WASHINGTON — The chairmen of three House committees on Friday requested documents from Vice President Mike Pence for the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, asking him to turn over a wide-ranging batch of material that could shed light on Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine, and any role that Pence played in it.
In a letter to Pence, the chairmen asked for a lengthy list of documents detailing the administration’s dealings with Ukraine, to be produced by Oct. 15. It came as House Democratic leaders were readying a subpoena for the White House for a vast trove of documents in the inquiry, which is investigating attempts by Trump and his administration to pressure Ukraine’s president to help dig up dirt on his political rivals.
“Recently, public reports have raised questions about any role you may have played in conveying or reinforcing the president’s stark message to the Ukrainian president,” said the letter to Pence, signed by Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, the Intelligence Committee chairman; Rep. Eliot L. Engel of New York, the Foreign Affairs Committee chairman; and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the Oversight and Reform Committee chairman.
The lawmakers released their latest request as the Intelligence panel questioned the intelligence community watchdog who first fielded the whistleblower complaint that has spurred the formal impeachment inquiry.
Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general, had received the complaint and conducted his own preliminary investigation into its validity before seeking to deliver it to Congress. He arrived on Capitol Hill on Friday morning for a briefing behind closed doors in the basement of the Capitol.
The meeting kicked off another day of fast-moving developments in the impeachment investigation. In addition to speaking with Atkinson and requesting documents from Pence, lawmakers were expected to subpoena the White House and hinted at other requests. A significant subpoena deadline for the State Department to hand over similar material in its possession was also scheduled to arrive by the end of the day Friday.
Lawmakers from both parties continued Friday to try to make sense of a tranche of text messages between U.S. diplomats and a top aide to the Ukrainian president. Those text messages were released late Thursday and called into question the truthfulness of Trump’s claim that there had been no quid pro quo attached to his pressing Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, his son and other Democrats.
As more information came to light, Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, one of the few members of Trump’s party who has been critical of the conduct at the center of the impeachment inquiry, issued a statement Friday condemning the president’s public comments a day earlier inviting China as well as Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
“When the only American citizen President Trump singles out for China’s investigation is his political opponent in the midst of the Democratic nomination process, it strains credulity to suggest that it is anything other than politically motivated,” Romney said. “By all appearances, the president’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.”
Democrats on Capitol Hill hoped Atkinson’s account would boost their efforts to build a fuller narrative of what transpired between the two countries.
A Trump appointee, Atkinson set off the present saga less than a month ago when he notified Congress’ intelligence committees that he had received an anonymous whistleblower complaint that he deemed to be “urgent” and credible. The acting director of national intelligence intervened initially to block Atkinson from sharing the complaint with Congress, but ultimately the Trump administration relented and allowed its public release.
In the complaint, the whistleblower wrote that multiple government officials had provided him information that “the President of the United States is using the power of his office to solicit interference from a foreign country in the 2020 U.S. election.”
Specifically, he said that Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, had pressed Ukraine to conduct the investigations, potentially using the prospect of a meeting that the new Ukrainian president badly wanted with Trump and withholding $391 million in security aid earmarked for the country as leverage to secure the investigations. The White House tried to cover up aspects of the events, the complaint said.
Atkinson has already appeared once before the House Intelligence Committee, but he was barred then from speaking in detail about the complaint. Now, lawmakers expect him to detail what steps he took to verify elements of the complaint and conclude it was credible. He could possibly identify other government officials with knowledge of the events described in it.
Details of the complaint, including a July call between Trump and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine, have already been verified. The text messages released late Thursday also appeared to comport with elements of the complaint.
As they debriefed Atkinson, Democrats prepared to issue an unusually long and expansive subpoena to the White House for documents related to the Ukraine matter and any attempts to hide evidence related to it, as well as other conversations between Trump and foreign leaders that touched on similar topics.
Republicans accused Democrats of not giving them a chance to provide input on the subpoena.
How the White House and the State Department respond to their respective requests could significantly shape the impeachment investigation going forward. Many of the records the Democrats are requesting are highly sensitive and would typically be subject in almost any White House to claims of executive privilege. Under normal circumstances, the White House could make such a claim and mount a competitive defense in court.
But that may not help Trump’s case politically under the present circumstances. Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the chairmen leading the inquiry have consistently warned the White House that noncompliance with their requests will be viewed as obstruction of Congress, a potentially impeachable offense in and of itself.