by Cristina Marcos · October 8, 2019
The White House in a blistering letter to Congress said Tuesday it would refuse to cooperate further with the House impeachment inquiry, arguing Democrats were pursuing a “constitutionally invalid” investigation of a duly-elected president.
“Given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the executive branch cannot be expected to participate in it,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the three House committee chairmen leading the impeachment inquiry.
“President Trump cannot permit his administration to participate in this partisan inquiry under these circumstances.”
The announcement followed the administration’s decision to block a key State Department witness from testifying before House committees earlier in the day.
Rudy Giuliani, President Trump’s personal lawyer, also said Tuesday that he would not testify before the House Intelligence Committee in defiance of a subpoena, echoing the administration’s argument that the impeachment inquiry is illegitimate.
Trump and his GOP allies argue the inquiry is invalid unless the House takes a floor vote to authorize it, as was done with the inquiries into former Presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
Republicans also want a vote because it would put vulnerable Democrats on the record supporting an impeachment inquiry, and because they want equal subpoena power as had been granted in the past.
“In the history of our nation, the House of Representatives has never attempted to launch an impeachment inquiry against the president without a majority of the House taking political accountability for that decision by voting to authorize such a dramatic constitutional step,” Cipollone wrote in the letter to Pelosi and key committee chairmen.
Pelosi has said such a vote is unnecessary, and the Speaker almost certainly wants to avoid forcing her members to take that politically risky vote.
Democrats say that they don’t need to take a vote because the committees already have subpoena power thanks to rules changes made when Republicans controlled the House. Pelosi, in a letter last week to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), said that existing House rules provide committees “with full authority to conduct investigations for all matters under their jurisdiction, including impeachment investigations.”
Before the White House formally made its intentions known, Democrats had reacted to the State Department’s decision to block U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland’s deposition by issuing a subpoena for messages on a personal device that he turned over to the department.
They also doubled down on warning that preventing witnesses from testifying will be used as evidence of obstruction, which could become an additional article of impeachment.
“These actions appear to be part of the White House’s effort to obstruct the impeachment inquiry and to cover up President Trump’s misconduct from Congress and the American people. Ambassador Sondland’s testimony and documents are vital, and that is precisely why the Administration is now blocking his testimony and withholding his documents,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said in a joint statement.
“We consider this interference to be obstruction of the impeachment inquiry.”
The White House has rejected those arguments, stating in its Tuesday letter, “The president has a country to lead.”
Lawmakers were eager to question Sondland, a former hotelier and major Trump donor who emerged as a key figure in text messages provided to the House committees last week by former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker.
In those messages between Volker, Giuliani and other officials, Sondland is shown discussing Trump’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to open an investigation. Those talks took place before and after Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which he pressed for looking into former Vice President Joe Biden and the business dealings of his son Hunter.
In the text messages provided by Volker, Sondland dismissed concerns from William Taylor, the chargé d’affaires for Ukraine, about withholding military aid while Trump pressed for the investigation.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote in a Sept. 9 message.
Sondland replied: “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions.”
“The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The president is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign. I suggest we stop the back and forth by text,” Sondland wrote.
Yet The Wall Street Journal reported that Sondland told Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) that the aid to Ukraine was contingent on opening the investigation pursued by Trump. Johnson said that Trump denied the notion of a quid pro quo when he asked about it.
Trump defended the decision not to allow Sondland to testify.
“I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public to see,” Trump tweeted.
Giuliani told The Washington Post on Tuesday that he wouldn’t testify before the House Intelligence Committee either unless there’s an impeachment inquiry vote and Schiff is removed. He added that he “can’t imagine” anyone from the Trump administration would either.
The House committees are also seeking depositions with George Kent, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, and State Department Counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, though their testimony is now in doubt.
The lawyer representing two of Giuliani’s business associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, also said they would not appear for requested depositions.
At the moment, the House committees only have one confirmed witness testimony scheduled.
The Hill · by Cristina Marcos · October 8, 2019