DOJ places new legal barrier between Democrats and Trump impeachment witnesses

The Justice Department opened a new front in the legal battle between congressional impeachment investigators and the White House on Tuesday by announcing that Congress must allow government attorneys to accompany executive branch witnesses who testify about President TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE's relations with Ukraine.  

In a newly released memo, the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel said “the assistance of agency counsel” is needed because testimony has the potential to disclose information “protected by executive privilege.” 

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The House Intelligence Committee, which has taken the lead on the impeachment inquiry, has heard from a number of witnesses whose personal lawyers have been allowed to attend depositions. But the Justice Department argued in its memo that the exclusion of government lawyers deprives Trump of his constitutional power to screen privileged information from lawmakers.

The department’s new legal posture is the latest development in the fight between Congress and the White House over access to information that House Democrats say is necessary to assess the strength of an impeachment case against Trump.       

The Justice Department’s five-page memo argues that congressional subpoenas that ask witnesses to appear without counsel are “legally invalid.”   

“The [House Intelligence Committee] could address this separation of powers problem by allowing agency counsel to assist the employee during the deposition,” the memo says. “Should the committee not do so, however, a subpoena purporting to require a witness to appear without such assistance would be invalid and not subject to civil or criminal enforcement.”

Attorneys representing House Democrats did not immediately respond to a request for comment.