WASHINGTON — What do Trump's chief of staff, top National Security Counsel lawyer and John Bolton's deputy have in common? They’ve all gotten mixed up in a lawsuit against the president.
It may sound counterintuitive, but Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney’s botched attempt to slap a lawsuit on Trump was actually his way of trying to help bolster the White House ban on officials testifying before the impeachment inquiry.
In the most basic sense, these officials want the courts to decide who they should listen to: Congress or Trump?
The decision could have particular impact for one high-profile witness: Former NSC chief John Bolton, whose lawyers teased he has information they haven’t heard about relevant meetings and conversations central to the impeachment inquiry.
At this point, House Democrats just want to drop the whole thing, while Bolton’s lawyers insist the judge should render a decision as quickly as possible.
Either way, it’s unlikely to be fully resolved in time, said Carl Tobias, an expert on the judiciary system at the University of Richmond School of Law.
“The whole Trump legal gambit is to get to November 2020, and time is on their side,” Tobias said. “That’s just the practical reality of the time it takes the courts to move.”
Here’s what’s going on with this bizarre tangle of a lawsuit at the center of the impeachment inquiry.
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Though his name isn’t officially on the complaint, the lawsuit centers on Bolton, whose muddied position on impeachment has left plenty for both Trump and the Democrats to get upset about.
Bolton’s former deputy, Charles Kupperman, kicked the whole thing into gear in October by suing Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Chairs of Congressional committees, asking a judge to decide whether he should answer his own Congressional subpoena to testify, or observe the White House’s order to resist.
Kupperman’s lawsuit was widely viewed as a trial balloon for Bolton, who shares the same lawyer.
Democrats replied they have no patience for waiting around for the courts to sort all this out — and suggested they would lump Kupperman and Bolton’s resistance with other acts of defiance by the White House into a second article of impeachment for obstructing Congress.
Then things started to get messy:
- Democrats dropped their subpoena, asking the judge to dismiss Kupperman’s lawsuit.
- But the judge refused, allowing the case to proceed.
- Bolton’s lawyer taunted Democrats to subpoena him, too, saying he knows about important, secret stuff they haven’t heard yet.
- Democrats refused, accusing Bolton of just trying to delay their impeachment inquiry.
- Mulvaney then tried to join the Kupperman suit, presenting the surreal spectacle of the White House Chief of Staff filing to sue his own boss, the President of the United States.
- Kupperman tried to block Mulvaney, calling him a stand-in for Trump’s interests in the case and arguing he’d said too much in public, anyway.
- The judge agreed: Mulvaney had to go.
- Mulvaney dropped out Monday night, promising to file his own parallel lawsuit.
- But on Tuesday morning, Mulvaney changed his mind, saying he wouldn’t bother.
Meanwhile, another key witness for Democrats, John Eisenberg, told Democrats that he would abide by whatever decision is reached in the Kupperman lawsuit over whether to testify or not.
As a result, this messy legal dispute has now snowballed to potentially determine the future plans of at least three witnesses from the very top ranks of Trump’s White House: Bolton, Eisenberg and Kupperman.
And maybe more, if other officials decide to align their own fate with the case as well.
For now, the judge assigned to the case has been moving along at a pace that outside legal observers call leisurely by impeachment-crisis standards, but which the judge has repeatedly defended as fast enough.
He’s told everyone in the case that he wants oral arguments on December 10, just days before Democrats year-end deadline on impeachment.
That means an initial decision could drop in mid-December, right before the House wraps up its impeachment proceedings, raising the question of whether Bolton and Kupperman might view that verdict as sufficient justification to address Congress. Alternatively, they might hold out for the appeals process, which could reach all the way up to the Supreme Court.
Taking the latter path could easily take months — a delay Democrats have repeatedly said they won’t sit around waiting for.
Cover: President Donald Trump speaks to members of the media on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, before boarding Marine One for a short trip to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., and then on to Dayton, Ohio, and El Paso, Texas, in the afternoon to praise first responders and console family members and survivors from two recent mass shootings. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)