WASHINGTON — The Trump administration clashed on Tuesday with leaders of the House impeachment inquiry over their demands to question State Department officials who might 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. Mr. Pompeo called 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 impeachment inquiry’s leaders upbraided Mr. Pompeo for questioning their work and for asserting that their bid to swiftly schedule depositions did not allow enough time for a proper response.
The latest standoff unfolded as lawmakers were unexpectedly put on notice on Tuesday afternoon 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 Mr. Trump’s efforts to block it.
The department’s independent watchdog wrote to several House and Senate committees to request a last-minute meeting on Wednesday “to discuss and provide staff with copies of documents,” 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 State 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.
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 quickly 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 approach it has used to stonewall efforts by Congress to delve into episodes detailed by Robert S. Mueller III, the special counsel who investigated Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.
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, Mr. Trump tweeted that he was being targeted by a “COUP, intended to take away the Power of the People.”
In a joint statement, the chairmen of the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform Committees scoffed at Mr. Pompeo’s suggestion of intimidation, 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.
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.
The State Department declined to say if it would try to block other depositions.
“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,” 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 said in their statement. “In response, Congress may infer from this obstruction that any withheld documents and testimony would reveal information that corroborates the whistle-blower complaint.”
Later Tuesday, the chairmen sent a letter to Mr. Pompeo’s deputy, stating that they believed Mr. Pompeo had an “obvious conflict of interest” because of news reports that he listened in on a July phone call in which Mr. Trump pressed President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine to conduct investigations that would bolster Mr. Trump politically. They said they would no longer communicate with Mr. Pompeo about other witnesses.
Protesters last week at a rally on Capitol Hill calling for the impeachment of President Trump.CreditAnna Moneymaker/The New York Times
“Given the secretary’s own potential role, and reports of other State Department officials being involved in or knowledgeable of the events under investigation,” they wrote, “the committee may infer that he is trying to cover up illicit activity and misconduct, including by the president.”
Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s private lawyer, who is named in the whistle-blower complaint as a point man in the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine’s government, has retained his own lawyer for the escalating inquiry.
Mr. Trump also 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 in which he dramatized the July phone call.
The online venting came a day after Mr. Trump said the White House was trying to find out the whistle-blower’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.”
Without mentioning Mr. Trump by name, Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the most senior 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.”
“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.”
Mr. Trump’s strongest allies rushed to his defense, denouncing House Democrats for pursuing the impeachment investigation.
During an appearance on Fox Business Network, Peter Navarro, Mr. Trump’s trade adviser, compared the Democrats to Soviet-era secret police and their effort to an “attempted coup d’état.” He also likened them three foreign adversaries: Russia, China and Iran.
Democrats were no less hyperbolic.
On Twitter, Representative Maxine Waters, Democrat of California and a committee chairwoman, implored Republicans to halt Mr. Trump’s “filthy talk of whistleblowers being spies & using mob language implying they should be killed.” But in the same message, she added that the president “needs to be imprisoned & placed in solitary confinement.”
In a letter and a pair of tweets sent from Rome shortly after meeting with President Sergio Mattarella of Italy, Mr. Pompeo 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 tweeted.
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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