MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Today the story of the House impeachment inquiry was the story of what did not happen. Four senior White House officials were supposed to appear on the Hill to testify. They did not show up. Here to explain why is national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there.
KELLY: We are - what? - more than a month into this now. Some people called on to answer questions show up. Others do not. Why did those on today's roster not appear?
LIASSON: Well, it is a little confusing because the White House, of course, said very famously that they didn't want to cooperate at all.
LIASSON: And some people have honored the subpoenas. Other people believe they have legal grounds to be immune from testifying to Congress. And their lawyers - after having been directed by the White House not to testify, not to honor the subpoena, they've gone to court, and they're asking the judicial branch to adjudicate this. Who wins out in this constitutional clash - the legislative branch or the executive? This is frustrating to Congress. They think it's a stalling tactic, and they've said this could result in an article of obstruction. One of the articles of impeachment could be about this refusal to testify.
KELLY: All right, but if it's a stalling tactic, it would appear to be working. These people did not show up. They haven't testified.
LIASSON: Right, but it doesn't seem to be a giant roadblock to the impeachment inquiry, which is steaming ahead. They're starting - the House is starting to release the transcripts of the closed-door testimony. They say we're going to have public hearings sometime this month, so it sounds like it's not going to derail the impeachment proceedings.
KELLY: Let me zoom us in on one of the people who was invited - asked to testify today. The person with probably the most prominent role in the story would be John Eisenberg from the National Security Council. Who is he? Why would his testimony have been so significant?
LIASSON: Well, he's the top legal counsel at the White House. Normally, you would never hear about him. He actually has a triple-barrel title. He is the top legal adviser to the NSC, he's the assistant to the president, and he's a Deputy Counsel to the President for National Security Affairs. And according to former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who's worked with Eisenberg in the past - he says all of those titles show how confident the White House was in Eisenberg's judgment.
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MICHAEL MUKASEY: Now, you don't get to be any of those unless people have a great deal of confidence in your judgment. I don't know anybody who's ever been all three.
LIASSON: And another person who worked with him in the past - John Yoo, who worked with him at the Office of Legal Counsel in the George W. Bush administration - says that Eisenberg has a reputation for being very careful, thoughtful and very private.
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JOHN YOO: I wouldn't say he was paranoid. If people thought he was, it's just because they see him being very careful about who's allowed to have access to what classified information.
LIASSON: So Eisenberg's job was to protect the institution of the presidency from dumb ideas. In other words, he was the one...
KELLY: Another job title...
KELLY: ...For his business - yeah.
LIASSON: Yeah. Well, he was supposed to say, this is illegal or unethical, or, it violates domestic law or international law. And he is the one that, according to reports from the closed-door testimony, heard the complaints about the officials who were very nervous and worried about the call. They felt that the president's request to the Ukrainian president to do an investigation of the Bidens was inappropriate. This is how this system is supposed to work. They took their complaints to the White House counsel. He took some notes. Then he decided to put the rough transcript of the call into a special, highly classified computer system where few people would get to see it.
KELLY: Which - and the question is, why? Was he trying to cover something up? Was there some very good reason to do this that we don't fully understand yet? I mean, what do we know?
LIASSON: Right. Well, that is the big question. Democrats say it's a cover-up, but according to - a lot of former NSC aides that I've talked to say that at least in the short term, it might have been a good idea. He put it there while he tried to figure out the legalities of the situation. He didn't want it to leak in the meantime. But this is what the Democrats want to talk to him about, and of course, it's unclear if they ever will get to.
KELLY: I was going to ask. Are they ever going to get to speak to him?
LIASSON: Well, I think the court will have to rule that these subpoenas can be enforced before we hear from John Eisenberg.
KELLY: That is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson at the White House. Thank you, Mara.
LIASSON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.