Mike Pompeo, Democrats trade intimidation charges in Trump probe
WASHINGTON — Trading hot charges of intimidation, the Trump administration took a defiant step toward resisting Congress' access to impeachment witnesses Tuesday, then House Democrats warned such efforts themselves could amount to an impeachable offense.
In quick escalation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the Democrats were trying to "intimidate" and "bully" five current and former career officials into testifying and providing documents. House investigators countered that it would be illegal for the secretary to try to protect Trump by preventing them from talking to Congress.
The exchange of accusations and warnings signaled yet another stiffening in the confrontation between the executive and legislative branches following the Democrats' launching of the impeachment inquiry late last week. That followed a national security whistleblower's disclosure of Trump's July phone call seeking help from the new Ukrainian president in investigating Democratic rival Joe Biden and Biden's son Hunter.
Some Trump supporters cheered Pompeo's muscular response to the Democrats. But it also complicated the secretary's own situation, coming the day after it was disclosed that he listened in during Trump's phone call with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy that helped trigger the impeachment inquiry.
"Any effort to intimidate witnesses or prevent them from talking with Congress_including State Department employees_is illegal and will constitute evidence of obstruction of the impeachment inquiry," said three House chairmen, Adam Schiff of the Intelligence committee, Eliot Engel of Foreign Affairs, and Elijah Cummings of Oversight.
They said that if he was on Trump's call, "Secretary Pompeo is now a fact witness in the House impeachment inquiry." And they warned, "He should immediately cease intimidating Department witnesses in order to protect himself and the President."
The committees are seeking documents and voluntary testimony from the current and former officials as the House digs into State Department actions and Trump's other calls with foreign leaders that have been shielded from scrutiny.
Pompeo said in a letter to the Democratic investigators on Tuesday that the requested dates for the officials to voluntarily appear for depositions, starting later this week, were "not feasible."
In halting any appearances by State officials, and demanding that executive branch lawyers accompany them, Pompeo is underscoring Attorney General William Barr's expansive view of White House authority and setting a tone for conflicts to come.
When issuing a separate subpoena last week as part of the inquiry, the chairmen of three House committees made it clear that stonewalling their investigation would be fought.
"Your failure or refusal to comply with the subpoena shall constitute evidence of obstruction of the House's impeachment inquiry," the three chairmen wrote.
Democrats often note that obstruction was one of the impeachment articles against Richard Nixon, who resigned the presidency in 1974 in the face of almost certain impeachment.
The chairmen are seeking testimony over the next two weeks from officials including the former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie "Masha" Yovanovitch, and former special envoy Kurt Volker.
Volker played a direct role in arranging meetings between Rudy Giuliani, who is Trump's personal lawyer, and Ukraine President Zelenskiy, the chairmen said, as part of a backchannel to Kyiv.
Volker, who has since resigned his position, is eager to appear as scheduled on Thursday, said one person familiar with the situation, but unauthorized to discuss it and granted anonymity. The career professional believes he acted appropriately and wants to tell his side of the situation, the person said.