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Trump escalates impeachment battle, refusing to cooperate with inquiry

After the Trump administration barred a key witness from testifying, the White House informed congressional Democrats that it will not cooperate with their impeachment inquiry. Democrats said they are subpoenaing the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., and suggested blocking testimony may be an impeachable offense. Lisa Desjardins reports, then joins Yamiche Alcindor and Judy Woodruff for more.

Read the Full Transcript

  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Trump is taking his impeachment battle to the next level. Late today, the White House informed congressional Democrats that it will not cooperate with their inquiry.

    That came hours after presidential aides barred a key witness from testifying.

    Congressional correspondent Lisa Desjardins reports on the day's events.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The day started with a hard stop.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    We were informed about an hour-and-a-half ago that — by the attorney for Ambassador Sondland that the State Department would refuse to allow him to testify today.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff announcing a key interview was canceled, with the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., Gordon Sondland. He's a potential witness for both sides.

    Sondland was among those texting in August about how the president wanted Ukraine to launch specific investigations, including of Vice President Biden and his son Hunter.

    At one point, Sondland texted that the president really wants the deliverable. At another, he said the president wanted no quid pro quo, meaning no attempt to trade aid money for investigations.

    "NewsHour" has confirmed that, in the hours before that no quid pro quo text, Sondland communicated with the president.

    Hours later, the White House sent a letter to top House Democrats, saying their proceedings are unfair and unconstitutional and refusing to cooperate further.

    This morning, the president tweeted that Sondland could not testify because the committee is "a kangaroo court, where true facts are not allowed out for the public."

    His Republican allies, like Congressman Jim Jordan, are echoing that message.

  • Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio:

    We would encourage Adam Schiff to run a fair process.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Jordan is referring to the handling of other testimony by U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. Republicans say his closed-door testimony backs up the president, and the public should see a transcript.

    But Democrats, including Schiff, say Volker proves their points, and, to them, the president is the one refusing to follow the law by blocking their investigation.

    Today, Schiff and other Democrats announced they will subpoena Sondland. And they indicated that blocking his testimony may be an impeachable offense itself.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    The failure to produce this witness, the failure to produce these documents, we consider yet additional strong evidence of obstruction of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress, a co-equal branch of government.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Here are Democrats' options.

    They can hold Sondland or others involved in contempt, then go to court to try to compel testimony. That is something that often takes years to resolve. Or, at some point, Democrats could consider it all obstruction and move directly to articles impeachment on that charge.

    Meantime, Republicans in the Capitol are making decisions, too. In the Senate, Trump defender Lindsey Graham of South Carolina today invited the president's attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to testify to the Senate Judiciary Committee about how he sees corruption in Ukraine.

    On impeachment, the White House and Congress are talking about substance, but clearly making strategic decisions about choreography.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And Lisa joins me now, along with our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor.

    So, Yamiche, to you first.

    The White House today blocking Ambassador Sondland, saying he cannot testify, what does this say about how they plan to handle everything that the Congress is trying to do?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president is making crystal clear that he doesn't plan to comply with any document requests coming from Democrats related to this impeachment inquiry.

    He's also making it clear that he will block witnesses because he doesn't think the Democrats are going about this fairly.

    Now, I want to read parts of the White House's letter to House Democrats that was released just a couple moments ago. I want to now walk you through what it says.

    It says that the Democrats' impeachment inquiry is — quote — "constitutionally invalid and violates basic due process rights and the separation of powers." It also says that the inquiry — quote — "seeks to reverse the election of 2016 and to influence the election of 2020."

    It also says that the president did nothing wrong and there is — quote — "no legitimate basis for your impeachment inquiry."

    So the White House is now making the case that the president, if he had due process, would be allowed to cross-examine witnesses, would be allowed to look at evidence, would be allowed to call his own witnesses.

    And it's also clear that the White House, though, has not exactly decided how it will cooperate and when it will cooperate, because this letter stops short of saying that the House has to have a floor vote on an impeachment inquiry.

    Just a few moments ago, I put the question to the White House: What will make you cooperate? If a House did hold a floor vote, would you then provide documents? And the White House said, well, that's a hypothetical issue. We might look at that in the future.

    So it's not clear what would make the White House actually cooperate and stop blocking witnesses.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa, we now see the administration saying, we're not going to cooperate, stonewalling, in effect.

    How is the House, how are Democrats reacting?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, I'm looking at my phone, because, honestly, as Yamiche was speaking now, I had sources confirming — now it looks like we have the official release — that House Democrats have, in fact, issued the subpoena for Gordon Sondland, our U.S. ambassador to the E.U.

    So they are getting ready for this fight. Democrats have to consider, as we have laid out in this report, whether they start moving toward contempt. And as we explained, that could be a court process.

    But also Judy, tonight, I had more Democrats saying they are thinking seriously about something called inherent contempt, where Congress operates without a court and starts assessing fees to those officials it believes are not cooperating.

    That does set up a constitutional collision that we have to watch for. Other thing to watch for this week, Judy, the next person who's supposed to testify, that is the former Ukraine Ambassador Masha or Marie Yovanovitch. There she is.

    She's scheduled to testify Friday. And you would think, because of the White House's position, there's not a lot of chance. But I talked to some Democrats tonight who said they actually are hopeful that she will appear.

    One other note in all of this. We had some news about the Mueller report today. I want to show this court ruling that came out today from a court in Washington, D.C. This is a court ruling directing the Department of Justice to start giving some more information to House Democrats that they are requesting in the Mueller investigation, in some ways scolding the Department of Justice for withholding some of that information.

    It's not the bulk that they wanted, but it's sort of — for Democrats, that's progress.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So interesting, because we thought that was in the past. But we see it's still living, in so many words.

    So, Yamiche, separately, news reports today that the White House has been talking to or even hiring outside legal counsel to help them deal with this impeachment matter. What are we learning about that?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    It looks like the White House is starting to develop an impeachment inquiry plan that's going to be both messaging and a legal strategy.

    Presidents in the past have hired outside legal counsel. We were waiting to see if the White House was going to do that. And now it looks like President Trump is going to be looking at hiring outside counsel.

    And that's because this is all really deepening. You had today reports that the whistle-blower wrote a memo saying that, after the call that President Trump had with the president of Ukraine, that White House officials were visibly shaken and that they thought it was crazy, and they were frightened by the fact that the president allegedly tried to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden for his own political gain.

    So what you have there is some firsthand knowledge, as well as a memo that's now coming out. So the White House is really trying to figure out how to deal with all of this.

    On top of all of that, Rudy Giuliani says that he's going to be thinking possibly about taking Lindsey Graham up on his offer and coming to testify before the Senate. He said he's not decided whether or not he's going to do that. But that also could be a legal issue that the White House now has to have more lawyers to deal with.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, so much to look at.

    And, Lisa, separately from all of this, today, you have the Senate Intelligence Committee issuing its report, finally, looking at Russian interference in the 2016 election. We have heard about it before. But what is in this new report?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The intelligence can be broke up its reports.

    So, this one today is focused on the use of social media. And let's look quickly at their conclusions. This is a bipartisan report. That's one thing that's critical about this. Republicans agreed with these conclusions.

    There was a calculated assault on the U.S., number one. The goal was to harm candidate Hillary Clinton and to support candidate Donald Trump, and also that it was sanctioned by the Kremlin.

    Judy, all of that significant, because some of this is what the White House has not always agreed with. But here we have a bipartisan conclusion.

    Some unexpected or I think new information in this report, one more — a few more things to look at, they believe — they found that the most targeted group in America was African-Americans. Part of the Russian divide strategy was to focus on black Americans.

    Also, the senators here of both parties imploring the White House to act now across all agencies, and they say Congress needs to come up with a better data security law overall.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, Yamiche, what are they saying at the at the White House about this?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The White House has not commented on this report coming from the Senate.

    And that fits a pattern, because the president has been loathe to talk about Russian interference in the 2016 election, because he thinks that it hurts his legitimacy as president. He doesn't like talking about that.

    The White House says that this is a White House that has pushed back on Russia and other countries trying to interfere in the 2016 election and in the 2020 election.

    But it is really important to note that, in their letter to House Democrats, they're actually now accusing Nancy Pelosi and others of doing what Russia is accused of doing in 2016. They say that Democrats are trying to influence the 2020 election with this impeachment inquiry.

    So what you have is them not commenting on this, but also making that — making the argument that this is what Democrats are now doing.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So much to follow today, so much.


  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And it's Tuesday, I think.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's only Tuesday.

    Yamiche Alcindor, Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

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