Impeachment probe: Democrats to seek White House records
World / 2 October 2019, 8:30pm / Patricia Zengerle, David Brunnstrom
WASHINGTON - Democrats on Wednesday intensified their impeachment probe of U.S. President Donald Trump, saying they would subpoena White House records concerning his July telephone call with Ukraine’s leader and warning Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other officials not to obstruct the investigation.
Pompeo, a close ally of Trump, acknowledged earlier in the day during a trip to Italy that he had listened in on the call in which the Republican president asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate a domestic political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
The call prompted the Democratic-led House of Representatives to launch its impeachment inquiry last week.
Pompeo’s admission came a day after he objected to Democratic efforts to take depositions from five current and former State Department officials.
“We’re not fooling around here, though. We don’t want this to drag on months and months and months, which appears to be the administration’s strategy,” U.S. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, whose panel is leading the impeachment inquiry, told a news conference alongside House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings said he intends to subpoena the White House for Ukraine-related records on Friday - the latest demand for evidence from an administration that has resisted such efforts by Democrats.
Cummings, in a memo to the committee explaining the move, accused the Trump administration of “flagrant disregard of multiple voluntary requests for documents.”
Schiff said Democrats are deeply concerned about the Trump administration’s potential interference with witnesses, saying any such efforts by the president, Pompeo or others would be considered as obstruction of justice.
The House launched its impeachment inquiry, which threatens Trump’s presidency, following a complaint brought by a whistleblower within the U.S. intelligence community over Trump’s request to Zelenskiy.
Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to challenge Trump in the 2020 presidential election. Democrats have accused Trump of pressuring a vulnerable U.S. ally to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election to harm a domestic political rival for Trump’s personal political benefit.
Scrutiny of Pompeo’s role in the administration’s interactions with Ukraine, including the recall of the U.S. ambassador to Kiev earlier this year, rose after the Wall Street Journal first reported that Pompeo had listened in on the Trump-Zelenskiy call.
“I was on the phone call,” Pompeo told reporters in Rome.
Pompeo sought to portray the call as proper, saying it was in the context of U.S. policymaking in Ukraine, including “taking down the Russia threat,” rooting out corruption in government and boosting the economy.
In an intensifying battle between House Democrats and Trump’s administration, Democratic-led committees previously subpoenaed Pompeo and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, as well as documents.
Trump made his request to Zelenskiy shortly after he had frozen nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine. Zelenskiy agreed to Trump’s request on the call. The aid money was later provided to Ukraine. Democrats have accused Trump of using taxpayer money as leverage on Ukraine.
Trump, who is seeking a second four-year term as president, has denied wrongdoing and has assailed the impeachment probe.
‘CORRUPT COURSE OF CONDUCT’
“To effectively coerce a foreign leader that is completely dependant on our country for military, economic, diplomatic and other support to intervene in our election to help his campaign - it’s hard to imagine a more corrupt course of conduct,” Schiff said.
Trump, speaking with reporters at the White House, lashed out again at Schiff and Pelosi. He also said he “might” limit how many people listen in on his calls with foreign leaders.
The Democratic chairmen of three House committees have accused Pompeo of intimidating witnesses, and said doing so is illegal. They warned Pompeo on Tuesday that he is considered “a fact witness in the House impeachment inquiry” based on his role in Trump’s call with Zelenskiy.
Pompeo said State Department employees had been contacted directly by lawmakers or their staff and told not to talk to the State Department’s legal counsel. He said, however, that he would cooperate with Congress.
The State Department’s inspector general, Steve Linick, is scheduled to brief congressional staff on Wednesday to address Ukraine-related documents that have been subpoenaed, according to two sources familiar with the situation.
Schiff said the intelligence community’s Inspector General Michael Atkinson will testify privately before the House intelligence committee on Friday. Atkinson has concluded that the whistleblower complaint was of urgent concern and appeared credible.
According to a summary of the July call released by the White House, Trump asked Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter in coordination with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Giuliani. Hunter Biden had sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that had been under investigation by Kiev.
The prospect that Trump solicited Ukraine’s help against his potential challenger next year has infuriated Democrats, many of whom blame the loss of the 2016 presidential election on Russian interference. Moscow has denied interfering in that campaign.
On Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he saw no evidence of pressure in Trump’s July conversation with Zelenskiy and added that there was nothing wrong with the U.S. president asking for an investigation into potential corruption.
U.S. intelligence agencies and Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Russia interfered in the 2016 election with a scheme of hacking and propaganda to boost Trump’s candidacy and disparage his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.
Kurt Volker, who resigned last Friday as Trump’s special representative for Ukraine, was scheduled to go to Capitol Hill to give a deposition to House staff on Thursday, the day he had been asked to appear. Marie Yovanovitch, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until she was abruptly recalled in May, has agreed to appear on Oct. 11. In his phone call with Zelenskiy, Trump called Yovanovitch “bad news.”
With their deep knowledge of Ukraine, testimony by Yovanovitch and Volker could be especially important to the impeachment probe.
The inquiry could lead to approval of articles of impeachment - or formal charges - against Trump in the House. That would lead to a trial in the Senate on whether to remove him from office. The president’s fellow Republicans control the Senate and have shown little appetite for removing him.