Donald Trump cannot stop his most senior advisers testifying to Congress, a US judge has ruled, in a decision that gives significant ammunition to Democrats running the impeachment inquiry into the president.
A federal judge in Washington ruled on Monday that Don McGahn, Mr Trump’s former legal adviser, should comply with a subpoena to appear in front of a Congressional committee, months after Mr Trump blocked him from doing so.
The subpoena was originally issued to force Mr McGahn to testify about whether the US president tried to impede the investigation by Robert Mueller into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election.
But Mr McGahn and others could now be forced to testify also as part of the ongoing impeachment inquiry into whether Mr Trump pressurised Kyiv to open an investigation into his domestic political opponents.
Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson said in her ruling: “If a duly authorised committee of Congress issues a valid legislative subpoena to a current or former senior-level presidential aide, the law requires the aide to appear as directed.”
She added: “Per the constitution, no one is above the law.”
Ms Jackson’s decision comes after months of legal battles which began when Mr Trump blocked Mr McGahn from testifying about the Russia inquiry, saying that his role in the administration meant he was “absolutely immune from compelled congressional testimony”.
The US district court judge dismissed this argument, saying that if Mr McGahn wanted to assert executive privilege not to answer certain questions, he would have to do so in person and question-by-question.
“However busy or essential a presidential aide might be, and whatever their proximity to sensitive domestic and national-security projects, the president does not have the power to excuse him or her from taking an action that the law requires,” she said.
Jerrold Nadler, the chairman of the House of Representatives judiciary committee, which issued the subpoena to Mr McGahn, said in a statement: “Don McGahn is a central witness to allegations that President Trump obstructed Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation, and the administration’s claim that officials can claim ‘absolute immunity’ from congressional subpoenas has no basis in law, as the court recognised today.”
Adam Schiff, the chair of the House intelligence committee, which is leading the impeachment inquiry, welcomed Monday’s ruling.
He said in a statement: “With today’s ruling, the courts have made it absolutely clear . . . that absolute immunity is not a legitimate basis by which to prohibit senior White House officials from testifying before Congress.
“To those witnesses who hide behind fallacious claims of absolute immunity, this ruling shows again how meritless their position remains,” Mr Schiff added.
The justice department said it would appeal Ms Jackson’s decision, but if it is upheld, it is likely to have ramifications far beyond Mr McGahn’s case.
Earlier this year the House intelligence committee issued a subpoena to Charles Kupperman, a former national security aide to Mr Trump, to testify as part of the impeachment inquiry.
The committee is investigating whether Mr Trump pressured Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, into announcing an investigation into the Ukrainian business dealings of Hunter Biden, the son of former vice-president Joe Biden.
But the intelligence committee quickly withdrew its subpoena to Mr Kupperman after he sued to get clarity on whether he could be compelled to testify or not. Congressional lawyers said they would wait until the outcome of Mr McGahn’s case before taking further action.
Mr Trump did secure one legal victory on Monday, however, when the Supreme Court granted his request to put a hold on a separate congressional subpoena to force the US president to hand over his tax returns.
The court agreed that Mr Trump should have time to file an appeal before complying with the request.