Four senior White House officials refused to testify Monday to House impeachment investigators, a sign that Democrats have exhausted their best leads for evidence against President Donald Trump.
Those witnesses, including the White House’s top national security lawyer John Eisenberg, blew off subpoenas to testify, underscoring the likelihood that Democrats are already sitting on the evidence they’ll have for impeachment as they move toward public hearings. And many of them say it’s more than enough.
All that remains before those hearings begin is a cluster of high-profile witnesses closely connected to Trump who seem likelier to battle Congress to a near-certain stalemate than submit to questioning that might boost Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
National Security Council lawyer Michael Ellis, national security aide Robert Blair, and budget official Brian McCormack also refused to appear for their scheduled depositions Monday, a major victory for a White House that has largely failed to prevent senior officials from across the administration from showing up.
Eisenberg would perhaps be the most fruitful witness if Democrats were able to secure his testimony. A handful of witnesses — including Trump’s top Russia and Ukraine aides on the NSC — have told impeachment investigators that they raised concerns to Eisenberg about Trump’s posture toward Ukraine, most notably his efforts to pressure the country’s leaders to investigate his political rivals.
Though the White House has largely stood by as senior national security and State Department officials have defied orders and provided damaging, closed-door testimony against Trump, this week Trump’s inner circle closed ranks around their boss and left Democrats looking ahead to the highly anticipated public phase of impeachment, which could begin as soon as next week.
“I think that the following week is likely to be when we will start having hearings,” Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
“I think we’ve had a lot of star witnesses to tell you the truth,” Speier added.
Democratic investigators believe they already have a persuasive, thoroughly supported case against the president. They say documents and testimony portray a campaign by Trump, with the aid of his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, to pressure Ukraine’s new leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open two investigations into Trump’s political rivals.
That campaign was allegedly aided by threats to withhold military aid and refuse a White House visit from Zelensky, even as his country is desperately beating back Russian aggression in its Donbas region. In short, Democrats say they’re convinced that Trump leveraged the unmatched power of his office to extort an ally to interfere in the 2020 election on his behalf.
The sudden drought of testimony hasn’t fazed Democrats, who believe the depositions they’ve conducted with a dozen current and former Trump administration figures so far — including two current members of the National Security Council — provides more than enough evidence. That’s because Democrats also believe their best evidence came out the outset: the transcript of a July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky, released by the White House in September, that appears to confirm the most damaging elements of the testimony they have received.
“One of the shocking things about this investigation is that all of the facts that are out there that support this notion that military aid was withheld that a White House meeting was withheld — you know, it comes from the administration,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), an Intelligence Committee member, said Sunday on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” “… So we have a lot of what we need.”
Trump has maintained that his phone call with Zelensky was “perfect.” On Twitter Monday morning, Trump said there was “no reason to call witnesses to analyze my words and meaning.”
Impeachment investigators are likely to spend this week demanding testimony from that last group of recalcitrant witnesses, including Eisenberg and former national security adviser John Bolton, who was cited by a slew of officials as a witness to some of the most crucial events in the Ukraine timeline.
Though investigators don’t expect these officials to appear, they’re building a paper trail to show they made every possible attempt to secure testimony, and haven’t ruled out going to court to enforce their subpoenas — a process that could take weeks or months.
On Monday, impeachment investigators revealed that they sent to Blair and Ellis a letter slamming their rationale for refusing to testify.
The witnesses cited orders from the White House and an opinion from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel. But they refused to furnish that OLC opinion to Democrats, despite their demand for it, and argued that investigators’ refusal to allow a White House lawyer in the room for the depositions would be inappropriate.
“This argument has no merit,” Democrats replied in a letter signed by Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), the leaders of the impeachment probe. The three lawmakers noted that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — both former Republican members of Congress — supported identical deposition procedures when they served in the House and conducted investigations of the Obama White House.
Democrats are also hinting that they may begin to release the transcripts of their closed-door depositions this week, another sign that the fact-finding phase of their probe is nearing an end.
“I think you’re going to see all of the transcripts that are going to be released probably within the next five days,” said Speier. “I don’t know if they’re all going to be released on the same day. But they’re going to be very telling to the American people.”
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