House Democrats Warn Trump Administration Against Blocking Witnesses From Testifying in Impeachment Inquiry

By Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.
October 11, 2019 Updated: October 11, 2019

House Democrats sent a warning to Trump administration officials on Oct. 11, cautioning them from preventing impeachment inquiry witnesses summoned by subpoenas from testifying to House committees.

“Any efforts by Trump Administration officials to prevent witness cooperation with the Committees will be deemed obstruction of a co-equal branch of government and an adverse inference may be drawn against the President on the underlying allegations of corruption and coverup,” House Committee Chairmen Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said in a statement to media outlets.

This comes after former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified before Congress in a closed-door meeting.

The three Democratic House chairmen said the House Intelligence Committee issued a subpoena to Yovanovitch last night to compel her deposition. They said their subpoena was in response to learning that the State Department had directed Yovanovitch to not appear before Congress on Friday, a direction that she defied.

Yovanovitch, who was recalled from Ukraine to the United States in May, is being questioned by members of the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Reform Committees as part of the chamber’s impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump over his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

An anonymous intelligence community whistleblower filed a complaint about the call, accusing Trump of leveraging his office and withholding U.S. aid to Ukraine to obtain “dirt” on a political opponent—2020 Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

declassified transcript of a July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky, released by the White House on Sept. 25, quotes Trump as saying, “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great.” From the transcript, Trump does not appear to pressure Zelensky or offer any quid pro quo.

Yovanovitch’s testimony comes days after the White House sent a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Oct. 8, telling the House that it won’t participate in the “highly partisan and unconstitutional” inquiry, saying that it violated “fundamental fairness and constitutionally mandated due process.”

The eight-page letter sent to the three committee chairmen argued that the inquiry runs afoul of congressional norms, and accuses the Democrats of failing to afford the president due process protections and fair treatment.

“You have designed and implemented your inquiry in a manner that violates fundamental fairness and constitutionally mandated due process,” the letter said.

“You have denied the President the right to cross-examine witnesses to call witnesses, to receive transcripts of testimony, to have access to evidence, to have counsel present, and many other basic rights guaranteed to all Americans.

“You have conducted your proceedings in secret. You have violated civil liberties and the separation of powers by threatening Executive Branch officials, claiming that you will seek to punish those who exercise fundamental constitutional rights and prerogatives. All of this violates the Constitution, the rule of law, and every past precedent.”

During her opening statement obtained by the Associated Press, Yovanovitch told lawmakers that she was removed based on “unfounded and false claims” made against her and pressure from the president on the State Department while citing a conversation she had with Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan. According to Yovanovitch, Sullivan said the president no longer wished for her to be his ambassador because he had lost confidence in her.

Yovanovitch was the subject of a number of accusations earlier this year made by then-Ukraine Prosecutor-General Yuriy Lutsenko to The Hill. Lutsenko accused the Obama-era U.S. Embassy in Kiev of interfering with his ability to prosecute corruption cases. Lutsenko claimed to have received from the ambassador Yovanovitch a list of people whose prosecution the Ukrainians were advised not to pursue.

The State Department issued a statement at the time that called Lutsenko’s claim about the do-not-prosecute “an outright fabrication.” Lutsenko later retracted his accusations about the list.

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who is now Trump’s personal lawyer, has alleged Yovanovitch blocked efforts to persuade Ukraine to investigate the former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Yovanovitch took the opportunity to deny the accusations during her testimony on Friday. She said she had not spoken to Hunter Biden and had only spoken to Joe Biden several times over the course of many years in government. She said during that time neither he or the previous administration raised the issue of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma or Hunter Biden.

Meanwhile, Yovanovitch was mentioned in the call between Trump and Zelensky, where Trump described her as “bad news.” Zelensky agreed with Trump during the call, saying, “It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100 percent. Her attitude towards me was far from the best as she admired the previous president and was on his side. She would not accept me as a new president well enough.”

Earlier on Friday, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, said he plans to testify before Congress, defying State Department orders, but will not provide documents requested by the committees. He is scheduled to testify on Oct. 17.

Ivan Pentchoukov contributed to this report.

Janita Kan
Janita Kan
Janita Kan is a reporter based in New York covering the Justice Department, courts, and First Amendment.