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White House keeps Democrats from critical witnesses

Witnesses pointed their fingers at a number of figures close to President TrumpDonald TrumpHouse passes voting rights and elections reform bill DEA places agent seen outside Capitol during riot on leave Georgia Gov. Kemp says he'd 'absolutely' back Trump as 2024 nominee MORE who could help untangle the web around the administration’s dealings with Ukraine during the public impeachment hearings. But Democrats won’t be hearing from them.

The White House has prevented the president’s chief of staff, his former national security adviser, budget officials and two individuals named as part of the alleged rogue channel behind a push for investigations by Kyiv — his personal attorney and outgoing energy secretary — from testifying before Congress.

Democrats could go to court to try to force the officials to testify, but they don’t want to further delay their inquiry and so have decided to move forward without the additional testimony.

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The stalemate highlights that even as much of the White House’s defense strategy has been criticized as flawed or disjointed, it has succeeded in keeping crucial witnesses from speaking with Congress.

“Clearly, if they were to testify, they would open the White House to new vulnerabilities,” said Doug Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee.

It’s a strategy that does come with risks: Democrats have threatened to draft an article of impeachment accusing the president of obstruction.

“I remind the President that article 3 of the impeachment articles drafted against President Nixon was his refusal to obey the subpoenas of Congress,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffHouse Democrats want to silence opposing views, not 'fake news' White House defends not sanctioning Saudi crown prince over Khashoggi What good are the intelligence committees? MORE (D-Calif.) said this week at a public hearing with Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandGraham's 'impeach Kamala' drumbeat will lead Republicans to a 2022 defeat GOP chairman vows to protect whistleblowers following Vindman retirement over 'bullying' Top Democrat slams Trump's new EU envoy: Not 'a political donor's part-time job' MORE, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

A parade of officials, many of them career and some political appointees, have testified privately and publicly despite warnings from the White House and offered testimony that generated negative headlines for Trump over several weeks. Among them were three White House officials who this week described concerns about Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during which he asked Kyiv for an investigation into former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenThe West needs a more collaborative approach to Taiwan Abbott's medical advisers were not all consulted before he lifted Texas mask mandate House approves George Floyd Justice in Policing Act MORE and his son, Hunter.

The White House has dismissed many of the witnesses as engaging in “hearsay” and Trump has sought distance from them, while taking jabs at their credibility and defending his call with Zelensky.

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Sondland said that he and others worked with Trump’s personal attorney Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiGiuliani again suspended from YouTube over false election claims Sacha Baron Cohen calls out 'danger of lies, hate and conspiracies' in Golden Globes speech Biden administration buys 100,000 doses of Lilly antibody drug MORE to press for investigations into 2016 election interference and Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian gas company that employed Hunter Biden, at the “express direction” of the president.

Sondland also testified that he kept top administration officials — including Trump’s chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyOMB nominee gets hearing on Feb. 9 Republicans now 'shocked, shocked' that there's a deficit Financial firms brace for Biden's consumer agency chief MORE and Secretary of State Mike PompeoMike PompeoHouthis: US sanctions prolonging war in Yemen China plays the Trump card, but Biden is not buying it Trump: 'I can't imagine' any Republican would beat me in 2024 primary if I run MORE — abreast of efforts to trade a White House meeting for investigations, furnishing Democrats with emails to bolster his account.

But details surrounding a temporarily hold on $400 million in military aid to Ukraine remain murky. None of the witnesses have offered up clear evidence that the assistance was held so Trump could pressure Ukraine to investigate his 2020 political rival, though a handful have said it was their impression that was the case. Trump has denied a quid pro quo and sought to amplify testimony from Sondland where he described a September phone call during which the president said he wanted "nothing" from Ukraine.

“I think the White House believes that it’s white noise,” said one source close to the White House. “There’s nothing new there, there’s no smoking gun.”

Mulvaney acknowledged in a press briefing last month that the administration held up the aid because Trump wanted to investigate a conspiracy theory about the DNC server, but quickly pulled back his remarks. The acting chief of staff evaded a subpoena compelling his testimony this month.

Absent a major shift, Democrats won’t have the opportunity to question Giuliani about his efforts on Ukraine; they won’t hear from former national security adviser John BoltonJohn BoltonTrump offered North Korea's Kim a ride home on Air Force One: report Key impeachment figure Pence sticks to sidelines Bolton lawyer: Trump impeachment trial is constitutional MORE about his alleged concerns that the Ukraine effort amounted to “drug deal”; nor will they grill White House lawyer John Eisenberg about the decision to move a transcript of the Ukraine call to a server reserved for highly classified material.

Vice President Pence, who along with Giuliani and Pompeo has evaded subpoenas for documents, was also named as having knowledge about the push for investigations. Democrats have not requested testimony from the three individuals, who would be unlikely to comply if summoned.

Still, Democrats are pressing forward having gleaned what they view as evidence Trump engaged in bribery and other offenses.

Over the Thanksgiving break, the House Intelligence Committee is expected to start drafting a report detailing the Trump-Ukraine scandal that draws on witness testimony.

The House Judiciary Committee will begin drafting articles of impeachment in December; it’s unclear whether they will hold their own open hearings before the articles are put to a vote, or whether the package will ultimately include an article accusing Trump of obstructing the inquiry.

“I’m not sure that one more article on top of the others that Democrats are already certain to send up makes a big difference,” said one Republican strategist. “What we learned this week is that both sides are sprinting toward their respective corners are hard as they possibly can.”

White House aides have acknowledged they’re prepared for Trump to be impeached by the Democrat-controlled House. On Friday, Trump embraced the idea of a full trial in the Senate, while suggesting Democrats were “crazy” to vote on impeachment and asserting his call with Zelensky was “totally appropriate.”

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While the GOP-controlled Senate is more favorable territory for Trump, an impeachment trial threatens to distract from the president’s agenda as the controversy bleeds further into his 2020 reelection campaign.

Still, Republican strategists say impeachment has yet to adversely affect Trump, pointing to his steady approval rating and recent polls showing that support for impeachment waning particularly among independents.

“You’re not seeing members of Congress change their minds. You’re not seeing voters change their minds,” said Heye. “The simple reality is after what should have been a terrible week for the White House, the number hasn’t changed.”