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Pompeo, Democrats clash over whistleblower inquiry and documents

While Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday pushed back on demands by House Democrats for testimony and documents related to the Ukraine investigation, Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley defended the whistleblower who filed a complaint about President Trump’s actions. Lisa Desjardins and Yamiche Alcindor join Judy Woodruff for more developments.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has forcefully entered the fray over impeachment. He wrote to the U.S. House Foreign Affairs Committee today, rejecting demands for testimony and documents.

    In the letter, Pompeo accused Democrats of trying to — quote — "intimidate and bully" State Department employees. He warned that he will not tolerate such tactics. In turn, Democrats insisted on full compliance. They are investigating whether President Trump pressured Ukraine's leader for help with his reelection, in return for military aid.

    In Kiev today, Ukraine's president again denied he would ever go along with that.

  • President Volodymyr Zelensky (through translator):

    I would like to say that I do not feel any pressure. There are many people, both in the West and in Ukraine, who would like to have influence on me, but I am president of Ukraine, president of an independent country, and I think that the steps I took so far prove that I cannot be influenced.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    To help break down these latest developments, our congressional correspondent, Lisa Desjardins, and our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor, are here.

    Hello to both of you, another very busy day.

    Yamiche, let me start with you.

    The Democrats charging full-speed ahead with this impeachment inquiry. What are you learning about how the administration is preparing and responding?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Secretary of State Pompeo's letter is really a key part of that.

    He is now saying that he thinks that the Democrats are making it unfeasible for these depositions to go forward because they're going so quickly. He's also saying that State Department officials feel bullied.

    I want to point out some things that are in the letter. The first is that he says depositions essentially need to be slowed down, because his State Department officials need to have time to find their counsel and to be able to know exactly what these depositions are going to be about.

    He also says that Trump administration officials and their lawyers need to be included in these depositions, because there might be executive privilege issues. And we have seen the White House stop a lot of people from saying things that they think are executive privilege.

    And Democrats, of course, have said that that's not exactly the right way to go about things. He also says that he is still going to be intending to comply with a subpoena, or at least looking — intending to comply with the subpoena to have documents turned over to Congress by Friday.

    So there are some people who are seeing this as hard no from Secretary Pompeo. I was reaching out to the State Department to say, is this a hard no? And I haven't got an answer yet.

    So, it leads me to think that Secretary Pompeo is saying, hey, these are not — we're not going about this right, but I am also going to provide people and have these depositions, as we know there are some scheduled already this month.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lisa, it is a strongly worded letter from the secretary of state. What are Democrats doing in response?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, we have had some developments in just the last hour.

    I have been told by my sources on the House Intelligence Committee that, in fact, one deposition has been delayed now. That's the deposition of the former Ukraine ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch. She is still currently a State Department official. But we're told that she's scheduling now her deposition for next week.

    The other deposition for this week of note was Kurt Volker. He's the former envoy to Ukraine who left that office and left the State Department last week. He's no longer with the State Department. That's going ahead as scheduled for Thursday.

    So, what we're seeing here is both sides, I think, feeling each other out. But, in general, Democrats think that this is a sign that the Trump administration is going to block them every chance they get. They had a strongly worded letter of their own.

    Three committee chairmen involved wrote this. Let's show you. They said: "Secretary Pompeo is now a fact witness in the House impeachment inquiry," because he was on the phone call to begin with. "He should immediately cease intimidating department witnesses in order to protect himself and the president."

  • They go on:

    "Any effort to intimidate witnesses or prevent them from talking with Congress is illegal and will constitute evidence of obstruction of the impeachment inquiry."

    They're saying, if they obstruct, that itself could be impeachable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So if that's the Democrats, what about the Republicans? It's the president's and their party. How are they handling this?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There is something new happening, I think, with a few Senate offices and a few senators.

    While most Republican senators are defending the president in general right now, there's a lack of comfort when it comes to the whistle-blower and the president's statement yesterday and over the past few days that he is looking for the whistle-blower.

    We saw it from a key Republican today. Chuck Grassley of Iowa sent out this statement. Look at this, wrote: "This person, the whistle-blower, appears to have followed the whistle-blower protection laws, and ought to be heard out and protected."

    Grassley never named the president, but he seemed to be pushing back at both the president and Democrats and say, I think this whistle-blower is credible.

    And that's very significant. Talking to Republicans, behind the scenes, they're not comfortable with how he's handling the whistle-blower.

    Also, Judy, separately, getting down the road, if we have a Senate trial on the impeachment, that could put some Republicans, those moderate Republicans who are up for reelection next year, in a very uncomfortable position. They are already reading up, getting background materials, preparing for if they have to take that vote.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Yamiche, that can't make the White House very happy that there are some Republicans who are hesitant and more about all this.

    How's the White House dealing with that among Republicans? And what is the administration doing about this — this ongoing inquiry?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The White House points to the president's poll numbers first off and says he still has record high numbers, or at least very high numbers among Republican voters.

    So he says — so they still tell me, even if the president's — even if there are some Republican lawmakers who are criticizing the president or maybe not liking the way that he's talking about the whistle-blower, that voters are still with him.

    They also say that the president is acting within its right. They feel as though the president has been falsely accused and it's rightfully so that he would be angry and want to face his accuser.

    Now, federal law is very clear about this. The whistle-blower is supposed to be — remain anonymous. And that person is also supposed to not be retaliated against. So what you have there is the White House pushing back, but also federal law being a very hard line there.

    The also — thing I want to point out is that Rudy Giuliani, he's been a central figure in all of this. He has now hired his own lawyer. I was texting with him tonight.

    And I want to read what he told me. I first asked him, are you going to be complying with the subpoenas issued by House Democrats?

    He wrote back one word: "Studying."

    I then said, well, what do you make of all of this?

    And he said: "They are trying to interfere with his ability" — that would be President Trump's ability — "to govern and to defend himself."

    So, essentially, what you have is the president's lawyer lawyering up, but also still defending the president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Fascinating.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

    I think we're seeing right now a document war that very likely — I know House Democrats think this — is going to lead to a court battle, in addition to a potential impeachment battle in the House.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And all this as Democrats say they want to do this as quickly as possible. This may be fighting that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

    Will courts force the Trump administration to produce documents and testimony? That is the question.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    They might also — they might possibly also try to say that this is all executive privilege. And that's been something that they have tried to use in the past, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.

    House Democrats have really said that they're inventing the way that they use some of these privilege issues. But the White House is pretty clear. They think that they at least are on firm legal ground here.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Documents and the courts.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Unprecedented.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Unprecedented in every way.

    Lisa Desjardins, Yamiche Alcindor, thank you both.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thanks.

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