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House Democrats Brush Off Obstruction—But Don’t Have Easy Answers

October 17, 2019, 12:31 PM UTC

House Democrats on the investigative committees conducting an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump brushed off White House efforts to obstruct witnesses and documents, but a member of top Democratic leadership acknowledged that the Trump administration had made the process of getting facts for the inquiry “more difficult.”

The Trump Administration has defied congressional subpoenas for documents and released a scathing letter that it would not comply with the impeachment inquiry. That noncompliance was demonstrated on October 15, with Vice President Mike Pence, the Pentagon, and the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, all announcing that they would not comply with congressional subpoenas, and the Office of Management of Budget missing a deadline to comply with Congress, citing the White House letter that the inquiry was illegitimate. 

Several House Democrats on the committees conducting the investigation said they already had a great deal of information for the inquiry with the call notes released by the White House, the whistleblower complaint, and the text messages released by Ambassador Kurt Volker, all supporting the central charge—that in a July 25 phone call, President Trump dangled military aid to Ukraine and a White House visit for the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in exchange for doing the president’s political bidding to announce a new investigation into the Bidens. 

“Have you read the transcript the White House released? And the whistleblower complaint? And the text messages Ambassador Volker provided? Do you think they’re inadequate?” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) told reporters Wednesday. “I think what we already have available is compelling and disturbing.”

“The president has already established that he’s done something wrong. He didn’t hand us the smoking gun, he handed us the bullet when he released the transcript,” said Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) “You cannot solicit any assistance from a foreign national or foreign government. That’s the law in the United States. He’s already violated that law.”

However, given that the texts produced by Volker have been explosive, the refusal to provide additional documents from the White House and Giuliani could deprive Democrats of additional bombshells in their impeachment investigation.

At the top, Democratic leadership acknowledged that White House stonewalling had challenged their investigation. “The facts, obviously, have been more difficult to get because of the president’s not only refusal on his part—but his direction to people,” Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), the number two Democrat, told reporters at a briefing. The failure of individuals to testify before the inquiry has made “the fact-finding phase more difficult,” he added.

“It is frustrating the length of time it takes,” he added, hoping that the process would conclude before the end of 2019.

House Democrats have weak powers to enforce subpoenas. Hoyer ruled out Democrats from using the House’s arcane inherent power to jail officials in contempt of Congress. House Democrats have filed lawsuits against former White House counsel Don McGahn to compel testimony and a separate lawsuit to see the grand jury evidence behind the Mueller report. However, with the Ukraine call, Democrats have indicated that they would treat any White House obstruction as part of potential articles of impeachment against the president.

“All the committees have made it very clear that they will treat a refusal to appear to comply with a lawfully-issued subpoena or to produce documents as evidence of obstruction of Congress, which in and of itself, can be a basis for impeachment of the president,” said Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), “It is my hope at least that we will not engage in a months-long litigation.” 

Complicating matters for Democrats, even some State officials scheduled to testify before the committees have deferred to their employers on whether to turn over documents. Lawyers for Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, set to testify behind closed doors in the impeachment inquiry on Thursday, said that the State Department had sole authority to produce documents related to his “official” responsibilities. State directed Sondland and former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch not to testify, but Yovanovitch testified after being subpoenaed by Democrats. 

Yet, a former White House foreign policy adviser, Fiona Hill, told the committees behind closed doors on Monday that she viewed Sondland as a national security risk because the Trump donor was so unprepared for his job, according to the New York Times. The revelation indicated that testimony from officials was still producing dramatic new information about the inquiry.

However, Democrats would not get Sondland’s documents concerning his “official” responsibilities unless the State Department authorizes it. Given Hill’s testimony, there might be a reason behind it.

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