.”
Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, a former House Republican, directed McGahn not to produce the records, the letter said.
“The White House records remain legally protected from disclosure under longstanding constitutional principles, because they implicate significant executive branch confidentiality interests and executive privilege,” Cipollone wrote.
Executive privilege is a right claimed by presidents to withhold information about internal executive branch deliberations from other branches of government.
A Republican congressional aide said the White House was not asserting executive privilege over the documents and pointed to Cipollone’s readiness to respond to further congressional inquiries about the records. “Conversations … would not occur if, in fact, the White House had asserted privilege here,” the aide said.
Nadler had asked McGahn to produce the documents by Tuesday morning. The committee also subpoenaed McGahn to testify at a deposition. Neither committee officials nor McGahn’s lawyer were immediately available to comment on whether he would do so.
“Because Mr. McGahn does not have the legal right to disclose these documents to third parties, I would ask the committee to direct any request for such records to the White House, the appropriate legal custodian,” Cipollone said.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told ABC earlier she did not believe McGahn would comply with the subpoena. “I don’t anticipate that that takes place,” Sanders said.
House Democrats have sought McGahn’s cooperation as part of their investigation of possible corruption and obstruction of justice by Trump. Trump denies wrongdoing.
Mueller’s 448-page report referred to conversations in June 2017 in which Trump called McGahn to tell him he should direct Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who was overseeing the special counsel’s probe, to remove Mueller because of alleged conflicts of interest.
The report cited “McGahn’s clear recollection” that the president directed him to tell Rosenstein that “Mueller has to go.” McGahn did not carry out Trump’s order, the report said.
Trump also tried unsuccessfully to get McGahn to dispute media reports that the president had attempted to fire Mueller, the report said.
Trump is fighting congressional Democrats on several fronts.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Monday denied a request by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Richard Neal for Trump’s tax returns.
The House Judiciary Committee has set a vote for Wednesday on whether to cite Attorney General William Barr with contempt of Congress over his refusal to provide it with a full, unredacted version of Mueller’s report and underlying evidence from the investigation.
Trump, his three oldest children and the Trump Organization also have sued Deutsche Bank AG and Capital One Financial Corp to try to block them from responding to U.S. congressional subpoenas issued by Democrats seeking financial records.
Republicans in Congress have rejected the efforts of Democratic-led House committees as political gamesmanship intended to appeal to the Democratic Party’s voting base ahead of the 2020 election.