Donald Trump drove Democrats to the first crucial pivot point of their impeachment confrontation on Tuesday with a defiant declaration that his administration would not cooperate with the investigation.
In a fierce counter-attack after days of failing to control a torrent of damaging disclosures, the Trump White House branded the inquiry an illegal bid to overthrow the 2016 election and blocked testimony from a top diplomat.
“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,” White House counsel Pat Cipollone wrote in a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and her key committee chairs.
The letter in effect gave notice of all out political warfare as part of the administration’s strategy to deprive investigators of all the testimony and evidence that they have demanded, in a clear effort to throttle the capacity of the probe into whether Trump abused his power by pressuring Ukraine to investigate a political opponent — Joe Biden.
Pelosi says there is no constitutional requirement supporting Trump’s demand for a full House vote to initiate impeachment proceedings — one justification given for the President’s refusal to cooperate.
But Trump’s move left her with grave strategic decisions on what to do next in a confrontation that puts to the test the integrity of America’s bedrock separation of powers and will determine whether she truly gamed out this duel several steps ahead.
Challenging Trump’s position in court could bog down the impeachment drive in months of legal challenges. Folding the President’s obstruction into articles of impeachment in short order could play into his claims that she’s running a “kangaroo court” and rushing the most consequential function of Congress.
The American people will now be effectively asked whether a President who accepts few limits on his power can be held in check by a separate branch of government or whether he can avoid such an examination, a decision that will echo through history.
Democrats are already arguing that Trump’s position is a de facto admission of guilt based on a legal and political house of sand.
“I guess they haven’t read the Constitution,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey, a Democrat who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
“If they don’t defend themselves, against the copious evidence that we already have, then I think it disadvantages them,” Malinowski said.
“This is not the kind of investigation where we are starting with nothing — we are starting with everything.”