(Written by Nicholas Fandos and Peter Baker)
House Democrats moved Wednesday to compel the White House to cooperate in their impeachment inquiry, announcing plans to issue a subpoena by Friday if it did not comply with requests for documents related to President Donald Trump’s efforts to press Ukraine to investigate a leading political rival, and any attempt to conceal his actions.
Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee, notified his panel of the impending subpoena Wednesday. He said the White House had thus far ignored voluntary requests he submitted with the House Intelligence and Foreign Affairs Committees.
“I do not take this step lightly,” Cummings wrote. “Over the past several weeks, the committees tried several times to obtain voluntary compliance with our requests for documents, but the White House has refused to engage with — or even respond to — the committees.”
The subpoena threat was the latest sign that the House was pushing ahead quickly with an aggressive investigation that has taken shape in just over two weeks, after revelations about attempts by Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats. The allegations, detailed in a whistleblower complaint, have escalated into an impeachment inquiry that threatens Trump’s presidency and is plainly enraging him.
On Wednesday, the president lashed out at Democrats online and before television cameras, denouncing leading lawmakers as “dishonest people” who were trying to overturn an election they lost in 2016. He distorted not just the facts of the case, but the investigative steps they had taken.
And in a bizarre late-afternoon scene, Democrats found their expectations almost comically dashed by a briefing with the State Department’s internal watchdog that they had expected to contain fresh revelations that could build their case about Trump. Steven A. Linick, the department’s inspector general, had made a mysterious, last-minute request to deliver documents related to Ukraine to Capitol Hill, setting off a frenzied round of speculation of yet another bombshell from inside the administration.
Instead, House Democrats were left fuming after Linick handed over a packet of news clippings, timelines and interview notes that appeared to belong to Giuliani, most related to the unsubstantiated corruption accusations about Biden and his son that were at the heart of the president’s pressure campaign.
Still, the impeachment inquiry is intensifying. Cummings’ warning suggested that lawmakers and their staffs were working sequentially to collect the evidence they believe they need to corroborate the anonymous CIA whistleblower complaint that touched off the inquiry. First, they targeted the State Department, then Giuliani and now the White House.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, chairman of the Intelligence Committee, warned the administration that any attempt to stonewall the House’s request or intimidate witnesses would be construed as obstruction worthy of impeachment itself.
“We’re not fooling around here,” Schiff said. “We don’t want this to drag on months and months and months, which would be the administration’s strategy. So they just need to know even as they try to undermine our ability to find the facts around the president’s effort to coerce a foreign leader to create dirt that he can use against a political opponent, that they will be strengthening the case on obstruction.”
Trump, watching on television from the White House, responded on Twitter: “The Do Nothing Democrats should be focused on building up our Country, not wasting everyone’s time and energy on BULLSHIT, which is what they have been doing ever since I got overwhelmingly elected in 2016, 223-306.”
Then, in a red-faced harangue in the Oval Office with a visibly uncomfortable president of Finland sitting next to him, Trump declared Democrats “guilty as hell” of corrupting the 2016 election, Biden “corrupt” and “less smart now than he ever was,” and the CIA whistleblower “a spy in my opinion.”
He saved his sharpest barbs for Schiff, who has taken the lead in the investigations. Trump called him “a lowlife” and “shifty, dishonest guy.” Referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the president said Schiff “couldn’t carry his blank strap,” using the word “blank” instead of “jock” for the locker-room insult.
At a second appearance with the visiting President Sauli Niinisto of Finland not much later, Trump became increasingly angry while responding to questions about the impeachment investigation.
He went after Schiff anew, seizing on a New York Times report that the chairman had learned the outlines of the whistleblower’s complaint earlier than previously known. Trump said, falsely, that Schiff had “helped write it.”
The president was so agitated as he was pelted with questions that he repeatedly ordered reporters to query Niinisto instead. At the end, Trump turned his back on the Finnish president and stalked off the stage in the East Room without offering his guest the customary handshake.
Giuliani said in an interview that the Democrats were “coming after his two lawyers,” him and Attorney General William Barr, with their push to investigate the Ukraine call. Giuliani said that he and Trump were considering filing a lawsuit against Schiff.
There was a sense of theatrics on Capitol Hill, too, around Linick’s appearance.
Some news media reports before the briefing suggested that Linick planned to bring evidence that showed Pompeo or his deputies had been trying to retaliate against State Department officials who cooperated with Congress. On a private call with Democratic lawmakers before the briefing, Cummings advised his colleagues to “stay tuned” for potentially big news.
Nothing of the sort materialized. Instead, Democrats left frustrated, accusing Linick of all but wasting their time with a few dozen pages of conspiratorial documents about the Bidens and Ukraine.
The material came in an aged manila envelope that was addressed in elaborate script to Pompeo and listed “The White House” as the return address. It contained several folders that appeared to have come from a Trump hotel and copies of interview notes bearing the address of Giuliani’s New York office.
Democrats said afterward that Linick had told them he interviewed T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, Pompeo’s counselor, about the material. Brechbuhl said Pompeo had told him the information “came over”; Brechbuhl assumed it was from the White House.
Linick did not take questions publicly.
Walking out of the briefing with a copy of the files in hand, Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., called the material an “irrelevant distraction from the matter at hand.”
“It is very clear what it is,” he told reporters. “It is a package of propaganda, misinformation and conspiracy theories. The real question is where did it come from and how did it end up in our laps?”
Giuliani confirmed Wednesday that at least some of the material was his. He said he gave Ukraine-related material to Pompeo in March, but indicated that the secretary of state did not do anything with it.
The draft subpoena circulated by Cummings suggests he is casting a wide net for potential records related to the Ukraine matter, and is all but certain to touch off a battle with a White House that has a long history of refusing to comply with congressional requests. It explicitly asks for records that could indicate whether the White House or other administration officials took steps to conceal or destroy the records to prevent Congress or the public from learning what had happened.
Among the documents requested are any recordings, transcripts, notes or other records related to a July phone call in which Trump pressed President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to conduct investigations that would bolster the American leader politically, or an earlier April call between the two men. It asks for a full list of White House staff members involved in or aware of the calls, any communications that refer to the July call and details about how the White House maintained records of the call.
The Justice Department on Wednesday agreed to preserve record of Trump’s calls with foreign leaders.
The draft subpoena also directs the White House to hand over records of any calls with other foreign leaders referring to the topics Trump discussed with Zelenskiy; of meetings related to Ukraine; and of the decision to temporarily withhold $391 million in security aid from the country this summer at the time Trump was pressing Zelenskiy.
Asked if he would cooperate, Trump said, “I always cooperate.” But he then instantly denounced the investigation as “the greatest hoax” and made no mention of the fact that he and his administration have spent much of the year blocking House requests for documents and testimony that they deemed partisan.
On Tuesday, Pompeo became one of the first Trump administration officials to push back officially on the House investigation, writing in a letter to Democratic chairmen that their demands for confidential interviews with diplomats with knowledge of the case was “an act of intimidation” and would not be immediately met.
But instead of bringing it to a halt, Pompeo’s actions seem only to have fueled the case. The Democrats said any attempt to block witnesses from speaking to Congress would be construed by them as witness intimidation. And at least two of the diplomats Pompeo objected to speaking had indicated to the House that they would appear for private depositions anyway. Schiff indicated on Wednesday, though, that three other scheduled depositions may not yet be assured.