GOP, Trump look to smother impeachment inquiry

Republicans in Congress are coalescing around a slow-down strategy designed to stifle the Democrats’ impeachment investigation into President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech MORE.

It’s a strategy that mimics the administration’s largely successful efforts to hamper investigations into Trump’s role in Russia’s 2016 election interference. The White House refused requests for disputed information in those probes, and the battles are now bogged down in the courts.

Republicans are now pulling a page from that playbook in hopes of smothering the impeachment inquiry arising from Trump’s communications with Ukraine before it gains any more steam.

The White House on Tuesday evening said it would halt all cooperation with the Democratic investigations, a decision prefaced by the State Department's decision that morning to block a key witness, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, from being deposed on Capitol Hill.

“Given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the executive branch cannot be expected to participate in it,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote in a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the three House committee chairmen leading the impeachment inquiry.

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The decision will make it more difficult for Democrats to move forward with their inquiry, though it risks that Trump will also face an article of impeachment on obstruction of justice — a move Democrats have telegraphed.

Still, blocking witnesses and ending any cooperation with the probe threatens to bog Democrats down, which could bring them political peril.

A number of rank-and-file Democrats have warned that a long-drawn-out impeachment investigation carries risks for the party in a high-stakes election cycle when they’re trying to protect dozens of vulnerable incumbents. And Republicans clearly see an advantage to running out the clock. 

“It forces Democrats to be open and deliberate about their intentions, rather than what they’re doing now — which is sort of a disguised, half-hearted and unauthorized inquiry with no rules, guidelines or many members actually on record,” said one senior GOP aide.

After Sondland was blocked on Tuesday, Capitol Hill Republicans pressed the White House to block all future witnesses to the Ukraine affair unless Democrats release the full transcript of last week’s deposition of Kurt VolkerKurt VolkerPush to investigate Bidens sets up potential for Senate turf war Senate confirms Brouillette to replace Perry as Energy secretary How Democrats' missing witnesses could fill in the Ukraine story MORE, Trump’s former envoy to Kiev.

“I’m all for bringing the ambassador in,” Rep. Mark MeadowsMark Randall MeadowsTop Zelensky aide refutes Sondland testimony Watchdog report finds FBI not motivated by political bias in Trump probe The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by AdvaMed - A crucial week on impeachment MORE (R-N.C.), a member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, told reporters Tuesday in the Capitol, referring to Sondland.

“But let’s only do so after we release the full [Volker transcript].”

The hardball strategy casts doubt on the planned deposition on Friday of Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. The same three House committees — Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs — that summoned Volker and Sondland are scheduled to conduct her deposition.

State Department officials have not said they’ll block Yovanovitch’s testimony, but Republicans in Congress have made clear they see Volker’s closed-door testimony as an exoneration of any presidential wrongdoing, and the administration's letter suggests she will not be appearing.

The new effort comes after a growing number of Republicans have bemoaned what they considered a muddled message from the White House surrounding Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — and the impeachment inquiry that sprung out of it.

Trump, during that call, had pressed Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Trump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Trump supporters at Pa. rally 'upset' after Democrats introduce impeachment articles MORE, a leading 2020 presidential contender.

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In response to the impeachment launch, Trump has, at turns, defended his request that a foreign leader investigate a political rival; denied dangling U.S. aid for political favors; blamed his Energy secretary for initiating the call; and lashed out at his critics, accusing Schiff and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Trump supporters at Pa. rally 'upset' after Democrats introduce impeachment articles California GOP candidate arrested on stalking charges MORE (D-Calif.) of committing treason.

“Hasn’t Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Trump rails against FBI, impeachment during Pennsylvania rally Democrats reach cusp of impeachment MORE been fully discredited by now?” Trump tweeted Tuesday. “Do we have to continue listening to his lies?”

It’s uncertain whether the GOP stonewalling strategy will be successful.

Polls have shown growing support for impeachment, though Republicans have pointed to some battleground surveys that suggest House Democrats in swing districts could be hurt by the impeachment push. Pelosi resisted impeachment throughout much of 2019, largely because she feared it would hurt such members.

Republicans appear to hope that by dragging out the process, they can plant seeds of doubts with the public about impeachment — and make vulnerable Democrats all the more nervous about the path forward.

Democrats have indicated they want to move forward quickly with an impeachment inquiry.

While they’re still delivering subpoenas — including one issued Tuesday seeking Sondland’s testimony — Democrats have all but abandoned efforts to challenge the administration’s recalcitrance in the courts. Instead, they’re treating that refusal to cooperate as evidence that the White House is obstructing a congressional investigation — an impeachable offense, in the eyes of many Democrats.

“The failure to produce this witness, the failure to produce these documents, we consider yet additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress, a co-equal branch of government,” Schiff told reporters in the Capitol Tuesday, shortly after Sondland canceled his appearance.

Pelosi, for her part, said Tuesday there’s no deadline for the Democrats’ investigations — and no guarantees their impeachment inquiry will lead to impeachment articles. 

“We’re having an inquiry; we’ll see where it takes us,” she said during an event in Seattle. “If it takes us to that place, at that time the determination will be made as to what they are.”

Republicans are no strangers to high-profile investigations into prominent figures across the aisle. Their probe into former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Trump supporters at Pa. rally 'upset' after Democrats introduce impeachment articles Hillary Clinton documentary to premiere at Sundance MORE’s role in the deadly 2012 attacks on a U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, spanned more than 2½ years, cost more than $7 million — and ended a month after the 2016 election sent Trump to the White House.

With Trump now the target, however, Republicans are rushing to the defense of their White House ally — and even adopting some of the same messaging arguments that Democrats did through the Benghazi probe.

Rep. Lee ZeldinLee ZeldinLawmakers prep ahead of impeachment hearing House approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump House moves ahead on long-stalled resolution supporting two states for Israelis and Palestinians MORE (R-N.Y.) said he’s outraged that Pelosi and the Democrats would spend time investigating the president instead of joining with Republicans to pass issue-based reforms, like a new trade deal and legislation to rein in drug prices. The whole country, he said, is “being held hostage” by liberal activists who have it in for the president.

“So if we sound like we’re pissed as we stand here, it’s because we are,” Zeldin said in the Capitol  on Tuesday, flanked by Meadows, Gaetz and Reps. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanTop Republican requests House hearing with DOJ inspector general Trump, first lady take part in National Christmas Tree lighting The Hill's Morning Report - Dem impeachment report highlights phone records MORE (R-Ohio) and Scott PerryScott Gordon PerryBillboards calling on House Republicans to 'do their job' follow members home for Thanksgiving Yovanovitch impeachment testimony gives burst of momentum to Democrats House Republicans prepare for public impeachment proceedings with mock hearing MORE (R-Pa.). 

“The American people are getting screwed by an enraged liberal activist base demanding impeachment,” he continued. “They don’t even care what the crime is; they don’t care what the facts are; they don’t care what the evidence is.”

Updated: 5:22 p.m.