Donald Trump pushed the United States towards a constitutional crisis on Tuesday when his legal counsel said the White House would refuse to cooperate with Congress’s impeachment inquiry.
“Given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the Executive Branch cannot be expected to participate in it,” the counsel Pat Cipollone said in a letter to Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives.
The eight-page missive came after the Trump administration abruptly blocked a key witness in the Ukraine scandal from appearing before the congressional impeachment inquiry and sets the stage for a bitter partisan fight in the weeks ahead.
It sets up a clash between the White House and Congress – the executive and legislative branches.
The letter appeared to put the emphasis on political rebuttal rather than structured legal argument – perhaps marking a new strategy to counter the impeachment threat with stalling and counter-attacking.
Trump aides have begun honing their approach after two weeks of what some allies have described as a listless and unfocused response to the inquiry.
The inquiry was launched by the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, last month after it emerged that, in a July phone call, Trump had pressed the leader of Ukraine to investigate a political rival, Joe Biden. The president and his allies have sought to question the inquiry’s legitimacy.
In particular, the White House objects that the House did not formally vote to begin the impeachment inquiry, breaking with precedent set in the inquiries into Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton.
Pelosi has insisted the House is well within its rules to conduct oversight of the executive branch under the constitution regardless of a vote.
The administration is also sharply critical of the conduct of House intelligence committee chairman, Adam Schiff, whose committee is leading the inquiry, and it appears determined to stonewall Democrats for as long as possible.
In its most aggressive response yet, Cipollone wrote in the letter, released in the late afternoon on Tuesday: “Your unprecedented actions have left the president with no choice. In order to fulfill his duties to the American people, the Constitution, the Executive Branch and all future occupants of the Office of the Presidency, President Trump and his administration cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry under these circumstances.”
Cipollone’s letter threatens to end cooperation with Congress on important oversight matters, accusing members of formulating their investigation “in a manner that violates fundamental fairness and constitutionally mandated due process”.
It adds: “To comply with the Constitution’s demands, appropriate procedures would include – at a minimum – the right to see all evidence, to present evidence, to call witnesses, to have counsel present at all hearings, to cross-examine all witnesses, to make objections relating to the examination of witnesses or the admissibility of testimony and evidence, and to respond to evidence and testimony.”
Earlier, the state department said the US ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, a Trump political donor, would not be allowed to appear, even though he had already travelled from Europe to testify behind closed doors. Trump decried the Democratic-led inquiry into whether he abused his office in the pursuit of personal political gain as a “kangaroo court”.
Democrats condemned the move, calling it an attempt to obstruct their inquiry, and issued a subpoena for Sondland, seeking documents by 14 October and a deposition on 16 October.
Schiff said the ambassador’s no-show was “yet additional strong evidence” of obstruction of Congress by Trump and the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, that will only strengthen a possible impeachment case.
Meanwhile, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has said he will not testify before the House intelligence committee unless committee members vote to remove Schiff. “I wouldn’t testify in front of that committee until there is a vote of Congress and he is removed,” Giuliani told the Washington Post. “Let them hold me in contempt. We’ll go to court. We’ll challenge the contempt.”
He added: “The position I’m stating is now the position of the administration.”
The House committees leading the fast-moving investigation intend to call and subpoena a number of Trump administration witnesses. The investigation could lead to the approval of articles of impeachment against Trump in the House. A trial on whether to remove him from office would then be held in the Senate, where Republicans have the upper hand.
Trump’s supporters in the House endorsed the letter. The House Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, said: “House Democrats have wanted to undo the results of the 2016 election for three years, and now they’re rushing a sham impeachment process.
“President Trump is right to call out this rushed process because Democrats refuse to protect the transparency and basic fairness that have been integral to previous impeachment proceedings.”