The Justice Department on Friday articulated for the first time publicly that former close advisers to ex-Presidents may be immune from congressional testimony – though that doesn’t mean Donald Trump’s West Wing staff can avoid the House’s subpoenas related to January 6, 2021.
The DOJ position means that Mark Meadows and other top Trump White House officials might not be protected from civil litigation to force them to testify on Capitol Hill now that Trump is out of office and the House select committee bears down seeking information.
The department revealed its position in a court filing Friday in the lawsuit brought by Trump’s White House chief of staff Mark Meadows challenging House select committee’s subpoenas.
“The Select Committee has set forth in detail the information it seeks from Plaintiff (Meadows), and the importance of that evidence to the Select Committee’s work,” Justice Department lawyers wrote. “The Select Committee has demonstrated that such information is critical to its investigation.”
While in office, Trump and his White House routinely cited an “absolute immunity” that would excuse them from showing up when Congress subpoenaed their testimony.
The Biden Justice Department still backs that protection for advisers of sitting presidents, citing the need to give the presidency some sphere of secrecy when Congress seeks information. But the department says the immunity claim isn’t as unimpeachable once a president leaves office.
The DOJ filing says advisers like Meadows who worked for former presidents could have what’s called “qualified immunity,” meaning the secrecy protections over their work while in office could fall away if Congress showed a need.
The question of how far immunity extends around the president has not been settled by the courts, and a trial-level judge has not weighed in yet in Meadows’ case.
But the DOJ’s choice is still a blow to Meadows – even after the department chose to not criminally charge him for failing to testify in the House investigation.