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WASHINGTON — Will Rick Perry comply with Congress? That’s the question hanging over the energy secretary now that he has been served a subpoena in the House impeachment inquiry.
Three top House Democrats on Thursday officially requested Perry to turn over a trove of documents related to the Trump administration’s interactions with Ukraine.
Now Perry, who has built a reputation in Washington as one of the rare Trump Cabinet officials with whom congressional Democrats can amicably work, will have to decide whether to listen to Congress at perhaps the most trying juncture of Trump’s presidency.
Perry’s decision will be an early test of how tightly President Donald Trump is able to control his deputies from becoming witnesses in Congress’ impeachment inquiry as the White House more broadly seeks to limit the information lawmakers have in their investigation.
Earlier this month, Perry suggested he would go along with orders from Congress. “We’re going to work with Congress and answer all their questions,” Perry told reporters in Chicago on Oct. 2. An Energy Department spokesperson did not reply to requests for comment on Friday or over the weekend.
But that was before Perry was directly subpoenaed, rather than just being mentioned in subpoenas issued to the White House and to Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani.
And it was before the White House issued a scorched-earth letter declaring it would refuse to cooperate with the impeachment investigation.
Perry, though accused of no wrongdoing, finds himself closer to the center of a Trump scandal than ever.
During a July 25 phone call, Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to open an investigation into one of his political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden. Trump later said Perry asked him to make that call, but Perry told reporters last week he did it so that the two could talk about energy issues.
The four-page subpoena directs Perry to hand over documents related to his involvement in the July call as well as to a Ukrainian state-owned natural gas company. The House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees have set a deadline of Oct. 18 for Perry to comply.
There is precedent for Perry to follow if he wants to follow the subpoena. The White House hasn’t been able to stop some administration officials from succumbing to the pressure of legal orders from Congress.
Despite a directive not to participate, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch went to Capitol Hill under subpoena on Friday. And Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, plans to testify this week under subpoena despite the State Department blocking him from previously appearing at a voluntary deposition.
By testifying or providing documents, administration officials risk having Trump fire them. But as The Washington Post’s Matt Zapotosky explains, the consequences of defying a congressional subpoena — which include fines or prison — could be seen as worse. The Energy Department, which runs national laboratories and maintains the nation’s nuclear stockpile, has kept a relatively low profile during the Trump administration.
Perry has been on the receiving end of a lot less criticism from Democrats compared to other Trump officials working on energy and environmental issues, such as former Environmental Protection Agency chief Scott Pruitt and ex-Interior Department secretary Ryan Zinke.
That’s not just because he’s managed to avoid major ethics controversies in office. It’s in part because the Energy Department has relatively fewer regulations to potentially roll back. (Though last week, a group of Senate Democrats wrote to the energy secretary urging the administration’s reversal of energy efficiency standards for lightbulbs.) And it’s partly because of the congeniality Perry brings to his interactions with Congress.
Often Perry has assuaged fears from congressional Democrats worried about funding cut requests to the Energy Department coming from budgetary ax officials in the White House, such as current acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
During a hearing last year, for example, Perry heaped praise onto an energy technology incubator, popular on both sides of the aisle, for “having such a profound impact on American lives” — despite the White House officially requesting to slash its budget to zero.
Perry has had an easy rapport with congressional Democrats privately — sometimes bringing them in on conference calls — as well as on the dais.
When former senator and “Saturday Night Live” comedian Al Franken asked Perry during his confirmation hearing whether he enjoyed meeting him in his office, Perry quipped, “I hope you are as much fun on that dais as you were on your couch.”