Written by Nicholas Fandos
House Democrats prepared Wednesday to force the Trump administration anew to answer questions in their impeachment investigation, one day after President Donald Trump and the White House declared that they would defy Congress in one of the most extraordinary assertions of executive authority in modern times.
House chairmen leading the impeachment inquiry planned to issue additional subpoenas for witness testimony and records related to Trump’s dealings with Ukraine as soon as Thursday, lawmakers and aides said, after a pause for the Jewish High Holy Days.
They want to force executive branch officials to answer to their demands, generating a detailed record of refusals that could shape an impeachment article charging Trump with obstructing Congress. Democrats also still see other meaningful avenues for gathering evidence that go around the Trump administration’s defiance, including questioning private citizens, career diplomats near retirement and the whistleblowers whose revelations fueled the inquiry.
“There is more we want to do,” said Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. He called the White House’s stonewalling “a brazen political move to try to align what has been a fragmented and uncertain strategy to defend the president.”
The Democrats’ investigation earned a prominent endorsement as former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading presidential candidate, said in a speech Wednesday in New Hampshire that Trump should be impeached for “shooting holes in the Constitution.” Biden set aside months of restraint complicated by the president’s unsubstantiated allegations about Biden’s own dealings with Ukraine.
The White House’s promise to put a “full halt” on cooperating with the impeachment inquiry was likely to force Democrats to more quickly confront questions about how long and how extensively to investigate Trump when ample evidence of his actions is already in the open.
So far, the Democrats have secured public support for their inquiry. Polls show that a majority of the public backs it, but if the White House successfully stanches the flow of evidence and lawmakers extend their investigation without delivering significant new findings, that support could erode.
“Every new piece of information has corroborated the basic facts, which are devastating for the president,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., a member of the Intelligence Committee. “How many smoking guns are we going to get? The president’s own words incriminate him. Every supporting document we have seen further supports the devastating facts we are learning more about every day.”
But moving too quickly toward drafting articles of impeachment could expose Democrats to charges that their inquiry was a rush to tarnish the Trump presidency rather than a pursuit of the truth.
Trump and other top administration officials, as well as his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, embarked in recent months on a campaign to pressure President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to open investigations that could benefit Trump politically. A whistleblower complaint helped bring the scandal more fully into public view and prompted the impeachment inquiry, and Democrats say they want to ensure that they are fully scrutinizing the facts before they move forward.
“There is another risk, which is you don’t get to the bottom of the story,” Himes said. “Was Rudy Giuliani running his own State Department? What other people were pressured to go along with this?”
The White House’s charged assertion late Tuesday that it would try to stymie the inquiry came in a letter from Pat Cipollone, the White House counsel, but the document read more like a political argument than a legal one.
“Put simply, you seek to overturn the results of the 2016 election and deprive the American people of the president they have freely chosen,” Cipollone wrote. “Many Democrats now apparently view impeachment not only as a means to undo the democratic results of the last election, but as a strategy to influence the next election, which is barely more than a year away.”
Trump said Wednesday that he was ready for a long fight with the Democrats but implied that he might reconsider if the House holds a vote authorizing the inquiry and granting Republicans and the White House new powers to call and cross-examine witnesses in the inquiry.
“We would if they give us our rights,” he said of Democrats.
And Trump’s congressional allies continued to try to undercut the impeachment case. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he would invite Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, to testify in public if the House did not release of a transcript of its private interview with him.
Volker helped try to secure commitments from Zelenskiy’s government to investigate corruption, serving as an intermediary among the Ukrainians, Trump and Giuliani.
House Democrats released damaging text messages that Volker shared showing his conversations with other U.S. diplomats and a top Ukrainian aide. But Republicans argued that Democrats were trying to cover up the fact that he told investigators behind closed doors that he saw nothing untoward between the Trump administration and the Ukrainian government.
Two key State Department figures will face choices in the coming days about whether to step down and testify to Congress or remain in the administration and keep quiet, according to current and former diplomats.
William Taylor, America’s top diplomat in Ukraine, has already retired twice from the State Department and was called back into service most recently to go to Kyiv. He has already threatened to quit once in protest over Trump’s Ukraine policy, according to the text messages that Volker shared with congressional investigators.
Marie Yovanovitch, who was forced out by the Trump administration as ambassador to Ukraine, is teaching at Georgetown University and nearing the end of her foreign service career. If she wants to tell her story to Congress, she will have no choice but to quit, current and former officials said. But even if they do resign, both Taylor and Yovanovitch could face hurdles to testifying in the impeachment inquiry. Trump could seek to tie up both officials’ eyewitness accounts in court by threatening legal action.
Congressional investigators also believe they can glean important information from private citizens whom the White House cannot claim executive privilege over and would also have a more difficult time evading subpoenas.
Most prominent among them is Giuliani, who appears to have orchestrated the monthslong effort to secure Ukrainian government support for investigations into Biden and his son and another unfounded theory about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election. Investigators have subpoenaed Giuliani for a vast set of records, to be delivered early next week.
And then there are the whistleblowers whose accounts have provided a road map to investigators. Lawmakers are finalizing arrangements to talk to the first whistleblower, who may be able to provide additional information or investigative leads.
The whistleblower’s lawyers have confirmed that they are also representing a second official who had more direct knowledge of the effort to pressure Ukraine. Lawmakers are also likely to want to speak to that official.