US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said his department intends to follow the law in the House impeachment investigation and vigorously defended Donald Trump, dismissing questions about the president’s attempts to push Ukraine and China to investigate a Democratic political rival.
The Trump administration and House Democrats often disagree about what the law requires, leaving open the question of how Mr Pompeo may interpret Democrats’ demands for key information about Mr Trump’s handling of Ukraine.
Mr Pompeo, speaking Saturday in Greece, said the State Department sent a letter to Congress on Friday night as its initial response to the document request, and added: “We’ll obviously do all the things that we’re required to do by law.”
He is allowing Democrats to interview a series of witnesses next week, among them Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, who is another key figure in the probe.
The administration has struggled to come up with a unified response to the quickly progressing investigation. Democrats have warned that defying their demands will in itself be considered “evidence of obstruction” and a potentially impeachable offence.
Mr Pompeo has become a key figure in the Democrats’ investigation.
He was on the line during the July phone call in which Mr Trump pressed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter = sparking a whistleblower complaint and now the impeachment inquiry.
Mr Pompeo had initially tried to delay a handful of current and former officials’ co-operation with the inquiry and accused Democrats of trying to “bully” his staff.
On Saturday, Mr Pompeo did not back off in his defence of Mr Trump’s call with Ukraine.
“There has been some suggestion somehow that it would be inappropriate for the United States government to engage in that activity and I see it just precisely the opposite,” he said.
Mr Trump has offered a series of contradictory statements when it comes to the Democrats’ subpoena of White House records.
Asked on Wednesday whether the White House intended to comply, Mr Trump told reporters “I always co-operate”, even as he dismissed the inquiry as “a hoax”.
A day later, however, he had a different answer for the same question, saying he would instead leave the matter to his lawyers.
“That’s up to them to decide,” he said, “But the whole investigation is crumbling.”
By Friday, however, the president confirmed reports that the White House was preparing a letter to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, arguing that Congress cannot undertake an impeachment investigation without first having a vote to authorise it.
Ms Pelosi has insisted the House is well within its rules to conduct oversight of the executive branch under the Constitution regardless.
It was unclear on Saturday when or if that letter would be sent.
Mr Pompeo, meanwhile, made clear that the State Department had yet to hand over any document, but intended to follow a proper review. And he said he would do so faster than the Obama administration.
“I remember precisely once when I was on that side and we were looking for documents, I remember precisely how long it took for those documents to come across,” he said in an apparent reference to his experience as a congressman during the investigation into the 2012 attack on the US mission in Benghazi, Libya.
“We’re going to beat that. We’re going to be more responsive than the Obama administration was in the years that preceded this particular Congress.”
A congressional aide familiar with Mr Pompeo’s response confirmed that the State Department had indeed been in contact, even if the Secretary of State had failed to meet a Friday deadline to produce documents required by the subpoena.
Mr Trump, meanwhile, continued to seethe on Saturday, denouncing the investigation as yet another “Witch Hunt!” and “a fraud against the American people!”
In a series of tweets, including several sent as his presidential motorcade ferried him back and forth to his Virginia golf course, he defended his conduct and lashed out at critics, including a past foil, Senator Mitt Romney.
“I’m hearing that the Great People of Utah are considering their vote for their Pompous Senator, Mitt Romney, to be a big mistake. I agree! He is a fool who is playing right into the hands of the Do Nothing Democrats!” Mr Trump wrote. He ended his tweet with an extraordinary call to impeach a senator from his own party.
Yet Mr Romney was joined in his criticism on Saturday by a second Republican senator, Susan Collins of Maine, who said “it’s not OK” for a president to encourage a foreign state to investigate a political rival.
Speaking after a firefighter memorial service in Maine, Ms Collins said Mr Trump made a “big mistake” when he piled on his outreach to Ukraine by publicly calling on China to investigate the Bidens.
Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska is the only other Republican senator to publicly criticise the president’s comments that further fuelled an impeachment inquiry.
Politicians are focused on Mr Trump’s efforts to push Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
A whistleblower complaint said the president sought to use military assistance for Ukraine as leverage to push the newly elected Mr Zelenskiy to launch an inquiry into the 2020 Democratic hopeful.
Late on Thursday, House investigators released a cache of text messages that showed top US diplomats encouraging the Ukrainian president to conduct an investigation linked to Mr Biden’s family in return for granting a high-profile visit with Mr Trump in Washington.
The release followed a 10-hour interview with one of the diplomats, Kurt Volker, who stepped down as special envoy to Ukraine after the impeachment inquiry had begun.