Donald Trump’s administration pushed back hard Tuesday against the impeachment probe threatening his presidency, accusing Democrats of trying to intimidate and bully diplomats into testifying against the White House.
Lawmakers investigating accusations that Trump abused his office by seeking dirt from Ukraine on a 2020 election rival have summoned five witnesses to testify on Capitol Hill.
But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a fiery letter to three committee heads leading the inquiry that the five former or current State Department staffers would not be testifying in the coming week as requested.
The committees’ request “can be understood only as an attempt to intimidate, bully and treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State,” Pompeo said in a letter to Congress.
“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.”
In the first major clash over the days-old impeachment probe, the chairs of the three committees reacted sharply, accusing Pompeo of “stonewalling” the investigation and risking being charged with obstruction.
“Secretary Pompeo was reportedly on the call when the President pressed Ukraine to smear his political opponent,” said Adam Schiff of the Intelligence Committee, Eliot Engel of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Elijah Cummings of the Oversight Committee.
“He should immediately cease intimidating Department witnesses in order to protect himself and the President.”
“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.”
The clash pointed to the tough political and legal battles to come as Democrats threaten to make Trump only the third president ever impeached, risking him being put on trial in the Senate for possible removal from office.
Pompeo’s letter suggested that the committees could be forced to subpoena the five diplomats, and that the State Department and White House could seek to limit what they can talk about.
Earlier, Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani — a central figure in the White House effort to seek dirt from Ukraine on Democrat Joe Biden — suggested he might not comply with a House subpoena issued on Monday.
The subpoena “raises significant issues concerning legitimacy and constitutional and legal issues including, inter alia, attorney client and other privileges,” he said in a statement.
“It will be given appropriate consideration.”
Schiff launched into the impeachment probe on Friday after a White House memo on Trump’s July 25 call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky supported a whistleblower’s allegations that Trump tried to enlist Ukraine’s help in his fight for reelection next year, and then tried to hide the fact.
Pompeo was one of several people who listened to the call, in which, according to the official record, Trump spoke of little but his desire for Ukraine’s help against Biden.
Schiff’s first act was to subpoena Pompeo for documents related to communications with Ukraine and to interview the five current or former diplomats.
They include Marie Yovanovitch, who was removed earlier this year as US ambassador in Kiev after she reportedly resisted helping the administration pressure Zelensky.
They also include Kurt Volker, who was the US special envoy to Ukraine and was involved in Giuliani’s efforts to obtain Kiev’s cooperation.