In an extraordinary escalation of the impeachment battle, House Democrats on Friday subpoenaed the White House for a sweeping array of documents on President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and demanded numerous additional records from Vice President Mike Pence.
The subpoena was the Democrats’ most aggressive step yet in the 10-day-old impeachment inquiry, and it came as Trump angrily insisted — at least 27 times in a 23-minute news conference — that he was only seeking to root out corruption when he pressed Ukraine to investigate his Democratic political opponents.
“The White House has refused to engage with — or even respond to — multiple requests for documents from our committees on a voluntary basis. After nearly a month of stonewalling, it appears clear that the president has chosen the path of defiance, obstruction and cover-up,” top Democrats wrote in a letter to Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s acting chief of staff.
The White House is expected to fight the Democrats’ demands, setting the stage for a potential high-stakes court battle. That raised the specter of Watergate, when the Supreme Court unanimously ordered President Nixon to hand over secret Oval Office tapes and other subpoenaed material in 1974, a decision that swiftly led to Nixon’s resignation.
Katie Waldman, a spokeswoman for Pence, dismissed the Democrats’ request as not serious, given its scope, and dubbed it “just another attempt by the Do Nothing Democrats to call attention to their partisan impeachment.”
House Democrats were bolstered by newly-released text messages that showed senior U.S. diplomats in Kyiv, Ukraine, had discussed whether Trump was seeking a quid pro quo by blocking millions of dollars in U.S. military aid while pressing Ukaine’s new president to launch investigations that would help Trump politically.
At one point, the texts showed, the White House dangled an Oval Office meeting to Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president who was elected in April, if he would investigate debunked right-wing theories that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election.
“Heard from White House — assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington,” Kurt Volker, the U.S. special representative for Ukraine, wrote to Andrey Yermak, an advisor to Zelensky.
The message was sent shortly before a July 25 phone call in which Trump pressed Zelensky to target former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential opponent in next year’s election. Trump also wanted help undermining the Russia investigation, which ended last spring but remains a source of frustration for him.
Several weeks later, when it became apparent that Trump had blocked nearly $400 million in military and other congressionally-approved aid to Ukraine, another U.S. diplomat raised concerns that the decision was politically motivated.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, wrote on Sept. 9.
Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, pushed back, texting that Trump did not want a “quid pro quo,” meaning a trade of favors.
Volker, who resigned his State Department post last week, handed over the text messages to Congress on Thursday during a 10-hour deposition behind closed doors. House Democrats have asked Sondland for a deposition, but no date has been set.
Republican lawmakers have either stayed mum since the impeachment battle began, or assailed Democrats for pursuing a partisan investigation.
Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) said Friday that only “cherry-picked text messages” had been released instead of Volker’s entire deposition. “The actual interview directly undermined Democrats’ impeachment effort,” Meadows said.
But some cracks appeared in the GOP firewall of support for the president.
The loudest rebuke came from Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, the party’s presidential nominee in 2012. He said Trump’s public appeal on Thursday to Ukraine and China to investigate Biden is “wrong and appalling.”
“When the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China’s investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated,” he said in a statement.
Trump insisted over and over Friday that he was only seeking to investigate corruption, not his political opponents, putting a positive spin on his actions, when he asked Ukraine — and then China — to investigate Biden.
“Everything, to me, is about corruption,” Trump told reporters. “I don’t care about Biden’s campaign, but I do care about corruption.”
Since the scandal erupted, the president has spread unsubstantiated allegations that Biden, as vice president under President Obama, forced the ouster of Ukraine’s top prosecutor to protect his son Hunter, who was serving on the board of Burisma Holdings, a gas company.
Speaking to reporters in Los Angeles, Biden again denied wrongdoing and called Trump a “coward” who doesn’t want to face him in the next election.
“I’m worried that he gets so unhinged that … he does something really, really, really stupid in terms of our international interests,” he said.
Ukraine’s new prosecutor general said Friday that his office would audit more than a dozen legal cases that were closed or dormant, including several involving Burisma, but he did not say Biden’s role was in question.
“We are reviewing all the cases which were closed down or broken into smaller [cases] to decide whether they were closed illegally and should be reopened,” Ruslan Ryaboshapka told reporters in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital.
The earlier investigation involving Burisma did not touch on Hunter Biden’s activities. It examined whether the energy company, controlled by wealthy businessman Mykola Zlochevsky, had improperly obtained government licenses.
Ryaboshapka suggested prosecutors will focus on Zlochevsky and other Ukrainian businessmen, not on Hunter Biden.
“As far as we can see, this is more a question of Zlochevsky and [Ukrainian businessman Sergei] Kurchenko than Burisma and Biden,” he said.
Ryaboshapka replaced Yuri Lutsenko, the former chief prosecutor and one of the prime sources of allegations about the Bidens to Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s emissary and private lawyer.
Lutsenko told the Los Angeles Times last weekend, however, that he had seen no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
Lutsenko was fired in August amid accusations of corruption and incompetence. Ryaboshapka and his team have, so far, won praise for their independence.
Volker told lawmakers during his closed-door deposition on Thursday that he believed the allegations against Biden were unsubstantiated, and he provided new details on the behind-the-scenes diplomatic effort involving Ukraine.
Trump was originally opposed to meeting with Zelensky after he took office in May. The president described Ukraine as a corrupt country filled with “terrible people” who “tried to take me down,” a reference to allegations that Ukrainians assisted the investigation into Russian election meddling in 2016, according to Volker.
But Volker and other U.S. diplomats were determined to foster a relationship between Trump and Zelensky, and eventually a phone call was arranged between the two on July 25.
When Trump pushed Zelensky to investigate Biden and CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity company that worked with Democrats in the 2016 campaign, Zelensky responded vaguely but accommodatingly.
“I guarantee as the president of Ukraine that all the investigations will be done openly and candidly,” he told Trump, according to a White House account of the call.
U.S. diplomats began discussing when Zelensky would visit Washington, but Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, warned of a possible hang-up.
“I think [Trump] really wants the deliverable,” he wrote Volker on Aug. 9.
By then Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, had spent months networking with Ukrainian officials to push for the investigations that Trump wanted.
Volker helped arrange for Giuliani to meet with Yermak in Madrid, Spain, on Aug. 2. Volker testified that he set up the meeting hoping it would smooth over the dispute between Washington and Kyiv.
Giuliani said he told Yermak that he supported a meeting between Trump and Zelensky — with a caveat.
“I think a meeting is always a good thing. But I do think you have a big problem,” Giuliani recalled telling Yermak. He said there were “very substantial allegations of corruption and they have to be investigated.”
Volker and Sondland began talking with Yermak about a potential statement that Kyiv could issue about fighting corruption. But when they shared a draft with Giuliani, he wasn’t satisfied, according to Volker’s testimony.
Volker said Giuliani wanted the statement to specifically reference Burisma, the gas company where Biden’s son was a board member, and the 2016 election. The Ukrainians hesitated over the suggestion, and ultimately no statement was issued.
Giuliani declined to discuss his role in the statement. “I’m not going to tell you what I told them,” he said by phone Friday.
Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Kyiv, began expressing concerns about the U.S. weapons, communication systems and other Pentagon aid that Trump had blocked while Giuliani was demanding the Biden investigation.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he texted Sondland on Sept. 1.
Sondland made clear he wanted to take the discussion off-line.
“Call me,” he wrote.
Haberkorn and Megerian reported from Washington, and Wilkinson reported from Kyiv, Ukraine.