White House had blocked former counsel from testifyingHouse Democrats push leadership to impeach The former White House counsel Don McGahn had been summoned to appear before the House judiciary committee on Tuesday morning. Photograph: Chris Wattie/Reuters Democrats faced another brazen attempt by Donald Trump to stonewall their investigations on Tuesday, this time with former White House counsel Donald McGahn defying a subpoena to appear before Congress on orders from the White House. The House judiciary committee held a brief hearing on Tuesday morning in McGahn’s absence, with an empty chair where he was supposed to sit. Trump blocked McGahn from testifying before Congress about the special counsel’s report on Russian election interference, prompting sharp criticism and fresh threats of impeachment. The committee chairman, Jerry Nadler, said the House would hold the president accountable “one way or the other” and the committee was ready to hold McGahn in contempt. The committee will hear McGahn’s testimony, “even if we have to go to court”, Nadler said. McGahn’s move leaves the Democrats without yet another witness – and a fuelled growing debate within the party about how to respond. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, backed by Nadler, is taking a step-by-step approach to the confrontations with Trump. Democrats were encouraged by an early success on that route, as a federal judge ruled against Trump on Monday in a financial records dispute with Congress. The ranking Republican on the House judiciary committee, representative Doug Collins, said Democrats were “trying desperately to make something out of nothing”. In a legal opinion released on Monday, the justice department said lawmakers on Capitol Hill could not compel McGahn, who was subpoenaed by the House judiciary committee, to answer their questions under oath. “The Department of Justice has provided a legal opinion stating that, based on long-standing, bipartisan, and constitutional precedent, the former counsel to the president cannot be forced to give such testimony, and Mr McGahn has been directed to act accordingly,” the White House press secretary, Sarah Sanders, said in a statement. “This action has been taken in order to ensure that future presidents can effectively execute the responsibilities of the office of the presidency.” McGahn is a central figure in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report, often standing in the way of Trump’s efforts to obstruct justice. According to investigators, McGahn threatened to resign when the president ordered him to have Mueller fired. McGahn was also dispatched by Trump to convince the former attorney general Jeff Sessions not to recuse himself from overseeing the Russia investigation. (Sessions did not heed the president’s demands.) Some members of the judiciary panel feel Pelosi should be more aggressive and launch impeachment hearings that would make it easier to get information from the administration. Such hearings would give Democrats more standing in court and could stop short of a vote to remove the president. The issue was raised in a meeting among top Democrats on Monday evening, where some members confronted Pelosi about opening up the impeachment hearings, according to three people familiar with the private conversation who requested anonymity to discuss it. The Maryland congressman Jamie Raskin made the case that launching an impeachment inquiry would consolidate the Trump investigations as Democrats try to keep focus on their other work, according to the people. Pelosi resisted, noting that several committees were doing investigations already and they had been successful in one court case. But the members, several of whom have spoken publicly about the need to be more aggressive with Trump, are increasingly impatient with the careful approach. Other Democrats in the meeting siding with Raskin included David Cicilline of Rhode Island, Ted Lieu of California and the freshman Colorado representative Joe Neguse. Just before the start of the meeting, Cicilline tweeted: “If Don McGahn does not testify tomorrow, it will be time to begin an impeachment inquiry of @realDonaldTrump.” In the hours after the discussion, Pelosi and Nadler met privately. Shortly after emerging from that meeting, Nadler said “it’s possible” when asked about impeachment hearings. But he noted that Democrats had won a court victory without having to take that step. “The president’s continuing lawless conduct is making it harder and harder to rule out impeachment or any other enforcement action,” Nadler said. McGahn’s refusal to testify is the latest of several moves to block Democratic investigations by Trump, who has said his administration will fight “all of the subpoenas”. The judiciary committee voted to hold the attorney general, William Barr, in contempt earlier this month after he declined to provide an unredacted version of the Mueller report. And the House intelligence committee is expected to take a vote on a separate “enforcement action” against the justice department this week after Barr declined a similar request from that panel. McGahn’s lawyer, William Burck, said in a letter to Nadler that McGahn was “conscious of the duties he, as an attorney, owes to his former client” and would decline to appear. Still, Burck encouraged the committee to negotiate a compromise with the White House, saying that his client “again finds himself facing contradictory instructions from two co-equal branches of government”.