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House Democrats issue first subpoena in Ukraine impeachment inquiry

House Democrats issue first subpoena in Ukraine impeachment inquiry

First major investigative actions taken
House Democrats issue first subpoena in Ukraine impeachment inquiry
Freshman members of Congress meet while votes occur on the House floor, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Sept. 27, 2019.
Photographer: Anna Moneymaker/The New York Times

House Democrats, moving quickly to escalate their impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, subpoenaed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday, demanding that he promptly produce a tranche of documents and a slate of witnesses that could shed light on the president’s attempts to pressure Ukraine to help tarnish a leading political rival.

The subpoena and demands for depositions were the first major investigative actions the House has taken since it launched impeachment proceedings this week in light of revelations that Trump pushed President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden, a contender for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, possibly using U.S. aid as leverage.

Democrats said more subpoenas — and possibly the scheduling of their first formal impeachment hearing — would come in the next week.

With Congress now in a two-week recess and lawmakers headed home to their districts, Democrats were working on two tracks, meticulously outlining a rapid-fire set of investigative steps while they honed their messaging for what promises to be a divisive and politically charged process.

The House Intelligence Committee told lawmakers to be ready to participate in a Ukraine-related public hearing next week, and it scheduled a private briefing for next Friday with Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who first notified Congress of an “urgent” whistleblower complaint related to Trump and Ukraine.

“Everything is real time,” said Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., a member of the Intelligence Committee, which has assumed the investigative lead. “You don’t sit back and contemplate the future when you are in the middle of it.”

The White House and State Department did not immediately respond to the Democrats’ request. But Trump began his day by attacking Rep. Adam B. Schiff, leader of the Intelligence Committee, and the Republican National Committee was planning a major advertising buy to counter Democratic efforts.

Still, the first potential crack emerged in the so-far nearly united Republican backing for Trump on Friday, when Rep. Mark Amodei of Nevada, a moderate who has broken with the president before, became the first Republican to endorse the inquiry.

“Using government agencies to, if it’s proven, to put your finger on the scale of an election, I don’t think that’s right,” Amodei told reporters Friday. “If it turns out that it’s something along those lines, then there’s a problem.”

Much of the House’s investigative work is expected to focus on corroborating the whistleblower complaint from a CIA officer, which accused Trump of abusing the power of his office to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating a leading political rival and then trying to cover it up. The depositions will most likely be conducted by committee staff and will take place out of public view to speed up the fact-finding process and avoid the political implications of a public hearing.

The subpoena for documents is far-reaching and mirrors early voluntary requests sent to the State Department and the White House. It demands a full transcript of the July call between Trump and Zelenskiy, a list of any State Department officials who listened to or received a readout of the call, and any records created by the department in relation to it. It also seeks any files related to efforts by the president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to push investigations into Biden or other matters involving Ukraine; and it calls for records related to the Trump administration’s decision to temporarily withhold $391 million in security aid from Ukraine.

Pompeo was given one week to produce the material.

Democrats presented their deposition requests as nonnegotiable, listing dates for early October appearances by officials who were either mentioned in a whistleblower complaint released this week or are connected to U.S. policy work in the region. They consist of Marie L. Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine; Kurt D. Volker, U.S. special envoy to Ukraine; George 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.

Volker abruptly resigned Friday.

“The committees are investigating the extent to which President Trump jeopardized national security by pressing Ukraine to interfere with our 2020 election and by withholding security assistance provided by Congress to help Ukraine counter Russian aggression,” said the letters, sent to Pompeo by Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee; Schiff of the Intelligence Committee; and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, chairman of the Oversight and Reform Committee.

After months of stonewalling congressional oversight requests sent by the House largely with impunity, the Trump administration now faces a crucial choice: cooperate and potentially hand over witnesses and documentary evidence that could help Democrats build a case against Trump, or refuse and risk bolstering a possible impeachment article charging the president with obstructing Congress.

Other investigative actions were underway, too. The Intelligence Committee continued to negotiate to meet with the whistleblower in a secure setting to try to identify other officials who witnessed the alleged events and who would be willing to cooperate with their work.

Atkinson could also boost that effort. When he met with the committee last week, he was restricted from sharing any details with Congress about the work his office did to initially corroborate the complaint. This time, he would be freer to discuss it.

It was not yet clear what the subject of a public hearing next week would be, if it occurs. Intelligence Committee officials said it could potentially unpack U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine or focus on whistleblowers.

“More subpoenas and investigatory steps will occur next week, as the investigation accelerates, and we will update you as those steps become public,” Schiff wrote in a letter to House colleagues Friday evening.

As the investigative committees charge forward in Washington, Democratic House leaders were preparing most of their caucus to build support for the inquiry back home. They were buoyed by new internal polling that showed that while the public is still split over impeaching Trump, a narrow majority supports the inquiry itself.

Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., head of the party’s messaging arm, circulated talking points for his colleagues Friday, aimed especially at helping moderates — many of whom were against an impeachment inquiry only a week ago but have now voiced their support — explain this past week’s dizzying turn of events to their constituents.

“Our members have a responsibility when they go home to not only share with the American people the process — lots of people aren’t familiar with how impeachment works,” Cicilline said. “But most importantly to share with their constituents the gravity of this event and the evidence that is already known to us about the president’s serious misconduct, really to focus the attention of the American people about this moment.”

Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent all House Democrats a letter late Friday, reflecting on what she called “a sad time for our country.” She said that House leaders would arrange several calls during the recess to update lawmakers on the impeachment inquiry.

Already, some Democrats were veering off that message, stoking progressive outrage about Trump’s conduct to call for his immediate removal. The reelection campaign of Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan began selling T-shirts emblazoned with the slogan “Impeach the MF,” using a two-letter abbreviation for an expletive the first-term congresswoman used for the president when she uttered that phrase in a speech to activists in January.

Trump, increasingly enraged by the airing of the allegations against him and Democrats’ move to consider impeaching him as a result, went on the attack with a series of tweets Friday. He called his conversation with Zelenskiy “perfect” and “appropriate.” The president and Republican allies trained their ire on Schiff, as well, demanding his resignation and calling him “a sick man.” One House Republican, Rep. Andy Biggs of Arizona, introduced a resolution to censure Schiff for exaggerating Trump’s exchange with Zelenskiy for dramatic effect during a hearing Thursday.

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