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Democrats Strike Deal With an Obstruction Witness, but a Court Fight Looms

WASHINGTON — The House Judiciary Committee reached a deal with a key source of information for Robert S. Mueller III’s obstruction of justice investigation that will allow her to delay public testimony that had been scheduled for Monday but require her to answer written questions as the committee waits.

Democrats who control the committee said they were willing to take those steps because the witness, Annie Donaldson, is in her third trimester of pregnancy and lives in Alabama. They said she would still be required to testify in person in the coming months before the committee, which is investigating whether President Trump obstructed justice when he tried to thwart the special counsel’s examination of his campaign’s ties to Russia.

But like most everything between Congress and the Trump administration these days, what comes next is unlikely to be that simple.

The White House is expected to intervene to try to block Ms. Donaldson, a former White House lawyer, from answering any questions, in writing or in person, about her government service. The White House will most likely cite a Justice Department opinion that close aides to the president have “absolute immunity” from congressional subpoenas.

The House, in turn, is preparing to file a lawsuit as early as next week to try to get the federal courts to strike down the administration’s immunity theory, which has been advanced by presidents of both parties but has never been fully tested in court. Even though the suit will probably take aim at Ms. Donaldson’s former boss, the onetime White House counsel Donald F. McGahn II, a ruling in the Democrats’ favor could effectively force Ms. Donaldson and other witnesses who have defied the Judiciary Committee to take the witness stand.

That court fight could take months, but without full access to relevant witnesses, Democratic efforts to investigate and air possible obstruction and other misdeeds documented by Mr. Mueller have all but ground to a halt.

Democrats are struggling to gain traction on other investigations as well. On Monday, Representative Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, wrote a follow-up letter to Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, demanding answers about what happened to records of Mr. Trump’s meetings with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia after reports that Mr. Trump tried to conceal them.

Ms. Donaldson, as chief of staff to Mr. McGahn, witnessed or was privy to some of the most explosive moments detailed by Mr. Mueller’s investigators, including the firing of James B. Comey as F.B.I. director and attempts by Mr. Trump to gain control of the investigation. Ms. Donaldson kept detailed notes of those episodes and others, which are referenced frequently in Mr. Mueller’s 448-page report.

“Ms. Donaldson had a front-row seat to many of the instances outlined in the Mueller report dealing with President Trump’s alleged obstruction of justice and other abuses of power,” Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, the Judiciary Committee’s chairman, said in a statement on Monday, “which is why she is a key witness for the committee in our ongoing work to hold the president, his associates and members of his administration accountable.”

Mr. Nadler said the committee was willing to reach a compromise on testimony because Ms. Donaldson’s pregnancy “makes it difficult for her to travel and testify for long periods of time.”

A lawyer for Ms. Donaldson, Sandra Moser, said she was pleased with the accommodation.

Under the terms of her accord with the Judiciary Committee, Ms. Donaldson agreed to appear in person to testify sometime after Nov. 1 and will provide written answers to lawmakers’ questions in the meantime. The committee will most likely deliver those questions this week, a committee aide said. The White House, which declined to comment on Monday, could intervene thereafter.

The committee also said that as part of the agreement Ms. Donaldson would be required to tell lawmakers if the White House had previously shared internal documents with her and her lawyers — a move that could undercut White House claims that the material could still be protected by executive privilege. Confirming that fact would most likely benefit the Democrats’ case in court.

But a growing number of House Democratic lawmakers believe that going to court is not enough. On Monday, Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut and a senior member of the Intelligence Committee, became the 76th Democrat to support an impeachment inquiry, according to a tally by The New York Times. Mr. Himes, a moderate who had been urging a go-slow approach to an escalating conflict with Mr. Trump, said the moment had come for “clarity and conviction.”

“The politics of impeachment are messy and uncertain, and might, in the short run, serve the president’s narrow political interests,” Mr. Himes said in a statement. But, he added, “unless we restore respect for the law, respect for truth and respect for common decency, we cannot hope to solve any of our other pressing problems.”

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