To nobody’s surprise, the White House has announced in a letter from White House counsel Pat Cipollone to congressional leadership that it will attempt to stonewall Congress’s impeachment inquiry.
The letter is neither a serious legal document nor a persuasive piece of political rhetoric. The few legal arguments it proffers are frivolous. Count Cipollone as another official ruined by entering Trump’s orbit.
The White House is again banking on the slow pace of the courts and Congress’s lack of effective inherent enforcement powers to run out the clock, stalling into next year, when the reelection campaign is in full force. And to date, its bad-faith strategy has worked pretty well.
But the White House is taking a bigger risk this time.
That is because the contours of President Trump’s impeachable conduct have already come into focus, and Congress has other means at its disposal — not subject to the raw control of the president — to fill in the picture. The Ukraine operation was altogether too sprawling, and Trump and his attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani altogether too boastful and loose-lipped, to be able to now contain the investigation within a small circle of current executive branch officials.
As important, public support for impeachment and removal are growing, constraining the ability of Senate Republicans to respond to a House case with high-handed disdain.
The upshot is that if the House stays disciplined and continues to work quickly, it might well be able to bring a fully formed case by the end of the year — enough to put Senate Republicans in a very difficult spot, notwithstanding the White House’s intransigence.
The case begins, of course, with a detailed blueprint from the whistleblower complaint from a still anonymous intelligence official, which subsequent revelations — such as the testimony and documents from Kurt Volker, Trump’s former special envoy to Ukraine — have substantiated.
A second whistleblower has come forward with an account that both reinforces the first one and supplies additional direct evidence.
Congress also will shortly call witnesses whose testimony will be significant, if not showstopping. Today the House is scheduled to take the deposition of Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, whose cooperation the administration appears unable to foil. Yovanovitch, a respected career diplomat, was forced out as a result of a conservative smear campaign suggesting that she was insufficiently loyal to the president.
Next up: Fiona Hill, the president’s special assistant on the National Security Council until August. Hill is reportedly is set to testify that Giuliani and Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, circumvented the NSC and normal White House process to run a shadow Ukraine policy. And latest reports are that Sondland himself, whose testimony the White House aborted the morning he was scheduled to appear, may yet testify next week.
Consider, too, a number of former senior officials who are in the wings as possible dangerous wild-card witnesses: former national security adviser John Bolton, former secretary of state Rex Tillerson (whom Trump tried to persuade to free a Giuliani client being prosecuted for allegedly violating Iran sanctions) or National Security Council legal adviser John Eisenberg, who received alarmed reports about Giuliani’s lobbying from several national security officials.
Then, of course, Thursday’s indictment and arrests on campaign finance charges of two of Giuliani’s associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, augur a fairly mature investigation by the Southern District of New York. It stands to reason that Giuliani is a focus of that investigation, especially given the new revelation that Parnas told people he paid Giuliani hundreds of thousands of dollars. The House already has jumped in to subpoena documents from Parnas and Fruman.
Speaking of Giuliani, when the House calls him to testify, the White House’s arguments to block the testimony altogether are especially weak, since he never worked in the administration. Assuming the White House still tries it, the courts might make especially quick work of the claim. Giuliani in the witness chair with the prospect of criminal liability could break the case wide open.
Not all of these witnesses will work out handsomely, but the odds are good that in conjunction with the evidence the House already has developed, they together will produce a compelling case very much along the lines of the initial whistleblower complaint.
That would be Count One of the prospective articles of impeachment. Count Two would be obstruction of Congress’s inquiry, which the White House letter itself demonstrates.
That two-count indictment would go to the Senate with very little room for senators to challenge it on the facts. Trump’s defenders would be left to argue the conduct wasn’t impeachable (and of course, to impugn Democrats’ motives). It’s not a great argument. Given the entrenched hyperpartisanship in the Senate, few people are ready yet to bet on Trump’s removal, but the situation is becoming more volatile for the president by the day.