White House plan to thwart the impeachment inquiry is crumbling as Democrats barrel forward
When Democrats launched a full-fledged impeachment inquiry centering on President Donald Trump's Ukraine scandal, the White House and the administration had one primary tactical response: obstruct. If the administration could block Congress from obtaining the information about the president's efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating former Vice President Joe Biden, it seemed to believe, the air could be sucked out of the Democrats' sails.
This strategy was reflected in Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's letter to Congress, calling lawmakers' request to depose officials "an attempt to intimidate, bully, & treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State." He added: "I will not tolerate such tactics, and I will use all means at my disposal to prevent and expose any attempts to intimidate the dedicated professionals whom I am proud to lead and serve alongside at the Department of State."
But as the House of Representatives barrels forward with the inquiry, the strategy of obstruction is falling apart.
Initially, it seemed that Democrats' main response to the obstruction of the investigation would be to include an "obstruction of Congress" article as a part of the impeachment. This made sense on the merits — and such an article will likely still be included — but it could have meant that much of the evidence and testimony about the Ukraine matter would remain secret.
Instead, while Democrats can still charge Trump with trying to obstruct the investigation, they're proving remarkably able to get the testimony they need, despite the obstruction.
The latest evidence that the White House and the State Department's strategy was failing emerged Tuesday with the announcement that George Kent, a State Department expert on Ukraine, would testify that day before Congress. Politico's Kyle Cheney reported that the administration tried to stop Kent from testifying, so the House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena for him. Rather than defy a congressional subpoena, Kent defied the administration's wishes.
Democrats' efforts to subpoena testimony from witnesses from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation had previously hit a wall. The House is still in the process of suing for testimony from former White House counsel Don McGahn, despite issuing a subpoena for his testimony months ago. Others who have testified on their knowledge of events described in the Mueller report have given incomplete or insufficient answers, hiding behind an absurdly broad assertion of executive privilege. Democrats seemed powerless to conduct a formidable inquiry.
But since the Ukraine scandal involves many officials without direct loyalty to the president, the White House is finding it much harder to suppress damaging testimony now.
In addition to Kent, other State Department officials have testified for the inquiry against the administration's wishes. Former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was removed from the position earlier under dubious direction from Trump, testified last week over objections from the State Department. Like Kent, Yovanovitch received what seems to be a friendly subpoena in order to testify against the administration's wishes.
Former Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker testified before Congress after being let go from the State Department. His testimony included texts that made Trump and Rudy Giuliani's conduct toward Ukraine seem even more damning than it already appeared. And a former top aide to Pompeo, Michael McKinley, will reportedly testify for lawmakers after abruptly resigning last week.
And on Monday, former top Russia aide Fiona Hill testified before Congress for nearly 10 hours about the scandal. She reportedly revealed that there was widespread concern and objections about Ukraine policy within the administration before the scandal bubbled to the surface.
White House lawyers had written to Hill before the testimony and tried to limit her testimony, reports showed. But instead of backing down, her lawyers stood up for her right to speak, saying that executive privilege could not prevent her from discussing the information the White House wanted to conceal. After her testimony, Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD) said that both Hill and Yovanovitch would be considered "heroes" of the impeachment inquiry.
The White House strategy to keep information from Congress seems to be failing on another front as well. Ambassador Gordon Sondland, whose behavior as shown in Volker's texts looked particularly damaging for the president, will also testify this week. He, too, was directed not to testify by the administration, but he is refusing to follow that direction.
"Notwithstanding the State Department’s current direction to not testify, Ambassador Sondland will honor the Committees’ subpoena, and he looks forward to testifying on Thursday," Sondland's attorneys wrote in a statement. "Ambassador Sondland has at all times acted with integrity and in the interests of the United States. He has no agenda apart from answering the Committees’ questions fully and truthfully."
Sondland's text claiming that Trump wasn't looking for a quid pro quo from Ukraine, included among the batch Volker turned over, has been used by the president's defenders to argue that there was nothing nefarious going on. This argument was transparently frivolous on its face, but Sondland's testimony will reportedly make it even less credible as a defense for the president. According to multiple reports, Sondland says that Trump told him to claim there was no quid pro quo, but that the ambassador himself didn't know whether this claim was true.
Of course, in many ways, all this testimony is extraneous. Trump and Giuliani have already admitted to the core accusation of wrongdoing at the heart of the Ukraine scandal: trying to induce Ukraine to investigate a potential political rival of the president. This is a straightforward abuse of power.
But when claiming this abuse merits impeachment in opposition to those who are skeptical, having a thorough and robust impeachment inquiry, compiling ample evidence that the effort was sweeping, systematic, and disturbing to officials who knew better, will strengthen the case against the president. And Democrats may find evidence of further wrongdoing that exacerbates the core offense. Thus far, Democrats seem to be proving quite adept at obtaining the information they need — and they're moving at breakneck speed.