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White House says it won't cooperate in 'illegitimate' impeachment inquiry

President Donald Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S.

President Donald Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, at Melsbroek Air Base, in Brussels on July 10, 2018. Photo Credit: AP / Pablo Martinez Monsivais

WASHINGTON — The White House gave formal notice to House Democrats Tuesday that it does not intend to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, setting up the latest clash between the executive and legislative branches of government.

White House Counsel Pat Cipollone, in an eight-page letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the three House committee leaders overseeing the probe into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, accused House Democrats of orchestrating a “partisan” inquiry aimed at overturning the 2016 election results and influencing the 2020 election.

“Your unprecedented actions have left the president with no choice,” Cipollone said in his letter. “In order to fulfill his duties to the American people, the Constitution, the Executive Branch, and all future occupants of the Office of the presidency, President Trump and his administration cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry under these circumstances.”

Cipollone said Trump’s legal team should have “the right to see all evidence, to present evidence, to call witnesses, to have counsel present at all hearings, to cross-examine all witnesses” and to object and respond to evidence of testimony. He also called on House Democrats to grant House Republicans power to issue their own subpoenas in defense of Trump.

House Democrats have defended the inquiry, arguing that Trump violated his oath of office when he called on a foreign head of state to investigate his political rivals ahead of the 2020 election.

"The White House says there is nothing wrong with pressuring a foreign government to intervene in a US election. They say: they will not cooperate with an impeachment inquiry unless it’s on their terms. They mean: the President is above the law. The Constitution says otherwise," House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), wrote on Twitter shortly after Cipollone sent his letter.

The White House’s letter came hours after the Trump administration blocked Gordon Sondland, Trump’s appointed ambassador to the European Union, from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Tuesday morning. He was to testify about Trump’s effort to withhold U.S. military aid to Ukraine as the president pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, his son Hunter, and an American cybersecurity company tied to the Democratic National Committee.

Pelosi, and the heads of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees responded by announcing their intent to subpoena Sondland. They accused the Trump administration of obstructing the impeachment inquiry by blocking Sondland’s testimony and denying access to text messages Sondland turned over to the State Department related to his dealings in Ukraine.

“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," Pelosi, Schiff, and Reps. Elijah Cummings of Maryland and Eliot Engel of New York said in a joint statement after Sondland's testimony was blocked.

“We consider this interference to be obstruction of the impeachment inquiry," they wrote. "We will be issuing subpoena to Ambassador Sondland for both his testimony and documents.”

Pelosi in a statement said: “This letter is manifestly wrong, and is simply another unlawful attempt to hide the facts of the Trump Administration’s brazen efforts to pressure foreign powers to intervene in the 2020 elections. Despite the White House’s stonewalling, we see a growing body of evidence that shows that President Trump abused his office and violated his oath to ‘protect, preserve and defend the Constitution.’”

Schiff, speaking to reporters after the canceled deposition, said Sondland’s sealed text messages were “deeply relevant” to the impeachment inquiry. Last week, Kurt Volker, the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine turned over text messages to the committee that included exchanges between Volker, Sondland, former acting Ukrainian Ambassador Bill Taylor, and Ukrainian official Andriy Yermak.

In a Sept. 9 text message exchange, after Taylor said it would be “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Sondland assured Taylor he was “incorrect” about Trump’s intentions. Sondland suggested “we stop the back and forth by text,” and recommended Taylor call a senior State Department official if he had any further concerns.  

“The American people have the right to know if the president is acting in their interests, in the nation’s interests with an eye toward our national security, and not in his narrow personal, political interests,” Schiff told reporters. “By preventing us from hearing from this witness and obtaining these documents, the president and secretary of state are taking actions that prevent us from getting the facts needed to protect the nation’s security.”

Sondland’s personal attorney Robert Luskin said his client traveled “to Washington from Brussels in order to prepare for his testimony and to be available to answer the Committee’s questions,” and was “profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify today.”

Trump weighed in on Twitter saying he “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.”

The president’s House Republican allies, speaking to reporters on Capitol Hill, echoed Trump’s sentiments. They took aim at House Democrats for only releasing only a portion of Volker’s text messages and called for the release all the text messages and a transcript of Volker’s closed door testimony to lawmakers last week.

Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) said Schiff has been running an “unfair and partisan process.”  

Pelosi, in a letter sent Tuesday to the House Democratic Caucus, said it was “imperative” that the caucus “address this investigation somberly and prayerfully.”

“The actions taken by the President over the past two weeks show a defiance of our Founders, with a total disregard for their wisdom and the U.S. Constitution,” Pelosi wrote.

A senior administration official speaking to reporters after Cipollone’s letter was released, said the White House could possibly “reevaluate” its willingness to cooperate if the House addresses some of the “flaws” outlined by Cipollone in his letter.

“We have to see what the House wants to do to try to remedy them,” the senior administration official said. “I don’t want to speculate. We'll take it as the situations develop, and day by day as things change.”

With Tom Brune

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