By Sarah N. Lynch and Jan Wolfe
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Former White House Counsel Don McGahn ignored a subpoena to testify on Tuesday to a U.S. House of Representatives committee, fuelling talk among Democratic lawmakers of possible legal action against him and potential impeachment of President Donald Trump.
As part of a White House stonewalling campaign against numerous congressional investigations of the Republican president and his administration, McGahn did not appear before the House Judiciary Committee as scheduled, drawing a threat from its Democratic chairman, Jerrold Nadler.
"Let me be clear: this committee will hear Mr. McGahn's testimony, even if we have to go to court to secure it," Nadler said during a roughly 30-minute hearing, with the committee's witness chair remaining empty for the second time this month.
Attorney General William Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, on May 2 also snubbed the committee, which later voted to hold him in contempt of Congress for not handing over a full, unredacted copy of Special Counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian election interference.
At the hearing skipped by Barr, an empty chair figured prominently and a Democratic committee member placed a ceramic chicken on the table in front of it for the cameras. The ceramic chicken did not make a repeat appearance on Tuesday.
Republicans derided Tuesday's session as a political stunt and an abuse of the hearing process. "This is becoming a regular event. It's called the circus of Judiciary," the panel's top Republican, Representative Doug Collins, said after the hearing.
Trump, seeking re-election in 2020, is refusing to cooperate with many probes into his administration, his family and his business interests. The White House on Monday told McGahn, who left his post in October, to disregard the Judiciary Committee's subpoena.
In response, Nadler said at the hearing, "When this committee issues a subpoena, even to a senior presidential adviser, the witness must show up. Our subpoenas are not optional."
Nadler added, "Mr. McGahn has a legal obligation to be here for this scheduled appearance. If he does not immediately correct his mistake, this committee will have no choice but to enforce this subpoena against him."
It was not immediately clear when Democrats might pursue a contempt citation against McGahn. The rules require 48-hour notice, but many House members will be flying out of town on Thursday for the Memorial Day holiday, a logistical challenge that means any contempt vote would be unlikely before June.
Nadler called McGahn's failure to appear part of Trump's "broader efforts to cover up his misconduct." Democrats have accused Trump of launching an assault on the powers given to Congress under the U.S. Constitution.
In the Mueller report, McGahn was a key witness regarding possible obstruction of justice by Trump. Career prosecutors who are not involved in the case have said the report contained strong evidence that Trump committed a crime when he pressured McGahn to fire Mueller and later urged him to lie about it.
Trump and most of his fellow Republicans in Congress dismiss the committee inquiries as political harassment ahead of the 2020 elections. But House Republican Justin Amash, a frequent Trump critic and outspoken Michigan conservative, said over the weekend that the president "has engaged in impeachable conduct." In response, Trump called Amash "a loser."
Any impeachment effort would begin in the House, led by the Judiciary Committee, before action in the Republican-led Senate on whether to remove Trump from office. No U.S. president has ever been removed from office through impeachment, a process spelled out in the Constitution.
Democrats have debated for months whether to initiate the process, with some lawmakers clamouring for it, but their senior leadership has counselled caution for fear of a voter backlash that could benefit Trump politically.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff told CNN on Tuesday that the case for launching the impeachment process, which would give Democrats more leverage to compel testimony and obtain documents, "gets stronger the more they stonewall the Congress."
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, told MSNBC on Tuesday that Amash's proclamation does not mean there is more pressure on the House to begin impeachment.
In a win for Democrats who favour step-by-step court action to secure testimony and documents over a risky impeachment attempt, a U.S. judge on Monday ruled against Trump in a case involving another House panel. The House Oversight Committee has subpoenaed Trump's financial records from his long-time accounting firm Mazars LLP.
In an unusual move, lawyers for Trump and the Trump Organization, his company, last month sued to try to block the subpoena. U.S. District Judge Amit Mehta in Washington ruled against Trump and denied his request for a stay pending appeal.
Early on Tuesday, Trump appealed the judge's ruling.
The redacted, 448-page Mueller report, 22 months in the making, showed how Moscow interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election in Trump's favour and detailed Trump's attempts to impede Mueller's probe.
The report found there was insufficient evidence to conclude that a criminal conspiracy between Moscow and the Trump campaign had taken place. It made no recommendation on whether Trump obstructed justice, leaving that question up to Congress.
(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by Doina Chiacu, Susan Heavey, Susan Cornwell, David Morgan; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Will Dunham)