The White House sent a letter to House Democrats saying their impeachment probe “lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation” setting up a standoff between Congress and the Trump administration.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The White House sent a scathing letter to House Democrats today over impeachment. White House counsel Pat Cipollone says President Trump sees no reason to cooperate with Democrats’ inquiry. Joining us now from the White House is NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: We’ve been expecting a response from the White House, and it landed with a bang…
LIASSON: Yes, with a bang.
SHAPIRO: …This afternoon. What does it say?
LIASSON: The White House sent a very defiant, eight-page letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the top Democrats who are running the impeachment inquiry, explaining why it wouldn’t cooperate with the impeachment procedures, which it calls illegitimate and unconstitutional. It said there are no protections in these procedures. For the president, there’s no due process. They want the minority in the House of Representatives – the Republicans – to have the right to subpoena and question witnesses. They argue that Democrats need to have a vote to start the impeachment proceedings. They say Democrats are just trying to reverse the 2016 election and interfere in the 2020 election and that the White House has no reason to cooperate because in this separation of powers battle, they have to protect their Article II branch. And if they did cooperate, it would set a terrible precedent for future presidents.
SHAPIRO: A lot to chew on there…
SHAPIRO: …Some of it more substantive than – some of it seems to be political theatrics. Ultimately, in practical terms, what does this mean?
LIASSON: In practical terms, this would go to the courts. It could get dragged out all the way till the election. We don’t know if the courts will want to weigh in on this separation of powers clash between two coequal branches of government. The Constitution is pretty clear that the House gets the sole power of impeachment and sets the rules. The Constitution doesn’t proscribe rules for impeachment proceedings. We also don’t know if a court challenge would actually impede the process in the House because it’s possible that the Democrats feel they have what they need without more witnesses and documents from the administration, which they are certainly not going to get any more of.
Just as an example, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland – he’s one of the people who was featured in that text message exchange about Ukraine. He was supposed to testify today at a closed-door House deposition, but he didn’t testify because even though he said he was doing it on the State Department’s orders, in a tweet, the president took credit for this. He said that he didn’t want Sondland speaking in front of what he called a kangaroo court. So we don’t know if there’ll be any more witnesses. We don’t know if there’ll be any more whistleblowers.
SHAPIRO: OK. Earlier today, before this letter from the White House came out, we spoke with New York Congressman Eliot Engel, who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee. He is a Democrat – one of three committees issuing subpoenas. We asked him, what if the White House doesn’t comply with the subpoenas? And this is what he said.
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ELIOT ENGEL: If they don’t, we’ll take it one step at a time. Obstruction of Congress was one of the things that impeached Richard Nixon, so it’s something that we, of course, have in our quiver. We’d rather not use it or anything else. We would rather find out the truth, and we demand that they not stop people from coming to or to testify.
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So you are prepared to take this to court?
ENGEL: We’re prepared to leave all our options open, and that’s one of our options. We haven’t really decided what we’re doing. But I’ll tell you what we’re not doing. We’re not accepting what this administration has done. That’s absolutely what we’re not doing. We’re not going to slow down our inquiry by stonewalling. And if anyone fails to cooperate with this inquiry, we’ll consider it obstruction. And we’ll presume they have something to hide, and we’ll move on from there.
SHAPIRO: So at least this afternoon, Democrats hadn’t really decided what they were doing. Does this letter from the White House change anything for them?
LIASSON: I don’t think so, but it does kind of heighten the clash. Nancy Pelosi did release a Dear Colleague letter, where she said that we have a responsibility due to strengthen the institution in which we serve – in other words, the Article I branch. And she said, this is essential if we’re going to honor the separation of powers, which is the genius of the Constitution. So to the Democrats – you just heard Eliot Engel. Non-cooperation means obstruction. That’s another potential article of impeachment. And she is very adamant that the Democrats don’t need to vote to launch an inquiry. And what – the White House is clearly making a political calculation that creating the appearance that they don’t want to cooperate, that they might have something to hide – that’s worth it as opposed to having people testify that could potentially damage the president’s argument.
SHAPIRO: So in the past, when we’ve seen these kinds of standoffs between the White House and Congress, often, there will be a negotiation, a deal. Someone blinks. I don’t think we’ve seen something like this actually go all the way up to the Supreme Court. How is this going to resolve?
LIASSON: Well, I don’t know if it gets resolved because the White House officials held a briefing call today. Senior administration officials held a background call with reporters. And they were asked over and over again, under what conditions would you cooperate? What if the House did take the vote? And they wouldn’t answer the questions. They said that was hypothetical, so they’re not even saying under what circumstances they would cooperate. And it’s not like they’ve been cooperating already. There have been a lot of congressional investigations. And the White House hasn’t provided them with any documents and witnesses, so I don’t see a resolution anytime soon.
SHAPIRO: NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson, speaking with us from the White House tonight.
LIASSON: Thank you.
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