WASHINGTON — The Trump administration clashed on Tuesday with leaders of the House impeachment inquiry over their demands to question State Department officials who may have witnessed President Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine for political advantage.
In the first skirmish in what promises to be an epic impeachment struggle between the executive and legislative branches, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lashed out at three congressional committees that are seeking to depose diplomats involved in American policy toward Ukraine, calling their demands for confidential interviews “an act of intimidation.”
The House postponed the first of the depositions, which had been scheduled for Wednesday with the former United States ambassador to Ukraine, but not before the leaders of the impeachment inquiry upbraided Mr. Pompeo for questioning their work and asserting that their bid to swiftly schedule depositions did not allow enough time to properly respond.
The bitter back-and-forth only one week after the House started its impeachment inquiry foreshadowed what could be a consequential fight between the administration and House Democrats. They are determined to swiftly nail down facts at the heart of a whistle-blower complaint detailing Mr. Trump’s attempts to press Ukraine’s leader to help smear Joseph R. Biden Jr., the former vice president.
The White House is just as determined to thwart — or at least slow — the investigation, falling back on the same approach it has used to stonewall efforts by Congress to delve into episodes of potential obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump that were detailed by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
The latest standoff unfolded as lawmakers were unexpectedly put on notice that they could soon be provided with new evidence related to the State Department and Ukraine — a twist that could add crucial information to their investigation and, potentially, complicate efforts by Mr. Trump to block it.
The State Department’s independent watchdog wrote to several House and Senate committees on Tuesday afternoon to request a last-minute meeting on Wednesday “to discuss and provide staff with copies of documents related to the State Department and Ukraine,” according to an invitation reviewed by The New York Times.
It said the documents had been given to the inspector general, Steve A. Linick, by the department’s acting legal adviser, but did not provide additional information or indicate whether Mr. Pompeo was aware of the action. Mr. Linick’s office has not responded to calls or emails seeking comment for two days.
Mr. Trump himself, indignant as the new inquiry intensified, kept his focus on the anonymous whistle-blower whose complaint prompted the House to open it. In a series of tweets, the president asked why he was not “entitled to interview” the person and suggested that Representative Adam B. Schiff, Democrat of California and the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, should be arrested. And later, he said he was being targeted by a “COUP, intended to take away the Power of the People.”
The chairmen of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform Committees scoffed at Mr. Pompeo’s suggestion, charging that it was the secretary 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’s work — an action Democrats view as an impeachable offense itself.
By late afternoon on Tuesday, a House aide said the deposition of the former ambassador, Marie L. Yovanovitch, would now take place on Oct. 11. It was unclear if the State Department had approved that later appearance, or if Ms. Yovanovitch, who was recalled to Washington last May, was acting on her own.
The aide, who spoke anonymously to discuss private legal deliberations, also said that Kurt D. Volker, the former United States special envoy to Ukraine, had confirmed to lawmakers that he would appear on Thursday for his deposition as scheduled. Mr. Volker resigned his State Department post on Friday, the same day the demand for his testimony was issued.
It was also not apparent whether the other scheduled depositions would proceed, and the State Department declined to comment.
“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 Mr. Schiff; Representative Eliot L. Engel, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee; and Representative 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 whistle-blower complaint.”
Protesters last week at a rally on Capitol Hill calling for the impeachment of President Trump.CreditAnna Moneymaker/The New York Times
Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s private lawyer who is named in a whistle-blower complaint as a point man in the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine’s government, retained his own lawyer for the escalating inquiry.
Mr. Trump continued an acerbic offensive against Mr. Schiff, questioning why the congressman was not “being brought up on charges for fraudulently making up a statement and reading it to Congress.” He was referring to remarks Mr. Schiff made last week during a hearing, where he dramatized the July phone call in which Mr. Trump pressed President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to work with Mr. Giuliani and William P. Barr, the attorney general, on investigations that would bolster him politically.
The online venting came a day after Mr. Trump said the White House was trying to find out the whistle-blower person’s identity, despite institutional directives and confidentiality protections. In addition to interviewing the “so-called ‘Whistleblower,’” Mr. Trump tweeted on Tuesday, he would also like to interview “the person who gave all of the false information to him.”
The president’s remarks appeared to prompt a forceful, if not explicit, warning on Tuesday from a senior member of his own party. Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior-most Senate Republican and a longtime champion of whistle-blower laws, said the government and the news media “should always work to respect whistle-blowers’ requests for confidentiality.” He did not explicitly mention Mr. Trump.
“No one should be making judgments or pronouncements without hearing from the whistle-blower first and carefully following up on the facts,” Mr. Grassley said in a written statement from Iowa, where he underwent surgery this week. “Uninformed speculation wielded by politicians or media commentators as a partisan weapon is counterproductive and doesn’t serve the country.”
Mr. Grassley also pushed back against a claim frequently repeated by Mr. Trump and his allies that the whistle-blower was a “fraud” because he was not a firsthand observer of the events he described in his complaint.
“Complaints based on secondhand information should not be rejected out of hand,” Mr. Grassley said, “but they do require additional legwork to get at the facts and evaluate the claim’s credibility.”
But Mr. Trump’s strongest allies rushed to his defense, denouncing House Democrats for pursuing the impeachment investigation in the first place.
During an appearance on Fox Business Network, Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s trade adviser, compared the Democrats’ effort to an “attempted coup d’état,” Soviet-era secret police and the threat posed by three foreign adversaries: Russia, China and Iran.
Democrats were no less hyperbolic with their reactions to the president’s menacing talk about the whistle-blower.
On Twitter, Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California and a committee chairwoman, implored Republicans to halt Mr. Trump’s “filthy talk of whistle-blowers being spies & using mob language implying they should be killed.” But in the same message, she added the president “needs to be imprisoned & placed in solitary confinement.”
Mr. 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.
Other State Department employees who have been called for depositions by the House 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, the ambassador to the European Union.
In his letter to Mr. Engel, Democrat of New York, Mr. 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 a subpoena he received from the committees on Friday for documents by the Oct. 4 deadline.
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