By Steve Holland and David Morgan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump’s struggle with Democratic lawmakers intensified on Tuesday, with the White House directing former counsel Don McGahn not to comply with a congressional subpoena and the chair of the House Judiciary Committee threatening to hold him in contempt.
McGahn, who left his post as White House counsel last year, was directed not to produce White House records related to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia inquiry that are being sought by the House panel, said Pat Cipollone, the current White House counsel.
It was the latest episode in an escalating fight between the Republican president and Democrats, who control the House of Representatives 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.”
“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.
Nadler responded late in the day with a letter to McGahn’s personal attorney, noting the White House had not invoked executive privilege over the documents and that the Judiciary Committee still expected McGahn to comply with its subpoena.
“I fully expect that the committee will hold Mr. McGahn in contempt if he fails to appear before the Committee, unless the White House secures a court order directing otherwise,” Nadler wrote.
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.
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.
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.
(Reporting by Steve Holland and David Morgan; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Will Dunham and Lisa Shumaker)