Trump's State Dept balks at cooperating with impeachment inquiry

The US State Department is seen in Washington, DC.
The US State Department is seen in Washington, DC.

As part of the impeachment process in the U.S. House, lawmakers expected to hear in the coming days from five State Department officials involved in U.S. relations with Ukraine. The group includes Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was fired under unusual circumstances, and Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine who resigned unexpectedly late last week.

Evidently, as NBC News reported, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has a different plan in mind.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday accused House Democrats of attempting to "intimidate, bully and treat improperly" five State Department officials whom key committees have asked to interview as part of an impeachment inquiry centering on the Ukraine scandal."I am concerned with aspects of your request ... that can be understood only as an attempt to intimidate, bully, and treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State, including several career Foreign Service Officers, whom the committee is now targeting," Pompeo wrote in a letter to House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.Pompeo claimed he had been "made aware that Committee staff" had been "sending intimidating communications" to career State Department officials.

To the extent that governmental principles matter, there's nothing inherently wrong with officials in a cabinet agency feeling a degree of intimidation under the circumstances. There is, after all, an impeachment inquiry underway, which is inherently serious and historically momentous. The State Department is near the center of an intensifying scandal, and lawmakers, exercising their oversight responsibilities, believe some officials in the department are in a position to help Congress better understand what happened and why.

These officials may feel anxious and daunted by the pressure-filled process, but that's not altogether relevant -- and it's certainly not a compelling excuse to obstruct an impeachment inquiry.

What's less clear is what lawmakers intend to do about it.

At issue, for now, was a congressional request for interviews with the relevant officials. Now that Trump's secretary of State has decided against cooperation, the next step may be subpoenas.

Pompeo, well aware of the next step, told House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) in his letter this morning that "the committee has not issued any subpoenas for depositions and we are not aware of any other authority by which the committee could compel appearance at a deposition."

Of course, there's also the matter of the subpoena that was already issued: Democratic officials helping lead the impeachment inquiry subpoenaed Pompeo on Friday for documents related to the White House scandal. The secretary's deadline is later this week, and it's not at all clear how Pompeo intends to respond.

Watch this space.

Postscript: We had an item earlier on Pompeo's expanding role in the president's escalating scandal. It includes an effort to pursue officials who exchanged emails with Hillary Clinton -- a move some may find "intimidating."