John Eisenberg Declines To Appear For House Impeachment Inquiry

Nov 5, 2019
Originally published on November 5, 2019 10:53 pm
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NOEL KING, HOST:

One of the four White House officials who didn't show up to testify yesterday was a man named John Eisenberg. He's the top lawyer at the National Security Council. And according to reports, Eisenberg listened to the complaints of White House officials who thought President Trump's request to Ukraine for an investigation into the Bidens was inappropriate. Eisenberg is believed to be the person who decided to put the roughed transcript of that call into a highly restricted computer file. NPR's Mara Liasson has this story.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: John Eisenberg has a triple-barreled title at the White House. He's the top legal adviser to the National Security Council, assistant to the president and deputy counsel to the president for national security affairs. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, who's worked with Eisenberg, says all those titles show just how confident the White House was in Eisenberg's judgment.

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: Eisenberg also has impeccable traditional conservative credentials. He has a Yale law degree. He was a clerk to conservative Judge Michael Luttig and Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He was also an associate deputy attorney general in the Office of Legal Counsel during the George W. Bush administration, where he worked under John Yoo.

JOHN YOO: He worked for me on a number of things related to Sept. 11 attacks and the response. You know, he was a very, very smart guy, very careful - person of very sound judgment.

LIASSON: In his current position, Eisenberg's job is to protect the institution of the presidency and to nix any illegal or unethical ideas that might harm it. Former National Security Council aide Peter Feaver remembers when he and his colleagues used to call the NSC legal office the Directorate of No.

PETER FEAVER: Because we'd come up with great ideas, things we wanted to do - and then we'd find out that those ideas were problematic, either from a domestic law or international law point of view. And so from a policymaker's perspective, often the lawyer is the skunk at the garden party. And you want a lawyer who understands the president's worldview but also has the courage to say no - say no all the way up to the president, if need be.

LIASSON: Eisenberg is described as a very private person. He doesn't talk to the press. And when he's in the presence of reporters, he seems uncomfortable. Back in March of 2017, reporters staked out his garage before dawn, hoping to ask him if the White House had shared intelligence on alleged Obama administration wrongdoing with Republican Congressman Devin Nunes. The cameras rolled as Eisenberg carefully folded his Burberry trench coat and put it in the trunk of his car. But he gave them no information.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...With Russian officials...

JOHN EISENBERG: I don't...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...By the Obama administration?

EISENBERG: I have no idea.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Can you tell us anything, any information about the...

EISENBERG: Have a good day.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: ...Current investigation going on...

LIASSON: According to reports about NSC aide Alexander Vindman's closed-door testimony, Vindman came to Eisenberg with concerns about the phone call where the president asks Ukraine to open an investigation into the Bidens. Eisenberg is believed to have decided to put the rough transcript of that call into a highly classified server known as the NICE system, for NSC Intelligence Collaboration Environment. Michael Mukasey says that's understandable.

MUKASEY: If he put the president's conversation with the Ukrainian leader on a restricted platform, which I think he did, then he had every good reason to do it. Conversations between heads of state generally are the kinds of conversations that neither participant wants to see released to the public. And because there has been a problem historically with leaks, one way to try to prevent it is to put it on a restricted platform, like the platform it was on. And I don't see any impropriety in that. I think it's an exercise of good judgment.

LIASSON: Peter Feaver says the fact that staff members were concerned about the call and went to Eisenberg is a sign that, so far at least, the system was working the way it was supposed to. But...

FEAVER: Of course it is evidence that people thought there was something fishy (laughter) about the telephone call. So it does contradict the president's claim that the call was perfect and everyone understood the call was perfect. Clearly, many, many of his senior advisers did not think the call or the policies that were being considered were perfect.

LIASSON: Including - at least in the short run - John Eisenberg.

Democrats see Eisenberg's actions as a cover-up, and they want to talk to him about why he handled the rough transcript the way he did. When or if they'll get a chance to do that is unclear. Eisenberg was directed by the White House not to show up yesterday, and he didn't. He has received a subpoena. And a source familiar with his legal strategy says he's considering joining a lawsuit brought by other White House officials asking the courts to decide who in the White House, other than the president and vice president, don't have to testify before Congress.

Mara Liasson, NPR News, the White House. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.