Pentagon No. 2 denies trying to block official's impeachment testimony

The No. 2 official at the Pentagon on Wednesday insisted he was not seeking to block the testimony of another senior Pentagon official when he sent her lawyer a letter outlining the Trump administration’s objections to the impeachment inquiry.

During an unrelated Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Pentagon’s recently completed audit, Democrats pushed Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist on protections the department is providing for witnesses in the impeachment inquiry.

Pressed by Sen. Mazie HironoMazie Keiko HironoDemocrats request briefing on intel behind Trump's embassy threat claim Former Hawaii Democratic governor calls on Gabbard to resign Gabbard under fire for 'present' vote on impeachment MORE (D-Hawaii) on a letter he sent to the lawyers for Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, ahead of her closed-door deposition last month, Norquist said he “did not prohibit her” from testifying

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“I forwarded to her lawyer the information we had received from the White House that expressed their views about the impeachment process,” Norquist said. “One of the challenges, we wouldn't be able to send a lawyer with her. I wanted her to have that available information.”

“We understand each of the individuals are making their own decision,” he added.

Cooper is scheduled to testify publicly before the House Intelligence Committee later Wednesday after testifying behind closed doors in October.

The Pentagon, like other departments in the executive branch, has defied subpoenas related to the impeachment inquiry following a White House counsel letter declaring the administration would not comply with the probe.

The day before Cooper’s closed-door testimony, Norquist sent her lawyer a letter highlighting the White House direction not to participate in the inquiry.

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At Wednesday’s Armed Services Committee hearing, Hirono told Norquist that the letter “does create a chilling effect.”

“My only point is I would have felt it inappropriate to not have the lawyer be aware of this information, and so that's why we shared it,” Norquist replied. “So what we tried to do is set the right tone in the letter.”

Democrats' use of the Pentagon audit hearing to press Norquist on protecting witnesses in the impeachment inquiry comes after Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerCharles (Chuck) Ellis SchumerSchumer votes against USMCA, citing climate implications Senators are politicians, not jurors — they should act like it GOP senator: 2020 candidates must recuse themselves from impeachment trial MORE (D-N.Y.) sent the Pentagon a letter Monday on the same issue.

In addition to Cooper, Democrats have expressed concern about protections for Army Lt. Col. Alexander VindmanAlexander VindmanPresident Trump's intelligence community security blanket Whistleblower's lawyer questions GOP senator's whistleblower protection caucus membership White House limits number of officials allowed to listen to Trump calls with foreign leaders: report MORE, the National Security Council’s top Ukraine expert.

Vindman testified during Tuesday’s public impeachment hearing before the House Intelligence Committee. Ahead of the hearing, reports surfaced that the Army is prepared to move Vindman and his family to a secure location if they are found to be in danger due to his testimony.

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Pressed by Sen. Tim KaineTimothy (Tim) Michael KaineHouse war powers sponsor expects to take up Senate version of resolution Sens. Kaine, Lee: 'We should not be at war with Iran unless Congress authorizes it' Overnight Defense: War powers fight runs into impeachment | Kaine has 51 votes for Iran resolution | Trump plans to divert .2B from Pentagon to border wall MORE (D-Va.) on those reports, Norquist would not discuss specific security measures.

“But we do take it very seriously, and we expect people to be responsive and truthful in their dealings with Congress,” Norquist added.

Kaine then urged Norquist to be “very diligent” in protecting members of the military cooperating with Congress.

“I think that your words delivered here should hopefully give some assurance and some confidence to some who are very, very worried,” Kaine said. “And I know they're worried because their families are calling my office. They're my constituents, and they're nervous about what might happen to them. You're giving them that assurance publicly. It means something to them.”