US House Democrats took their first concrete steps in the impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump on Friday, issuing subpoenas demanding documents from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and scheduling legal depositions for other State Department officials.
At the end of a chaotic week of revelation and recrimination, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi framed the impeachment inquiry as a sombre moment for a divided nation.
“This is no cause for any joy,” she said on MSNBC.
At the White House, a senior administration official confirmed a key detail from the unidentified whistle-blower who has accused Trump of abusing the power of his office. Trump, for his part, insisted that his actions and words have been “perfect” and the whistle-blower’s complaint might well be the work of “a partisan operative”.
The White House acknowledged that a record of the Trump phone call that is now at the centre of the impeachment inquiry had been sealed away in a highly-classified system at the direction of Trump’s National Security Council lawyers.
Separately, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told reporters that the whistle-blower “has protection under the law”, something Trump himself had appeared to question earlier in the day. He suggested then that his accuser “isn’t a whistle-blower at all”.
Still at issue is why the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president was put on “lockdown”, in the words of the whistle-blower.
The whistle-blower said that diverting the record in an unusual way was evidence that “White House officials understood the gravity of what had transpired” in the conversation.
The whistle-blower complaint alleges that Trump used his office to “solicit interference from a foreign country” to help himself in next year’s US election. In the phone call, days after ordering a freeze to some military assistance for Ukraine, Trump prodded new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig for potentially damaging material on Democratic rival Joe Biden and volunteered the assistance of his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and US Attorney General William Barr.
The House Foreign Affairs Committee issued a subpoena to Barr on Friday for documents related to contact with the Ukrainian government.
The Foreign Affairs panel, as well as the intelligence and oversight committees, also scheduled depositions for five State Department officials over the next two weeks, including former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, Ambassador Kurt Volker, the US special representative for Ukraine, and Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union.
Pelosi, meanwhile, refused to set a deadline for the inquiry but promised to act “expeditiously”. The House intelligence committee could draw members back to Washington, DC, next week.
Pelosi added, “I would say to Democrats and Republicans: We have to put country before party.”
At the White House, a senior administration official acknowledged to the Associated Press that the rough transcript of Trump’s conversation with Ukraine’s Zelensky had been moved to a highly-classified system maintained by the National Security Council. The official was granted anonymity on Friday to discuss sensitive matters.
White House attorneys had been made aware of concerns over Trump’s comments on the call even before the whistle-blower sent his allegations to the intelligence community’s inspector general. Those allegations, made in mid-August, were released on Thursday under heavy pressure from House Democrats.
All the while, Trump was keeping up his full-bore attack on the whistle-blower and the unnamed “White House officials” cited in the complaint, drawing a warning from Pelosi against retaliation.
Late on Thursday, Trump denounced people who might have talked to the whistle-blower as “close to a spy” and suggested they engaged in treason, an act punishable by death. Then on Friday, he said the person was “sounding more and more like the so-called whistle-blower isn’t a whistle-blower at all”.
He also alleged without evidence that information in the complaint has been “proved to be so inaccurate”.
Pelosi told MSNBC, “I’m concerned about some of the president’s comments about the whistle-blower.”
She said the House panels conducting the impeachment inquiry will make sure there is no retaliation against people who provided information in the case. On Thursday, House Democratic chairmen called Trump’s comments “witness intimidation” and suggested efforts by him to interfere with the potential witness could be unlawful.
Democratic Representative Joaquin Castro, a member of the intelligence committee, said the president calling whistle-blowers spies is “obscene … just grotesque”.
“If you ask me, I’d like to hear from everybody that was mentioned in that whistle-blowers report. I like to hear from Rudy Giuliani, from the attorney general. I think Mike Pompeo has explaining to do as well as the State Department.”
The intelligence community’s inspector general found the whistle-blower’s complaint “credible” despite finding indications of the person’s support for a different political candidate.
Legal experts said that by following proper procedures and filing a complaint with the government rather than disclosing the information to the media, the person is without question regarded as a whistle-blower entitled to protections against being fired or criminally prosecuted.
“This person clearly followed the exact path he was supposed to follow,” said Debra D’Agostino, a lawyer who represents whistle-blowers. “There is no basis for not calling this person a whistle-blower.”
On Thursday, Director of National Intelligence Joseph Maguire told the House Intelligence Committee that the whistle-blower “did the right thing”.
Lawyers say it also does not matter for the purposes of being treated as a whistle-blower if all of the allegations are borne out as entirely true, or even if political motives or partisanship did factor into the decision to come forward.
Giuliani, already in the spotlight, was scheduled to appear at a Kremlin-backed conference in Armenia on Tuesday. The agenda showed him speaking at a session on digital financial technologies. Russian President Vladimir Putin was also scheduled to participate in the conference.
Republicans were straining under the uncertainty of being swept up in the most serious test yet of their alliance with the Trump White House.
“We owe people to take it seriously,” said Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a onetime Trump rival who is now a member of the intelligence committee.
“Right now, I have more questions than answers,” he said. “The complaint raises serious allegations, and we need to determine whether they’re credible or not.”
More than 300 former national security officials from both Republican and Democratic administrations on Friday endorsed the House’s impeachment inquiry, saying they did not prejudge the outcome but wanted to know more facts.
A swift resolution to the impeachment inquiry may not be easy. The intelligence committee is diving in just as politicians leave Washington for a two-week recess, with the panel expected to work while away. One person familiar with the committee’s schedule said that members might return at the end of next week.
Findings will eventually need to be turned over to the House Judiciary Committee, which is compiling the work of five other panels into what is expected to be articles of impeachment. The panel will need to find consensus.
Meanwhile, Trump’s re-election campaign took to accusing Democrats of trying to “steal” the 2020 election in a new advertisement airing in a $10m television and digital buy next week.
The advertisement also attacks Democrat Biden, highlighting his efforts as vice president to make US aid to Ukraine contingent on that country firing a prosecutor believed to be corrupt. The advertisement claims that the fired prosecutor was investigating the former vice president’s son.
In fact, the prosecutor had failed to pursue any major anti-corruption investigations, leaving Ukraine’s international donors deeply frustrated. In pressing for the prosecutor’s removal, Biden was representing the official position of the US government, which was shared by other Western allies and many in Ukraine.