White House served with subpoena over impeachment inquiry

Democrats pursuing the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump have served the White House with a subpoena, in an effort to obtain documents related to the investigation that the Trump administration has refused to give to House panels leading the probe.

“We deeply regret that President Trump has put us — and the nation — in this position, but his actions have left us with no choice but to issue this subpoena,” said Elijah Cummings, the Democratic chair of the House oversight committee, explaining a move that was joined by the heads of both the intelligence and foreign affairs committees.

The committees had given the White House until Friday to comply with a voluntary request for documents connected to what is only the fourth impeachment inquiry into an American president in history. The committee heads chastised Mr Trump for not complying after saying this week that “I always co-operate” with Congress.

“The White House has refused to engage with — or even respond to — multiple requests for documents,” they said. “After nearly a month of stonewalling, it appears that the president has chosen the path of defiance, obstruction and cover-up.”

The White House reacted defiantly to the subpoena, suggesting that it would not comply with the legal request, in a move that would almost certainly send the issue to the courts for adjudication.

“This subpoena changes nothing — just more document requests, wasted time, and taxpayer dollars that will ultimately show the president did nothing wrong,” said Stephanie Grisham, White House press secretary. “The ‘Do Nothing’ Democrats can continue with their kangaroo court while the president and his administration will continue to work on behalf of the American people.”

The subpoena came as Mr Trump faced criticism from within his own party with Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican senator, slamming the president’s appeal to China to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden as “appalling”. 

Mr Trump suggested on Thursday that Beijing could help find dirt on Mr Biden and his son Hunter’s business dealings in China, in a move that Mr Romney — who was the Republican presidential candidate in 2012 — described as “brazen”.

His criticism came as the House of Representatives proceeds with an impeachment inquiry into whether Mr Trump pressured Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

“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,” said Mr Romney, who was a fierce critic of Mr Trump before falling in line behind the president.

The comments came a day after the House committees released exchanges between top US diplomats that showed they offered to arrange a White House meeting with Mr Trump for Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on the condition that he promised to investigate the Bidens. Mr Zelensky was also expected to help a review into the genesis of Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, which Mr Trump calls a “witch hunt”.

Other officials and members of Mr Trump’s inner circle have been drawn into the ballooning scandal. Mike Pompeo, US secretary of state, and Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, have received subpoenas in connection with the inquiry.

On Friday, the committees leading the impeachment inquiry also wrote to Mike Pence, the vice-president, to request fresh documents after the former Indiana governor suggested this week that Mr Trump had done nothing inappropriate.

The lawmakers cited reports that a Pence aide may have listened to the July call between Mr Trump and Mr Zelensky at the heart of the probe. They also referred to a September meeting between Mr Pence and Mr Zelensky, during which Mr Pence “reportedly discussed the administration’s hold on US security assistance to Ukraine”.

Mr Trump is facing a rapidly escalating political crisis that he has exacerbated by asking for help from China, which his White House labelled a “revisionary power”. His plea to China has complicated the situation for Republicans, who had been keeping a low profile to avoid being asked to comment on the unfolding drama in Washington.

Asked on Friday if he had ever requested that any foreign leader open a corruption investigation into somebody who was not a political rival, he said he would look into it.

Many experts believe that the House will bring — and pass — articles of impeachment against Mr Trump, paving the way for a Senate trial. Mr Trump is banking on the fact that he would need to lose the support of 20 Republicans to be convicted. 

Mr Trump on Friday predicted that he would be impeached in the House, but said he would not be convicted in the Senate where the Republicans hold a 53-47 majority.

“We’re going to win. The Republicans have been very unified,” Mr Trump told reporters. A two-thirds majority of the 100-member Senate is required to convict. 

The FT on Thursday contacted all 53 Republican senators to ask if they were troubled by Mr Trump’s request to China, but not one responded to express concern.

Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican senator who is widely seen as a future presidential contender, later criticised the president in an interview in the Omaha World-Herald newspaper. “If the Biden kid broke laws by selling his name to Beijing, that’s a matter for American courts, not communist tyrants running torture camps.”

On Friday, Will Hurd, a Texas Republican lawmaker, also joined the nascent criticism, saying it was “terrible” that Mr Trump had made such an appeal to a US “adversary”. Mr Hurd will not be seeking re-election to the House of Representatives next year. 

While many Republicans are worried about hurting their careers by hitting Mr Trump, the move by Mr Romney and Mr Sasse may prompt more senators to speak out. But Marco Rubio, a Florida Republican who is one of the most hawkish senators on China, declined to criticise Mr Trump, stressing that his plea to China was “not a real request”.

“He did it to provoke you, to ask me and others and get outraged,” Mr Rubio told reporters on Friday. “He plays it like a violin and everyone falls right into it.”

Mr Trump faced problems on another front on Friday after Rich Delmar, the acting inspector-general at the US Treasury, confirmed that he had opened an inquiry into the way the department had handled a request from Richie Neal, the Democratic chair of the powerful House ways and means committee, related to Mr Trump’s tax returns. 

“Chairman Neal has asked Treasury OIG [office of the inspector-general] to inquire into the process by which the department received, evaluated and responded to the committee’s request for federal tax information. We are undertaking that inquiry,” Mr Delmar said. 

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi

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