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Democrats may consider obstruction charges against Trump in impeachment probe

President Trump
President Trump talks to reporters after a ceremonial swearing-in ceremony for Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia in the Oval Office on Sept. 30, 2019.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

President Trump, desperate to undermine a fast-moving impeachment probe, could be adding to his troubles.

House Democrats say Trump’s stonewalling and threats to unmask a whistleblower could lead to obstruction charges if articles of impeachment are drafted over the president’s request for Ukraine’s government to investigate a potential Democratic opponent in next year’s election.

“Congress will stand up to the massive obstruction of the Trump administration if they continue down this course,” Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), a member of the House Judiciary Committee that would play a central role in the impeachment process, said Tuesday.

Trump’s allies made clear they’re digging in their heels, however, resisting the Democrats’ demands for documents and testimony.

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Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo said five current and former State Department officials who dealt with Ukraine would not provide depositions to House investigators as scheduled because they had “woefully inadequate” time to prepare, and because the request was not made through normal channels.

In a sharply worded three-page letter to Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Pompeo said the Democrats’ request “can be understood only as an attempt to intimidate, bully, and treat improperly” State Department professionals, including members of the foreign service.

Marie Yovanovitch, who was U.S. ambassador to Ukraine before she was recalled in May, was scheduled to give the first deposition on Wednesday, but a House committee official said it would be rescheduled for Oct. 11. The official said Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special representative to Ukraine, is still on track to give his deposition on Thursday.

Democrats responded with fury to Pompeo’s letter, saying he should “immediately cease intimidating [witnesses] to protect himself and the President.”

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“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,” said a statement from Engel; Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), chair of the House Intelligence Committee; and Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), chair of the House Oversight Committee.

The warning is an echo of the Watergate scandal, when articles of impeachment against President Nixon in 1974 included the charge that his administration had defied congressional subpoenas.

Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, separately suggested he might defy a House subpoena for documents regarding his meetings with Ukrainian officials, saying it “raises significant issues concerning legitimacy and constitutional and legal issues,” including attorney-client privilege.

On Tuesday, Giuliani hired former federal prosecutor Jon Sale to represent him in the widening inquiry.

It’s unclear whether House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) would allow the potential case to expand to include obstruction. She wants Democrats to focus on Trump’s alleged improper dealings with Ukraine, which she says betrayed his oath of office and jeopardized national security.

At the center of the inquiry is Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. When Zelensky brought up U.S. military aid, Trump immediately asked for his help with two investigations.

Trump urged Zelensky to “look into” former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic presidential candidate, and his son Hunter, who had worked for a Ukrainian natural gas company.

Trump also asked Zelensky about CrowdStrike, a California-based cybersecurity firm that established Russians had hacked the Democratic National Committee computer networks during the 2016 campaign. U.S. intelligence agencies and the Justice Department backed up that conclusion, but Trump has repeatedly questioned it.

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Over the past week, Trump has repeatedly lashed out at an anonymous whistleblower, whose complaint about the call first alleged that Trump was using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign government in the 2020 election.

One senior Republican offered support for the whistleblower on Tuesday, despite the president’s attacks.

“This person appears to have followed the whistleblower protection laws and ought to be heard out and protected,” Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa), who worked on laws to protect government employees who report wrongdoing, said in a statement. “We should always work to respect whistleblowers’ requests for confidentiality.”

Democrats argued that Trump’s attacks on the whistleblower bring his controversial call with Zelensky into sharp relief.

“Yeah, the best way to prove that you’re not conducting mob-like behavior is to use mob-like tactics to intimidate the person,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Dublin) said sarcastically.

Jay Sekulow, one of the president’s personal lawyers, said Trump has done nothing wrong by complaining about what he considers a partisan witch hunt.

“The president is allowed to exercise his 1st Amendment rights to defend himself,” he said.

Some outside experts urged Congress to add Trump’s attacks and his stonewalling to any impeachment charges.

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“An obstruction charge would be an important part of setting a standard for how presidents should behave,” said John Hudak, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution. “There is significant evidence that would suggest Congress should look into obstruction in their inquiry.”

David Iglesias, a former U.S. attorney who directs the Wheaton Center for Faith, Politics and Economics in Illinois, called Trump’s threats to unmask the whistleblower “grossly inappropriate” but said adding them to articles of impeachment could muddy a straightforward case.

“You should always stick to the most readily provable offense,” Iglesias said.

Trump’s approach to the Ukraine scandal echoes his defense during the Russia investigation, which ended last spring. He denounced former allies who cooperated with prosecutors and urged Jeff Sessions, his attorney general at the time, to shut down the probe. Behind closed doors, he attempted to fire special counsel Robert S. Mueller III.

Now he’s turning his fury to the whistleblower, claiming their information was wrong even though it has largely tracked the White House account of Trump’s phone call with Zelensky.

“Why aren’t we entitled to interview & learn everything about the Whistleblower,” Trump tweeted Tuesday. Last week, he described the whistleblower, and the White House officials who shared information for the complaint, as “close to a spy,” suggesting they had committed treason.

Under federal law, government whistleblowers are entitled to anonymity, and retaliating against one may violate the law. Under certain circumstances, deliberately disclosing an intelligence officer’s identity could also be a crime.

Andrew Bakaj, an attorney representing the whistleblower, complained Saturday in a letter to Joseph Maguire, the acting director of national intelligence, of “serious concerns we have regarding our client’s personal safety.” Noting Trump’s comments, Bakaj said he feared “our client will be put in harm’s way” if his identity is exposed.

Paul Rosenzweig, who worked with independent counsel Kenneth Starr during the investigation of President Clinton that led to his impeachment in 1998, said Trump’s angry tweets about the whistleblower can be viewed as attempted witness tampering.

“He obviously doesn’t think it’s criminal, because he does it publicly,” said Rosenzweig, now a senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a nonpartisan think tank in Washington. “But the truth is, that’s wrong. Witness tampering doesn’t have to be quiet. Most people keep it quiet because it’s a crime.”


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