Judges place temporary hold on ex-White House lawyer ruling

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Appeals court judges put on hold a ruling by a lower court that would require former White House Counsel Don McGahn to testify to lawmakers as part of the Democrat-led impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.

FILE PHOTO: White House Counsel Don McGahn listens to Judge Brett Kavanaugh as he testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., September 27, 2018. Win McNamee/Pool via REUTERS

McGahn, who left his post in October 2018, last May defied a House Judiciary Committee subpoena to testify about Trump’s efforts to impede former Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation that detailed Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

The hold on the case comes as the judges for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit consider a longer stay. They scheduled oral arguments for Jan. 3 on the underlying appeal, according to a court order.

Hours earlier, Washington-based U.S. District Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson agreed to impose a temporary delay on her ruling, saying in an order it would give her time to rule on whether to put the case on hold longer-term so the Justice Department can appeal.

The Justice Department filed a second emergency application earlier to the appeals court, asking that court to put the litigation on hold after Jackson did not immediately act on its earlier request.

Justice Department lawyers said the filing was “in an abundance of caution” in order to ensure that they could then turn to the Supreme Court in a timely fashion if their request is rejected.

McGahn emerged as a pivotal figure in a 448-page report completed in March by Mueller.

According to the report, McGahn told investigators that Trump repeatedly instructed him to have Mueller removed and then asked him to deny having been so instructed when word of the action emerged in news reports. McGahn did not carry out either instruction.

House Democratic leaders have since focused their impeachment inquiry on Trump’s actions concerning Ukraine, but have discussed pursuing a broader count of obstruction of Congress among any articles of impeachment – formal charges – brought against the president. McGahn’s testimony could bolster that part of their inquiry.

In Monday’s ruling, Jackson rejected the Trump administration’s claim of broad immunity protecting current and former senior White House officials from being compelled to testify before Congress, saying no one is above the law. [nL1N2851MS]

Justice Department lawyers wrote in the new filing that the appeals court should block the ruling before Trump is “irreparably injured by the compelled congressional testimony of a former close advisor.”

The administration wants the ruling to be put on hold while the Trump administration appeals it, which means McGahn would not have to testify in the meantime. The White House has directed current and former officials not to testify or provide documents sought in the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry.

Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Jan Wolfe and Makini Brice; Editing by Jonathan Oatis, Alistair Bell and Lincoln Feast.

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