World

Trump puts it in writing — he won't co-operate in impeachment probe

The White House has declared it will not co-operate with what it termed an "illegitimate" impeachment probe by House Democrats, setting up a constitutional clash between U.S. President Donald Trump and Congress.

Democrats subpoena diplomat Gordon Sondland to testify about Ukraine

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, is accompanied by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, in Brussels in July 2018. Sondland has been wrapped up in a congressional impeachment inquiry, but the administration advised him at the last minute not to testify on Tuesday. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/The Associated Press)

The White House declared Tuesday it will not co-operate with what it termed an "illegitimate" impeachment probe by House Democrats, setting up a constitutional clash between U.S. President Donald Trump and Congress.

Trump lawyers sent a letter to House leaders bluntly stating their refusal to participate in the quickly moving impeachment investigation. The letter threatens to cease co-operation with Capitol Hill on key oversight matters, accusing lawmakers of formulating their probe "in a manner that violates fundamental fairness and constitutionally mandated due process."

"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," White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote.

The White House is objecting that the House did not formally vote to begin the impeachment inquiry into Trump and is also attacking the conduct of House intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has insisted the House is well within its rules to conduct oversight of the executive branch under the U.S. Constitution regardless of a vote.

The letter comes the same day that Trump intensified his fight with Congress, with the State Department blocking Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, from testifying behind closed doors before three congressional committees about the president's dealings with Ukraine.

House Democrats followed up by issuing a subpoena to have Sondland testify, on Oct. 16, after he was directed not to appear before the committees as planned on Tuesday morning.

House intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff arrives at work Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington. Schiff and other Democratic commitee chairs have been stymied by the White House on a number of occasions in their bid to interview officials or obtain documents. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE)

Sondland's lawyer, Robert Luskin, said his client was "profoundly disappointed" that he wouldn't be able to testify. And Schiff said Sondland's no-show was "yet additional strong evidence" of obstruction of Congress by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that will only strengthen a possible impeachment case.

A whistleblower's complaint and text messages released by another envoy portray Sondland as a potentially important witness in allegations that the Republican president sought to dig up dirt on a Democratic rival in Ukraine and other countries in the name of foreign policy.

Intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff said the cancellation took him by surprise, as the committee members had flown back to Washington for what was a special session.

Characterizing the administration's decision as "further acts of obstruction of a co-equal government," Schiff said the committee had also been denied access to pertinent text messages involving Sondland.

Listen: Historian on Trump impeachment prospects

Allan Lichtman, who has accurately predicted presidential elections since 1984, says impeachment would stop Trump from being re-elected. 8:13

Pelosi said thwarting the witness testimony on Tuesday was an "abuse of power" in itself by the president.

A senior administration official told reporters that no additional witnesses under its purview will be permitted to appear in front of Congress or comply with document requests, saying the policy under the current circumstances is that the administration will have "a full halt" because "this is not a valid procedure" for an impeachment inquiry. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration's position.

The White House is claiming that Trump's constitutional rights to cross-examine witnesses and review all evidence in impeachment proceedings extend even to House investigations, not just a potential Senate trial. It also is calling on Democrats to grant Republicans in the House subpoena power to seek evidence in the president's defence.

Sondland is best known in the Pacific Northwest as the founder of the Provenance Hotels chain.

He supported Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican primaries, but after Trump emerged as the Republican nominee, four limited liability corporations controlled by Sondland gave the Trump inaugural committee at least $1 million US, according to Federal Election Commission records and business filings.

He was nominated by Trump for his current role in May 2018 and confirmed by the Senate just over a month later.

With files from CBC News

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.