The Donald Trump impeachment inquiry is reaching directly into the White House, with Democrats subpoenaing officials about contacts with Ukraine as the US president signals that his administration will not cooperate.
The demand for documents capped a tumultuous week that widened the constitutional battle between the United States’ executive branch and congress and heightened the political stand-off with the promise of more witnesses, testimony and documents to come.
Mr Trump said he would formally object to congress about the House impeachment inquiry, even as he acknowledged that Democrats “have the votes” to proceed. He predicted they would be sorry in the end.
“I really believe that they’re going to pay a tremendous price at the polls,” he said.
But Democrats accused Mr Trump of taking “a path of defiance, obstruction and cover-up”, and warned that defying the House subpoena would in itself be considered “evidence of obstruction” and a potentially an impeachable offence.
Members of congress have made Mr Trump’s request last summer that Ukraine should investigate former vice president Joe Biden the centrepiece of the probe.
A whistleblower’s complaint said that Mr Trump sought to use military assistance for Ukraine as leverage to push the country’s new president Volodymyr Zelenskiy towards investigate the 2020 Democratic hopeful.
As they issued Friday’s subpoena after White House resistance to requests for witnesses and documents, three Democratic House chairmen, Elijah Cummings, Adam Schiff and Eliot Engel, wrote: “We deeply regret that President Trump has put us – and the nation – in this position, but his actions have left us with no choice.”
Fighting the inquiry, the White House is expected to send a letter to House speaker Nancy Pelosi arguing that congress could not mount its impeachment investigation without first having a vote to authorise it. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham derided the subpoena as coming from a Democratic “kangaroo court”.
However, Ms Pelosi insisted the House is well within its rules to conduct oversight of the executive branch under the US constitution.
In the letter accompanying the subpoena, the three chairmen agreed, stating: “Speaker Pelosi has confirmed that an impeachment inquiry is under way, and it is not for the White House to say otherwise.”
Mr Trump’s comments at the White House came shortly before Democrats sent a separate extensive request for documents to vice president Mike Pence about his contacts with Ukraine.
A spokeswoman for Mr Pence dismissed the demand, saying that given its wide scope “it does not appear to be a serious request”.
The House has also subpoenaed US secretary of state Mike Pompeo.
When Ms Pelosi recently announced that the House was initiating the inquiry, she did not seek the consent of the full chamber, a process which was carried out for impeachment investigations into former presidents Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. However, it is proceeding at a fast pace.
Late on Thursday, House investigators released a cache of text messages that showed top US diplomats encouraging Ukraine’s newly-elected 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.
On Friday, investigators in congress heard again from Michael Atkinson, the intelligence community inspector general who brought forward the whistleblower complaint of Mr Trump’s call with the Ukraine president that sparked the impeachment inquiry.
Mr Trump repeated on Friday that he had been pressing Ukraine to investigate corruption, not trying to undermine Mr Biden, who could be his 2020 presidential election opponent.
He made a related request of China, specifying Mr Biden and his son, Hunter, on Thursday.
As Republicans search for a response to the investigation, the absence of a procedural vote to begin the probe has been a main attack line against Democrats.
Ms Pelosi said such a vote was unnecessary.
“The existing rules of the House provide House Committees with full authority to conduct investigations for all matters under their jurisdiction, including impeachment investigations,” she wrote in a letter to House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy after he, too, pressed for a floor vote.
Ms Pelosi has sought to avoid a vote on the impeachment probe for the same reason she resisted, for months, liberal calls to try to remove the president: It would force moderate House Democrats to make a politically risky vote.
The White House, meanwhile, is trying to force the question on Democrats, as it seeks to raise the political cost for their impeachment investigation and to animate the president’s supporters ahead of the 2020 election.