Democrats plow ahead as Trump seeks to hobble impeachment effort

Democrats are charging ahead with their impeachment inquiry despite a White House vow not to cooperate in the investigation, all but daring President TrumpDonald John TrumpFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE to stonewall the probe and add fuel to allegations that obstruction itself is an impeachable offense.

The White House escalated the standoff between Democrats and the president on Tuesday in a letter disregarding the impeachment probe as illegitimate and warning it won't respond to congressional requests for information.

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Yet Democrats on Wednesday said they expected nothing less from an administration that for months has largely refused to cooperate in the House Judiciary Committee's examination of Trump's role in Russian election meddling.

As the focus now shifts to the Intelligence Committee's scrutiny of the president's dealings with Ukraine, Democrats are responding to the White House stonewalling with a collective yawn, arguing that their aggressive investigation will carry on — perhaps assisted by the president's defiance.

"Nothing changes," said a senior Democratic aide. "We're going to continue to press forward. If he continues down the path he’s on, we'll keep counting it in that category of obstruction.

"Just fall into this trap if you want to."

Rep. Jamie RaskinJamin (Jamie) Ben RaskinTrump attacks Pence aide who called Ukraine call 'inappropriate' Budget official says he didn't know why military aid was delayed: report Brindisi, Lamb recommended for Armed Services, Transportation Committees MORE (D-Md.) offered a similar assessment, arguing that Trump's refusal to comply with congressional requests for documents and witness testimony will simply boost the Democrats' case that he's a lawless president, worthy of impeachment.

"They've been obstructing us for months in our investigation. This clearly becomes another impeachable offense," Raskin, a member of the Oversight Committee, said Wednesday by phone.

"Essentially, they're writing their own impeachment articles with all of their obstructionism," he added.

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The comments arrive as the Democrats' impeachment effort has gone from a slow slog to a rolling boil in just a matter of weeks, following allegations from a government whistleblower that Trump leveraged U.S. military aid to Ukraine in return for political favors from the country's president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Trump has vehemently denied any quid pro quo. But the news prompted Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiKlobuchar shuts down idea a woman can't beat Trump: 'Pelosi does it every day' Budowsky: Trump destroying GOP in 2018, '19, '20 On The Money: Senate scraps plan to force second shutdown vote | Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny | McConnell rips House Dems for holding up trade deal MORE (D-Calif.), who had long resisted the impeachment effort, to endorse an inquiry into whether Trump, in pushing Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenFive takeaways from the Democratic debate As Buttigieg rises, Biden is still the target Leading Democrats largely pull punches at debate MORE, had enlisted foreign help to boost his reelection chances.

Behind Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffNunes's facial expression right before lawmakers took break from Sondland testimony goes viral Sondland brings impeachment inquiry to White House doorstep Maloney wins House Oversight gavel MORE (D-Calif.), Democrats have moved swiftly to gather evidence, issuing subpoenas and deposing witnesses with insights into the whistleblower charge.

The effort has been only partially successful.

Republicans in the White House and on Capitol Hill have made clear they deem the impeachment inquiry to be illegitimate, since Pelosi has refused to stage a floor vote to launch the process officially. Such votes preceded the last two impeachment proceedings, targeting Presidents Nixon and Clinton, and GOP leaders contend the absence of such a vote denies Republicans certain legal tools to mount a defense of Trump, including the power of the minority party to issue subpoenas.

After allowing testimony from two witnesses last week — Kurt VolkerKurt VolkerSondland brings impeachment inquiry to White House doorstep Impeachment viewership drops for Day 3 of hearings as 11.4M tune in Five bombshells from explosive Sondland testimony MORE, former special envoy to Ukraine, and Michael Atkinson, inspector general of the intelligence community — the White House blocked Tuesday's scheduled deposition of a third State Department official, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. And hours later, White House counsel Pat Cipollone delivered a letter to Pelosi warning that the administration had no intention of responding to "legally unsupported demands."

"As you know, you have designated and implemented your inquiry in a manner that violates fundamental fairness and constitutionally mandated due process," Cipollone wrote.

There's no constitutional requirement that the House vote to launch an impeachment inquiry. And Democrats wasted no time vowing to press on with their investigation, with or without cooperation from Trump.

"We expect this kind of behavior from him," Rep. Adriano EspaillatAdriano de Jesus Espaillat CabralOvernight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite Bipartisan House members call on Trump to rescind Erdoğan invitation Testimony from GOP diplomat complicates Trump defense MORE (D-N.Y.), a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Hill on Wednesday. "It will help us, and bolster our position that, in fact, he may be engaged in another obstruction of justice [offense]. And another article of impeachment could derive from that."

Trump said Wednesday said he might be willing to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, but only if House Democrats hold a formal vote to outline rules for the investigation and if those rules "are fair." 

“We would if they give us our rights. It depends," Trump said when asked during an event in the Roosevelt Room of the White House.

Asked again to clarify his position, Trump reiterated that he would collaborate with Democrats "if the rules are fair."

The Democrats' strategy is multi-tiered.

In the near-term, they intend to press for more documents and witness testimony related to the Ukraine affair — and issue subpoenas in cases when those witnesses fail to comply. Sondland was on the receiving end of such a subpoena Tuesday.

One potential witness Democrats are eyeing is William Taylor, the U.S. chargé d'affaires of Ukraine, who had expressed concerns last month that Trump had crossed a line by dangling military aid to pressure Zelensky for political favors.

"He's an obvious witness," Rep. Peter WelchPeter Francis WelchImpeachment hearing breaks into laughter after Democrat contrasts it to Hallmark movie Diplomat ties Trump closer to Ukraine furor Impeachment hearing breaks into laughter after Democrat invites Trump to testify MORE (D-Vt.), a member of the Intelligence and Oversight committees, said Wednesday by phone.

The next test will come Friday, when Marie Yovanovich, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was recalled in May, is scheduled to be deposed by the three committees — Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs — leading the investigation.

An official working on the impeachment inquiry said the expectation is that Yovanovich will appear. But a number of Democrats are voicing their doubts.

"Given the way that Trump's been behaving," said Welch, "I expect he'd stop that as well."

Looking further ahead, Democrats are planning to put new pressure on Trump's Republican allies in Congress by staging a series of votes in the coming weeks on legislation designed to protect U.S. elections from foreign interference. In September, after months of resistance, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellOvernight Health Care: Fireworks on health care expected at Dem debate | Trump FDA pick dodges on vaping ban | Trump to host meeting on youth vaping Friday | AMA calls for immediate vaping ban GOP senator blocks vote on House-passed Violence Against Women Act On The Money: Senate scraps plan to force second shutdown vote | Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny | McConnell rips House Dems for holding up trade deal MORE (R-Ky.) reversed course and agreed to advance legislation providing $250 million to boost election security.

Democrats are readying similar bills this month.

"They're going to have to explain why they believe it’s OK for the president to invite a foreign country to interfere in our elections and undermine the very bedrock of our democracy," the senior Democratic aide said. "That's part of the objective when we get back."

House lawmakers are slated to return to Washington next week.

Some Democrats on key committees are also eyeing contempt of Congress votes against witnesses who fail to comply with subpoenas — or the administration officials who have blocked their testimony. Raskin mentioned Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoSondland brings impeachment inquiry to White House doorstep Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — Senate eyes sending stopgap spending bill back to House | Sondland delivers bombshell impeachment testimony | Pentagon deputy says he didn't try to block official's testimony Five bombshells from explosive Sondland testimony MORE, who has put the brakes on such testimony, as one potential target.

"We have the power in Congress to hold these people in contempt and to insist upon their compliance," said Raskin, a former constitutional law professor.

Less clear is whether Schiff and the Intelligence Committee will pursue their ignored subpoenas in the courts. That was the strategy adopted by Judiciary Chairman Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerMaloney wins House Oversight gavel House Judiciary Committee approves landmark marijuana legalization bill Maloney wins vote for Oversight chairwoman MORE (D-N.Y.), who's still awaiting those rulings.

But Schiff, while leaving the door open to litigation, has hinted that he'll skip the lawsuits and simply deem non-compliance more evidence of impeachable obstruction.

The reason is rooted in expediency, but also evidence, as Democrats view both the whistleblower complaint and Trump's phone call with Zelensky — a summary of which was released by the White House last month — to be virtual smoking guns that already implicate Trump in criminal wrongdoing.

"To the Speaker’s point, Trump confessed," said the senior aide. "That makes this very different from the other situation."

The ultimate question is whether the Democrats' inquiry will lead to articles of impeachment — and if so, when.

Raskin said the "commonsense timetable" is that "this needs to happen before Thanksgiving."

"And most members are agreeing with that," he said.

Democrats have scheduled a conference call Friday afternoon to discuss their plan forward.

Other lawmakers agreed that the process has evolved to the point that votes on impeachment articles are inevitable, and Democrats are merely awaiting word from Pelosi on when they'll take place.

"At a certain point we'll have to make our decision as to how and when to proceed. But I think we will proceed," said Welch. "And she'll be the principal one making that decision."

Cristina Marcos contributed.