WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday he was unconcerned about the impeachment inquiry in the House of Representatives and the release of witness testimony but did not want to support the Democratic-led probe by letting his top aide testify.
FILE PHOTO: Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney listens during a cabinet meeting held by U.S. President Donald Trump at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 21, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo
Trump, speaking at the White House, dismissed the release of transcripts of testimony this week by U.S. diplomats to House committees investigating whether the Republican president pressured Ukraine to probe his domestic political rivals.
He also criticized House Democrats for moving their inquiry into the public eye with open, televised hearings next week.
“They shouldn’t be having public hearings; this is a hoax,” Trump, who has denied any wrongdoing, told reporters.
Trump accused Democrats of looking for people who hated him to testify in the probe and said he was not familiar with most of the witnesses, who include a number of top U.S. State Department officials.
“I’m not concerned about anything. The testimony has all been fine. I mean, for the most part, I never even heard of these people. I have no idea who they are,” he said.
House investigators are still pursuing testimony from witnesses behind closed doors, including from acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, who is Trump’s top aide as well as director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget.
Mulvaney was subpoenaed on Thursday night to appear but did not show up on Friday. His outside legal counsel informed investigators that his client had been directed by the White House not to comply with the subpoena and asserted “absolute immunity,” a congressional aide said.
Mark Sandy, associate director for national security programs at OMB, also was called to testify and did not show up.
The White House previously has said it would not cooperate with the congressional investigation, which was triggered by a whistleblower complaint about Trump’s July 25 telephone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
Lawmakers wanted to question the two officials about their knowledge of OMB’s decision last summer to block, without explanation to Congress, nearly $400 million in security aid for Ukraine that had been approved by lawmakers.
Investigators are trying to determine whether Trump made the release of the aid contingent on Zelenskiy agreeing to launch a corruption investigation of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
Joe Biden is one of Trump’s main Democratic rivals as the president runs for re-election in 2020. Hunter Biden was on the board of directors of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company.
Mulvaney acknowledged at an Oct. 17 news conference that the White House had withheld the assistance. “I have news for everybody: Get over it. There is going to be political influence in foreign policy,” Mulvaney said, although he later contradicted himself, saying in a White House statement: “There was absolutely no quid pro quo.”
Trump’s defenders say there is no evidence of him and the Ukrainian president engaging in a quid pro quo – or exchanging a favour for a favour – because the aid to Ukraine was released and Zelenskiy never explicitly promised to investigate Burisma, the Bidens, or any Ukraine involvement in the 2016 election.
A quid pro quo is not necessary, however, to prove high crimes or misdemeanours, which is the standard the U.S. Constitution requires for the impeachment of a president.
The White House, claiming executive privilege, has argued that any official close to the president should not have to provide depositions to congressional investigators.
Democrats on the House Intelligence, Foreign Relations and Oversight committees disputed the privilege argument.
So far, most officials who work in the executive branch have declined to cooperate with the investigation, although an adviser to Vice President Mike Pence appeared as requested on Thursday.
Attention will soon turn to the public hearings featuring U.S. officials testifying in Congress, which are likely to be a prelude to articles of impeachment – formal charges – against Trump being brought to a vote in the House.
If the Democratic-controlled House votes to impeach Trump, the Republican-controlled Senate would then hold a trial on whether to remove him from office. Senate Republicans have so far shown little appetite for ousting the president.
The impeachment battle could crowd out other issues like the economy and immigration as voters turn their minds to the November 2020 election.
The three committees are wrapping up the closed-door phase of their investigation before open hearings start next Wednesday with testimony from two diplomats who have been interviewed behind closed doors, William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent.
This week, the committees have been releasing transcripts of the closed-door interviews, including with Taylor, Kent and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who appears at a public hearing on Nov. 15. Trump abruptly recalled Yovanovitch as ambassador in May.
Another transcript release is expected on Friday, although the committees declined to say which it would be.
As the Republicans manoeuvre to try to shield Trump at the hearings, Jim Jordan, a Republican and an aggressive Trump defender, will be drafted onto the House Intelligence Committee panel ahead of the witnesses appearing next week, a House Republican aide said.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Susan Cornwell, Makini Brice and Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Eric Beech and Mark Hosenball; Writing by Paul Simao; Editing by Bill Berkrot and Alistair Bell