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A Don McGahn no-show could be turning point on impeachment

Members of leadership starting to speak more directly of proceedings

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., is ready to start impeachment proceedings if the White House continues to block testimony of former aides like Don McGahn. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., is ready to start impeachment proceedings if the White House continues to block testimony of former aides like Don McGahn. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. David Cicilline, a member of House Democratic leadership who serves on the Judiciary Committee, said that if former White House counsel Don McGahn does not testify Tuesday, the panel should open an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.

And the Rhode Island Democrat, who cited “a pattern from the White House to impede our investigation,” is not alone in the leadership ranks. 

“This is a cover-up by the White House, and there comes a point where we have to stand up for the rule of law,” Cicilline said Monday. “It is not just about this president. It is about future presidents. It’s about the message it sends about our respect for the Constitution and for the rule of law. And if this pattern by the president continues, where he’s going to impede and prevent and undermine our ability to gather evidence to do our job, we’re going to be left with no choice.”

Cicilline, who chairs the Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, said he was not speaking on behalf of leadership or the Judiciary panel.

Opening an impeachment inquiry is a means to collect information and would not require the committee to rush to a decision, he said, noting that the impeachment inquiry into President Richard Nixon during the Watergate scandal was open for many months.

“We have deferred in every way and attempted to accommodate the White House in every way, but we have a responsibility, we have a job to do and we intend to do it,” Cicilline said. 

Earlier Monday, the president ordered McGahn not to testify Tuesday, with the administration saying the former adviser has “absolute immunity” and is not legally required to comply with a congressional subpoena.

The move was not unexpected, given Trump’s “oppose-all-the-subpoenas” stance since the conclusion of the Mueller investigation last month. But it further escalates the separation-of-powers showdown between the Trump administration and Congress.

In a letter to House Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, current White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote that an internal Justice Department opinion determined that Congress cannot compel the president’s senior advisers to testify about their official duties.

Asked about Cicilline’s comments on opening an impeachment inquiry, Assistant Speaker Ben Ray Lujan recalled House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff saying something similar last week, and said he agreed with his assessment.

Rep. Ted Lieu, a Judiciary member and DPCC co-chair, also agreed that the panel should open an impeachment inquiry if McGahn doesn’t show up for the hearing, saying it would boost the legal case for obtaining information the Trump administration is withholding.

“Hopefully, the White House would make it so we don’t have to take more drastic steps, but it’s up to the White House,” the California Democrat said.

The senior-most leaders, though, are still not on board with opening an impeachment inquiry.

“Not yet,” House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn said Monday when asked if the Judiciary Committee should start an inquiry. He added that he doesn’t think McGahn skipping his scheduled hearing would trigger that.

Likewise, Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries, another Judiciary member, suggested it wasn’t yet time to start an impeachment inquiry, though he noted that “the situation is becoming more serious by the minute.”

“I agree with Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi that the case should be compelling, the evidence must be overwhelming and the sentiment around impeachment should be bipartisan in nature,” the New York Democrat said. “We’re still in the fact-gathering process.”

Asked if those standards Pelosi outlined for impeachment should also apply to the Judiciary panel opening an inquiry, Jeffries said yes.

He also cited a federal court ruling from Monday upholding a House subpoena for Trump’s financial records as a reason for Democrats to stay the course.

“The fact that the courts are working their will and moving in the direction reaffirms our sentiment that we’re taking the right approach,” Jeffries said.

Still, the drumbeat among the leadership ranks was unmistakable. 

Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Judiciary member and the leadership representative for members who have served five or fewer terms, is also supportive of opening an impeachment inquiry.

“The logic of an impeachment inquiry becomes overwhelming if McGahn doesn’t show up,” the Maryland Democrat said. “This is for both procedural and substantive reasons. Procedurally, we need to have an impeachment inquiry so that our investigative powers are honored and respected. Substantively, the administration, again, is displaying its complete and utter contempt for Congress and disregard for the rule of law, so it brings us to a dramatic tipping point.”

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