Subpoenas Aren’t Optional, and Other Impeachment Musings

Apparently, being Donald Trump’s personal lawyer means you forget how the law is supposed to work. (Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0)

In May, when former White House Counsel Don McGahn was called to testify before the House Judiciary Committee regarding information sought related to Robert Mueller’s investigation into possible conspiracy and obstruction charges for President Donald Trump and other members of his transition team, McGahn willingly defied the subpoena.

For a political figure like Trump and others around him, that McGahn would simply no-show members of Congress is, while almost unprecedented, not particularly surprising. We’ve thrown out the book on presidential behavior and politics as usual so often lately that the binding is cracked and our arms are worn out from the repetitive action.

Still, you would hope as a lawyer that McGahn would have some respect for the law and legal precepts. Besides, and at any rate, you’re, um, not supposed to be able to up and refuse a subpoena like that. As Committee chair Jerry Nadler put it, “Our subpoenas are not optional. We will not allow the president to stop this investigation.” He also warned that McGahn could face contempt charges for failing to appear before the House Judiciary Committee.

This was several months ago, when House Democrats were dancing around the very idea of impeachment and seeking an alternate route to accessing information about Trump’s potential impeachable offenses. It’s October now. Needless to say, the paradigm has shifted regarding the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry. With a majority of House Democrats and even members of the Senate/presidential candidates favoring impeachment, and with Speaker Nancy Pelosi publicly indicating plans to move forward with impeachment proceedings, there is yet greater urgency to compel prospective witnesses to comply with congressional ultimatums.

Unfortunately, that urgency is lost on these witnesses themselves. Sure, the exact circumstances are different than they were a few months prior. Pelosi and Co’s. decision to finally go ahead with impeachment was brought about by a whistleblower complaint which has since come to light from an unnamed individual in U.S. intelligence made in August.

Among other things, the whistleblower alleges Trump pressured Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky multiple times to investigate Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, regarding his role as a board member of a Ukrainian energy company. Despite Trump’s assertions, there is no evidence either Biden did anything wrong within this sphere of influence. As with the focus on Hillary Clinton and her numerous supposed scandals prior to the 2016 election, however, the suggestion alone may be sufficient to sway the minds of voters. And to be clear, Biden, despite numerous bad policy positions (past and present) and the real possibility he is losing his mind, is still the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic Party presidential nomination. Please excuse me while I bang my head against a wall for a moment.

Seriously, though, this is serious business involving Trump. Asking for a foreign leader to investigate a political rival not as a matter of national security, but as a matter of personal political gain, may be a crime and is probably an impeachable offense. Either way, and getting to the central point about testifying before Congress, persons of interest within the context of an impeachment inquiry should not be treating subpoenas as if they’re tickets to some voluntary information session, some theoretical event. As Merriam-Webster defines subpoena, it is “a writ commanding a person designated in it to appear in court under a penalty for failure.” It’s not a request.

Try telling that to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, though, who has admitted he was on the call between Trump and Zelensky and has stated that he won’t comply with a House Foreign Affairs Committee subpoena, has vowed to fight the deposition of other State Department officials in the service of impeachment proceedings, and who has labeled the committee’s “request” (which, again, isn’t a request) as an attempt to “intimidate, bully, and treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State.” As Pompeo would have you believe, committee chair Eliot Engel will personally hold down each of these “distinguished professionals” and take their lunch money, whereupon they will be given wedgies and quite possibly will be forced into their own lockers.

Trump personal lawyer and morning talk show resident-crazy-person Rudy Giuliani also has commented about a subpoena in terms of something to which he may or may not accede. Evidently, Giuliani has received subpoenas from three different House committees, but claims that before a “proper” decision can be made, a number of issues have to be weighed, including attorney-client privilege, “substantial constitutional and legal issues,” and “other privileges.” What’s that, Mr. Giuliani? Adhering to the law might involve the Constitution and other legal principles? You don’t say! Never mind that attorney-client privilege might not actually apply in your case because you’re such a blabbermouth. But I digress.

For a House committee issuing a subpoena, when one of the objects of its investigatory powers fails to acquiesce to its summons, what recourse does it possess? Well, one option is to involve the courts. Regarding McGahn’s earlier refusal to appear before Congress and to try to nullify a larger strategy of the White House’s to shield presidential advisers from being held accountable, the House Judiciary Committee filed a lawsuit in August with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia to force McGahn to testify. The White House has claimed McGahn has “absolute immunity” from being made to testify before the Committee, a concept which has been used by past administrations but hasn’t been fully tested by the courts.

The problem with this route? It, well, takes time. As stated in the New York Times article linked above, this case could take months or longer to resolve. With a presidential election little more than a year from now, this is obviously far from ideal. As Judd Legum, author of the political newsletter Popular Information, and others have pointed out, meanwhile, another possibility exists in invoking inherent contempt.

Congress hasn’t invoked inherent contempt in more than seven decades, but in this case and given the gravity of the Trump administration’s repeated attempted erosion of the Constitution and democracy overall, it seems well warranted. It certainly is a more direct path to try to get a particular target to comply. Upon the passing of a resolution to execute an arrest warrant, the desired party is taken into custody, tried for contempt, and if found guilty, can be detained or imprisoned “until the obstruction to the exercise of legislative power is removed.” The legislature can also fine the non-compliant party for failing to observe its authority, as Rep. Mike Quigley has publicly observed.

If House Democrats are truly forthright about wanting to carry out an impeachment inquiry with any due sense of efficiency, they shouldn’t hesitate to invoke contempt for those Trump administration officials and actual freaking lawyers who apparently don’t know what a subpoena is. Sure, it may feel like an extreme step to some, particularly among the president’s defenders. Then again, as Legum would insist, “these are extraordinary times.”


Despite the notion many of us looking on at this impeachment business from the cheap seats have been anticipating such action for a long time now, an unfortunate byproduct of this unfolding scandal is that we have even more coverage of Donald Trump now. Visit one of the major cable news sites and witness the litany of Trump-oriented stories available for your consumption. Trump lashes out. Trump attacks. Trump, at his worst. Trump this. Trump that. Even in potential infamy, Trump’s name is everywhere. He couldn’t have succeeded better on this front if he had tried.

What’s particularly bad about this state of affairs is it pushes news items important in their own right to the back pages. The United Kingdom is still in political turmoil, trying to come to grips with the results of a Brexit referendum vote that seemingly never had a chance of being implemented smoothly in the first place. Foreign interference in the 2020 election is probable if not certain, with Vladimir Putin among those laughing about the very suggestion. Mohammad bin Salman and Saudi Arabia have yet to face substantive consequences for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and war continues in Yemen, of which the Saudis, aided by American weapons and aircraft, are key players. U.S. manufacturing is on the decline. The border crisis is anything but resolved. Deforestation and fires continue in the Amazon, a direct result of an ill-advised policy shift by Jair Bolsonaro’s Brazil. In short, there’s a lot of bad shit happening right now, and the fevered news coverage surrounding Trump’s legal and political entanglements obscures these real problems.

This isn’t to say, of course, that we shouldn’t be paying attention to the events and players relevant to the impeachment process. Even with Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the rear view mirror, so to speak, what we’re witnessing with Trump is historic and its own animal.

All the same, we should be cognizant of what we’re missing by dwelling on this single controversy. Besides, even if Trump were to be impeached and removed by Congress, that wouldn’t be the end of Republican control of the White House and Senate, nor would it magically put a stop to a rise in hate crimes and overt right-wing extremism in the United States and elsewhere. It’s not like he’s the Night King. Removing him wouldn’t mean the end of ugly rhetoric here in the United States and it wouldn’t essentially spell doom for the Republican Party’s attempts to stack the federal judiciary, target entitlement programs for cuts, and do other harm to the social safety net and fairness in representative democracy.

Donald Trump, members of his administration, and enablers of his on the outside like Rudy Giuliani may not have much regard for the rule of law. That notwithstanding, we shouldn’t treat their flippant dismissal of congressional authority as something to be considered acceptable or normal. In theory, no one is above the law. The Democrats and American news media would be wise to reinforce this idea in both their speech and actions, especially if we are to have but the semblance of confidence in them as institutions going forward.

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