Three top Democrats in the House of Representatives warned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday that intimidating or preventing witnesses from speaking with Congress is illegal could be interpreted as evidence of obstruction of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman D-Calif., Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said Pompeo should "immediately cease intimidating Department witnesses in order to protect himself and the President."
"Any effort to intimidate witnesses or prevent them from talking with Congress — including State Department employees — is illegal and will constitute evidence of obstruction of the impeachment inquiry. In response, Congress may infer from this obstruction that any withheld documents and testimony would reveal information that corroborates the whistleblower complaint," the chairmen said in a statement.
The chairmen's fiery statement came hours after Pompeo accused the lawmakers of attempting to "intimidate, bully and treat improperly" five State Department officials whom the lawmakers have asked to interview as part of the impeachment inquiry.
In a letter to Engel, Pompeo claimed he had been "made aware that committee staff" had been "sending intimidating communications" to State Department officials.
"Let me be clear: I will not tolerate such tactics, and I will use all means at my disposal to prevent and expose any attempts to intimidate the dedicated professionals whom I am proud to lead and serve alongside at the Department of State," Pompeo wrote.
The secretary of state noted that he had received the subpoena issued by the chairmen and intends to respond by the Oct. 4 deadline.
Pompeo's letter came in response to a request from the committee chairmen to schedule the depositions of five State Department officials over the next two weeks.
"The deposition transcripts shall be part of the impeachment inquiry and shared among the committees," the chairmen wrote in a Sept. 27 letter to Pompeo.
The chairmen are looking to interview the officials over the State Department's "direct knowledge" of the subject at the center of the House's impeachment inquiry: Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
A whistleblower complaint about the call, publicly released last week, revealed Trump urged Zelensky to "initiate or continue an investigation" into Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Joe Biden. The call took place days after Trump withheld congressionally approved aid to Ukraine.
"The committees are investigating the extent to which President Trump jeopardized national security by pressing Ukraine to interfere with our 2020 election and by withholding security assistance provided by Congress to help Ukraine counter Russian aggression," the chairmen wrote in a Sept. 27 letter to Pompeo.
The whistleblower's complaint claimed White House officials were so concerned about what the president had said that they intervened to "lock down all records of the phone call, especially the word-for-word transcript of the call."
In a memo of the call between Trump and Zelensky, released by the White House last week, revealed that Trump asked Zelensky for a "favor" shortly after the Ukrainian leader raised the prospect of obtaining military equipment from the U.S.
Trump went on to ask Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company that came under scrutiny for possible abuse of power and unlawful enrichment. Hunter Biden was not accused of any wrongdoing in the investigation, but anti-corruption advocates expressed concern that he served at the company at the time his father was the Obama administration's point person on relations with Ukraine.
As vice president, Joe Biden reportedly pressured Ukraine to fire its top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who Biden and other Western officials have argued was ignoring corruption in his own office and among the political elite. In 2016, Biden reportedly threatened to withhold $1 billion in loan guarantees unless the nation's leaders removed Shokin. There is no evidence that Joe Biden misused his authority.
Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, have pointed to the event as a major scandal, even though no evidence has emerged that either Biden committed any wrongdoing.
Pompeo listened in on the call between Trump and Zelensky, The Wall Street Journal reported Monday, citing a senior State Department official. In recent days, Pompeo has claimed actions by State Department officials had been "entirely appropriate and consistent" with the White House's efforts to improve relations with Ukraine.
"Secretary Pompeo was reportedly on the call when the President pressured Ukraine to smear his political opponent. If true, Secretary Pompeo is now a fact witness in the House impeachment inquiry. He should immediately case intimidating Department witnesses in order to protect himself and the President," Cummings, Engel and Schiff said in their joint statement Tuesday.