Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and another White House official on Friday failed to appear at the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, as the administration continued to blockade investigators.
Mulvaney, who is also director of the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB), had been issued a subpoena to testify by the House’s intelligence committee, one of three panels investigating whether Trump pressured Ukraine for help against a political rival.
Mulvaney’s outside counsel informed investigators on Friday 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.
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 US in security aid for Ukraine that had been approved by lawmakers.
Democrats dispute Mulvaney’s privilege argument.
The committees led by Democrats 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.
Investigators are trying to determine whether Trump made the release of the aid contingent on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky agreeing to launch an investigation of Joe Biden, one of Trump’s main Democratic rivals as he runs for re-election in 2020. Biden was vice-president for a period of over two years when his son Hunter served on the board of directors of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company, but no credible allegations of wrongdoing have emerged.
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.”
‘I’m not concerned’: Trump
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 Zelensky 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.
Democrats have also said that exchanges between countries usually are in furtherance of national interests, not for personal gain. They have also raised suspicions of the timing of the aid being released — in September, as the Ukraine questions started to gain steam in the media.
Mulvaney, who is Trump’s top aide, also ignored an Oct. 4 subpoena from the House committees to provide documents for the investigation.
The White House, claiming executive privilege, has argued that any official close to the president should not have to provide depositions to congressional investigators.
So far, most officials who work in the executive branch have declined to co-operate with the investigation, although an adviser to Vice-President Mike Pence appeared as requested on Thursday.
This week, the committees have been releasing transcripts of the closed-door interviews, including with Taylor, Kent and former U.S. mmbassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who will appear at a public hearing Nov. 15. Trump abruptly recalled Yovanovitch as ambassador in May.
Speaking to reporters at the White House, Trump dismissed transcripts of closed-door testimony.
“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.
Trump also criticized House Democrats for moving their inquiry to the public eye with open hearings next week.
“They shouldn’t be having public hearings; this is a hoax,” he said.
Another transcript release is expected Friday, although the committees declined to say which it would be.
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.
Republican congressman Rick Crawford of Arkansas has volunteered to step aside from the House intelligence committee so that Ohio colleague Jim Jordan, another Republican and an aggressive Trump defender, could serve on the panel during the public impeachment inquiry hearings next week, a House Republican aide said.
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.
A potential complication could emerge after Nov. 21, when a short-term funding bill for the government expires. Trump gave mixed signals last week with reporters as to whether a shutdown would occur.