The White House has stepped up its resistance to the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump, as top officials including Mike Pence told the House committees leading the Ukraine probe that they would not provide information to investigators.
Th vice-president told the Democratically-controlled committees through a White House lawyer that the impeachment inquiry was not valid because the full House of Representatives had not voted to open an inquiry. His argument comes a week after the White House counsel told Democrats that their Ukraine investigation “violates the constitution”.
Earlier on Tuesday Rudy Giuliani, the personal lawyer to Mr Trump who is under intense scrutiny over his role in the Ukrainegate scandal, refused to comply with a subpoena from the congressional committees investigating the US president.
In a letter to the House of Representatives intelligence committee, Jon Sale, a lawyer representing Mr Giuliani, said his client would not provide documents related to what he described as an “unconstitutional” impeachment inquiry.
“Mr Giuliani will not participate because this appears to be an unconstitutional, baseless and illegitimate ‘impeachment inquiry’,” Mr Sale wrote in the letter, which was obtained by the Financial Times. “Moreover, documents sought in the subpoena are protected by attorney-client, attorney work product and executive privilege.”
The refusals by Mr Pence and Mr Giuliani to co-operate with the impeachment inquiry raise the stakes in a battle that most experts believe will eventually lead to the House drawing up — and passing — impeachment articles against Mr Trump. The Democrats on Tuesday did not make clear how they would respond to the White House refusals.
“House Democrats can go to court to enforce subpoenas, but that will take a lot of time and it looks like they are trying to wrap this up before the  presidential campaign swings into high gear,” said Renato Mariotti, a lawyer at Thompson Coburn in Chicago.
“I expect them to just add this conduct to an obstruction count and move forward. They could try to use their inherent contempt powers to fine Giuliani, but it’s not clear that would change his behaviour. They could also defund part of the administration using their power of the purse, but that could have political downside.”
Mr Giuliani, 75, has emerged as a key figure in the Ukraine scandal. The former New York mayor and former federal prosecutor was instrumental in Mr Trump’s effort to pressure Ukraine into finding dirt on former vice-president Joe Biden and his son, and also helped to orchestrate a campaign to remove Marie Yovanovitch from her role as US ambassador to Ukraine.
The move to defy the panels leading the impeachment inquiry — the House intelligence, oversight and foreign affairs committees — comes amid reports that federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether Mr Giuliani broke lobbying-related laws in his Ukraine-related work. He has denied any wrongdoing.
Mr Giuliani came under more scrutiny last week after two of his associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were charged with violating campaign finance laws. The men were also involved in efforts to investigate Mr Biden and his son’s Ukrainian business activities.
Fiona Hill, a former top White House Russia aide who resigned over the summer, on Monday told the House committees that she and John Bolton, the former US national security adviser, were concerned about efforts by Mr Giuliani to pressure Ukraine into investigating the Democrats.
US media cited Ms Hill as telling the committees that Mr Bolton referred to Mr Giuliani as a “hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up”.
Mr Trump last week distanced himself from Mr Giuliani, saying “I don’t know” when asked if the former New York mayor was still his personal lawyer. But on Saturday he lavished praise on Mr Giuliani, saying he was a “legendary crime buster” and the best New York mayor in history.
“He may seem a little rough around the edges sometimes, but he is also a great guy and wonderful lawyer,” Mr Trump tweeted.
Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi
* The headline of this story was amended to reflect the nature of Mike Pence’s stance on the impeachment inquiry
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