President Donald Trump declared a showdown Tuesday with the US House of Representatives probing possible impeachable offence over his flagged phone call to Ukraine leader in July.
In a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and the three committees connected to the impeachment inquiry, the White House said it would not cooperate and instead described the investigation as an effort to “overturn the results of the 2016 election.”
White House counsel Pat Cipollone accused House Democrats in an eight-page letter of making “legally unsupported demands” of the executive branch and accused them of violating the Constitution and past precedent in opening the impeachment inquiry into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
“Given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretence of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the Executive Branch cannot be expected to participate in it,” Cipollone wrote. “Because participating in this inquiry under the current unconstitutional posture would inflict lasting institutional harm on the Executive Branch and lasting damage to the separation of powers, you have left the President no choice.”
“Consistent with the duties of the President of the United States, and in particular his obligation to preserve the rights of future occupants of his office, President Trump cannot permit his Administration to participate in this partisan inquiry under these circumstances,” he wrote.
The letter came shortly after the Trump administration abruptly blocked a key witness in the Ukraine scandal from appearing before a congressional impeachment inquiry.
The U.S. State Department said the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, a Trump political donor, would not be allowed to appear, even though he had already flown from Europe to do so. Trump decried the Democratic-led inquiry into whether he abused his office in the pursuit of personal political gain as a “kangaroo court.”
Democratic lawmakers denounced the effort to block Sondland’s testimony, calling it an attempt to obstruct their inquiry and said they would subpoena Sondland, to compel him to submit to questions. The State Department did not respond to requests for comment on why Sondland had been blocked from speaking to lawmakers just hours before his scheduled appearance.
The move and subsequent letter were the White House’s most aggressive responses yet to the inquiry, which has cast a pall over Trump’s campaign to win back the White House in 2020. A whistleblower complaint about a July 25 phone call in which Trump pressed his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, prompted the inquiry.
Biden is a leading candidate among Democrats seeking their party’s presidential nomination to face Trump in next year’s election.
The investigation could lead to the approval of articles of impeachment – or formal charges – against Trump in the House. A trial on whether to remove him from office would then be held in the U.S. Senate. Republicans who control the Senate have shown little appetite for ousting Trump.
Trump has denied he did anything wrong in the phone call.
In the letter, White House lawyer Cipollone described the inquiry as “contrived” and called it “constitutionally invalid and a violation of due process.”
He said the inquiry was “a naked political strategy” designed to reverse the 2016 election and influence the November 2020 election.
“Your transparent rush to judgment, lack of democratically accountable authorization, and violation of basic rights in the current proceedings make clear the illegitimate, partisan purpose” of the inquiry, the letter said.
Legal experts said the U.S. Constitution gives the House broad discretion to decide how to conduct an impeachment investigation and that the Supreme Court would not second-guess the procedures Congress adopts.
“They can do the investigation in more or less any order they want,” said Frank Bowman, a law professor at the University of Missouri and the author of a book on impeachment.
The White House letter aligned with a growing strategy by Trump’s advisers to stonewall lawmakers’ demands for witnesses and documents, question the legality of the inquiry and insist that while Trump’s phone call was a mistake, it was not impeachable.
Sondland’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, said in a statement that his client “stands ready to testify on short notice, whenever he is permitted to appear.”
“The president is obstructing Congress from getting the facts. That is an abuse of power to act in this way,” Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters in Seattle.
A Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll conducted on Monday and Tuesday found support for impeachment unchanged among all Americans -holding at 45% since last week – but rising among Democrats. Opposition to impeachment also dropped by 2 percentage points from last week to 39%.
Among those who identify as Democrats, 79% said Trump should be impeached, up 5 percentage points from a similar poll that ran Sept. 26 to 30. Only 12% of Republicans and about one in three independents supported impeachment, which is mostly unchanged.
Trump defended the decision not to allow Sondland to testify, writing on Twitter: “I 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 Republicans’ rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public … to see.”
Pelosi announced late last month that the House would formally launch an impeachment inquiry into Trump, alleging he abused his office by urging the Ukrainian president to “look into” Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Democratic committee leaders have in recent days issued subpoenas demanding records from the White House, Vice President Mike Pence, the Office of Management and Budget, the Pentagon and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani as part of the investigation.
The administration has been increasingly unwilling to cooperate with requests for testimony and documents related to the burgeoning Ukraine scandal.
The State Department earlier Tuesday directed the administration’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, not to appear before lawmakers to discuss his conversations related to Ukraine.
Top Democrats have warned that the administration’s failure to comply with their requests could be cited as obstruction in future articles of impeachment.