Washington: House impeachment investigators widened the reach of their inquiry on Friday, subpoenaing the White House for a vast trove of documents and requesting more from Vice-President Mike Pence to better understand President Donald Trump’s attempts to pressure Ukraine to investigate his political rivals.
The subpoena, addressed to Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, calls for documents and communications that are highly delicate and would typically be subject in almost any White House to claims of executive privilege. If handed over by the October 18 deadline, the records could provide keys to understanding what transpired between the two countries and what steps, if any, the White House has taken to cover it up.
The request for records from a sitting vice-president is unusual in its own right, and Pence’s office quickly signalled he may not comply. In a letter to Pence, the chairmen of three House committees conducting the impeachment inquiry wrote that they were interested in “any role you may have played” in conveying Trump’s views to Ukraine. They asked for a lengthy list of documents detailing the administration’s dealings with Ukraine, to be produced by October 15.
The actions came at the end of another day of fast-moving developments in the House impeachment investigation, which is centred on allegations that Trump and his administration worked to bend America’s diplomatic apparatus for his own political benefit.
Trump himself appeared resigned to the prospect that he would be impeached, and was gearing up for an epic political battle to defend himself, predicting the Democrat-led House would approve articles of impeachment against him and the Republican-controlled Senate would acquit him.
“They’ll just get their people,” he said of House Democrats. “They’re all in line. Because even though many of them don’t want to vote, they have no choice. They have to follow their leadership. And then we’ll get it to the Senate, and we’re going to win.”
Privately, Trump briefly joined a conference call of House Republicans, defending his interactions with Ukraine and rallying his party to fight for him.
On Capitol Hill, the impeachment investigation continued gaining steam, as requests and information from witnesses began to stack up. For more than six hours on Friday, the House Intelligence Committee questioned the intelligence community’s independent watchdog who first fielded a whistle-blower complaint that has spurred the formal impeachment inquiry into Trump. Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general, had received the complaint and explained his own preliminary investigation into its validity before seeking to deliver it to Congress.
“What the inspector general said last time was, the whistle-blower pulled the fire alarm,” Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., told reporters. “We have now seen the smoke and the fire.”
How the White House, which has routinely rejected congressional requests for information, responds to the demands for documents could significantly shape the impeachment investigation going forward. Under normal circumstances, the White House could claim materials referred to in both requests were privileged, using that as a defence in court.
Press secretaries for the White House and the vice president issued similar statements assailing the demands, but did not clearly indicate whether they would comply or not. Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, said the subpoena “changes nothing” and called it “just more document requests, wasted time and taxpayer dollars that will ultimately show the president did nothing wrong.”
Katie Waldman, Pence’s press secretary, promptly said that “given the scope, it does not appear to be a serious request but just another attempt by the ‘Do Nothing Democrats’ to call attention to their partisan impeachment.”
But that will not help Trump’s case on Capitol Hill. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the chairmen leading the inquiry have consistently warned the White House that noncompliance with their requests will be viewed as obstruction of Congress, a potentially impeachable offence.
“The White House has refused to engage with — or even respond to — multiple requests for documents from our Committees on a voluntary basis,” said the letter to Mulvaney, signed by Rep. Adam Schiff of California, the Intelligence Committee chairman; Rep. Eliot Engel of New York, the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman; and Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the Oversight and Reform Committee chairman. “After nearly a month of stonewalling, it appears clear that the president has chosen the path of defiance, obstruction, and cover-up.”
In addition to the new subpoena and request, a significant subpoena deadline for the State Department to hand over similar material in its possession was also scheduled to arrive by the end of the day. It was not immediately clear if the department had complied or not.
Even as they worked, lawmakers from both parties continued Friday morning to try to make sense of a tranche of texts between American diplomats and a top aide to the Ukrainian president. Those messages were released late Thursday night, and called into question the truthfulness of Trump’s claim that there had been no quid pro quo attached to his pressing Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, his son and other Democrats.
The House committees are scheduled to interview additional witnesses implicated in the texts next week. Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union and a Trump supporter who has been actively involved in diplomacy with Ukraine, is expected to appear Tuesday, and Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, on Friday.
Democrats have pounced on the texts as further evidence that Trump was treating the investigations as a precondition to giving Ukraine, a US ally that borders Russia, a meeting with the president and a $391 million package of security aid. Most Republicans remained silent or stood by Trump in light of the new messages, but a few raised alarms.
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, one of the few members of Trump’s party who have been critical of the conduct at the centre of the impeachment inquiry, issued a statement condemning the president’s public comments on Thursday in which he invited China as well as Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
“When the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China’s investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated,” Romney said. “By all appearances, the president’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.”
Democrats on Capitol Hill said Atkinson’s account reinforced the seriousness of their effort.