WASHINGTON — The Trump administration and the leaders of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump clashed Tuesday over Democrats’ demands to depose State Department officials who are witnesses in their growing investigation, trading accusations of underhanded tactics.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed back in a letter Tuesday morning on a demand from three House committees for American diplomats to sit this week for depositions on Capitol Hill, saying the effort amounted to “an act of intimidation” and did not allow enough time for the State Department to properly respond.
The chairmen of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform Committees who have scheduled the confidential interviews scoffed at the suggestion, accusing Pompeo of being the one who was “intimidating department witnesses in order to protect himself and the president.” Blocking them from showing up as scheduled, they added, would constitute obstruction of Congress’ work — an action Democrats view as an impeachable offense itself.
“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,” wrote Rep. Adam B. Schiff, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee; Rep. Eliot L. Engel, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee; and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, the chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee. “In response, Congress may infer from this obstruction that any withheld documents and testimony would reveal information that corroborates the whistleblower complaint.”
In his letter, Pompeo did not refuse outright to allow the State Department employees to answer House investigators’ questions about the actions of Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Those issues are at the heart of the whistleblower’s complaint, which details attempts by the president to pressure Ukraine’s leaders to help smear one of his top Democratic challengers, former Vice President Joe Biden, using Giuliani to spearhead the effort.
But the testy exchange cast doubt on whether Democrats would be able to begin the depositions as planned on Wednesday, and raised the possibility that they might instead have to first issue a subpoena demanding compliance or turn to other pressure points.
Others in the president’s camp appeared to be preparing to confront the fast-moving inquiry, too.
Giuliani, who is named in a whistleblower complaint as a point man in the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine’s government, retained his own lawyer for the escalating inquiry.
And Trump himself, in an angry round of Twitter posts, suggested that Schiff, D-Calif., should be arrested.
The House chairmen who jointly scheduled the depositions were said to be preparing additional requests and subpoenas for information related to the case.
They have already issued a subpoena to Pompeo for documents related to the matter.
Trump’s latest attack on Schiff questioned why the congressman was not “being brought up on charges for fraudulently making up a statement and reading it to Congress.” The president was referring to remarks Schiff made during a hearing last week, where he dramatized the July phone call in which Trump pressed President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to work with Giuliani and William Barr, the attorney general, on investigations that would bolster him politically.
Pompeo’s letter appeared more likely to have an immediate effect on the unfolding case.
In a letter and a pair of tweets sent from Rome shortly after meeting with President Sergio Mattarella of Italy, the secretary described the Sept. 27 demand for the senior State Department officials’ testimony as “an attempt to intimidate, bully and treat improperly” American diplomats.
“Let me be clear: 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,” he wrote.
Standing with the Italian president, Pompeo ignored a question from journalists about his own participation in the July call between Trump and Zelenskiy that is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
House Democrats late last week subpoenaed Pompeo for documents and also asked for access to witnesses who were expected to speak to investigators this week. But given the recent disclosure that he also listened in on the call, Pompeo himself could be subpoenaed to testify.
The State Department witnesses who have been called for depositions include Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was recalled to Washington in May. Yovanovitch was instructed by the House to appear Wednesday.
It appeared more likely that Kurt D. Volker, the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, would appear on Thursday for his scheduled deposition. Volker resigned his State Department post on Friday, the same day the demand for his testimony was issued.
Other State Department employees who have been called are George P. Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs; T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, a State Department counselor; and Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union.
In his letter to Engel, Pompeo said the witnesses would not testify without Trump administration lawyers present. He also said the request did not leave the witnesses enough time to prepare for their interviews under oath.
But he did not rule out allowing the witnesses to talk to House investigators and said the State Department would respond to the subpoena for the documents by the Oct. 4 deadline.
Engel and two other House Democrats who are leading committees involved in the investigation sent two letters to Pompeo on Sept. 27. One said that the State Department had failed to comply with at least two earlier requests for information, starting Sept. 9.
The second letter warned Pompeo that a failure by the State Department employees to appear for their interviews “shall constitute evidence of obstruction of the House’s impeachment inquiry.” Pompeo replied that there was no legal basis for what he described as a “threat.”
“I urge you to exercise restraint in making such unfounded statements in the future,” Pompeo wrote Tuesday.