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White House refuses to cooperate with impeachment inquiry

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Image: Donald Trump
President Trump said last week he would let his lawyers decide whether to he would cooperate with the congressional investigation. -
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WASHINGTON — The White House refused today to turn over internal documents regarding Ukraine being sought by House Democrats as the Trump administration dug in against their impeachment inquiry.

In a letter that echoed the president's recent impeachment messaging — accusing Democrats of violating the Constitution and civil liberties and attempting to overturn the results of the 2016 election — the White House said it would not comply with the request from House Democrats because they were conducting an invalid investigation.

"Never before in our history has the House of Representatives — under the control of either political party — taken the American people down the dangerous path you seem determined to pursue," wrote White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.

The move was the latest demonstration of a White House strategy of near-universal resistance taking shape in their efforts to stymie the Democratic investigation into whether President Donald Trump used the power of his office to pressure Ukraine to investigate 2020 rival Joe Biden.

The letter came hours after the Trump administration made a last-minute move to block Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union who is believed to be a key witness, from appearing for a scheduled interview before the House.

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Government Oversight and Reforms Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said Tuesday that they planned to issue a subpoena to Sondland for both his testimony and documents

House Democrats have said they would issue a subpoena to the White House for the additional documents sought if they were not voluntarily turned over. If the White House does not comply, Democrats have said they would not consider contempt or any other penalties, instead using the non-compliance as evidence of obstruction for impeachment.

Earlier Tuesday, Trump's personal lawyer Jay Sekulow criticized Democrats' strategy.

"Now, as the White House decides to exercise its constitutional right, they're going to turn that into an impeachment article. That's absurd," Sekulow told NBC News.

Trump said last week he would let his lawyers decide whether to he would cooperate with the congressional investigation.

While the administration has refused to cooperate, Democrats have continued to ratchet up their demands. House Democrats on Monday issued a pair of subpoenas to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Office of Management and Budget Acting Director Russell Vought demanding documents and communication regarding Trump's decision to suspend U.S. aid to Ukraine.

So far, Democrats have issued six subpoenas as part of the impeachment probe. The others target Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Democrats have also requested documents from Vice President Mike Pence, but not yet issued a subpoena for the material.

Congress has limited ability to enforce those subpoenas, with potential penalties for noncompliance ranging from holding them in contempt to issuing daily fines. More than a century ago, Congress sent its sergeant-at-arms to arrest a witness for non-cooperation, but that scenario is viewed as an extremely unlikely move in the present day.

House Democrats launched the impeachment inquiry last month amid reports of Trump's July phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, during which he asked Zelenskiy to "look into" former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Trump's decision to unexpectedly freeze nearly $400 million in military aid to the Ukraine days before the call has led to allegations that he was attempting a quid pro quo arrangement.