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White House blockade of impeachment probe likely to hold ahead of open hearings

Kitco News

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House blockade of the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump seemed likely to hold firm on Friday, as congressional officials said they expected two administration officials to rebuff a request to testify.

The House of Representatives Intelligence Committee late on Thursday subpoenaed acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to appear for a closed-door deposition on Friday, an official working on the impeachment inquiry said.

The panel, along with the House Foreign Relations and Oversight committees, has also called Mark Sandy, associate director for national security programs at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), for interviews behind closed doors on Friday.

Lawmakers want to ask Mulvaney and Sandy about OMB’s decision last summer to block, without explanation to Congress, nearly $400 million in security assistance for Ukraine that had been approved by lawmakers.

Mulvaney, a former Republican House member, started his tenure at the Trump White House as director of the budget office. Due to his role at OMB, Sandy likely would have been involved in the decision.

Congressional investigators are trying to determine whether Trump told the Kiev government it would not get the aid unless it agreed to launch an investigation of Hunter Biden, the son of former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s main Democratic rivals as he runs for re-election in 2020.

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.”

‘WITCH HUNT’

Trump has denied wrongdoing and disparaged the investigation as a politically motivated “witch hunt.” A White House spokesman said earlier this week that Mulvaney did not intend to comply with the request to appear..

Officials did not immediately respond on Thursday to a request for comment on whether that still held, and on Sandy’s intentions.

Mulvaney has also ignored an Oct. 4 subpoena from the House committees to provide documents for the investigation.

Mulvaney is now Trump’s top aide, and the White House, claiming executive privilege, has argued that any official close to Trump should not have to provide depositions to congressional investigators.

So far, most officials who work in the executive branch have declined to cooperate with the investigation, although an adviser to Vice President Mike Pence appeared as requested on Thursday.

The House committees dispute the privilege argument. “As Mulvaney knows from his previous service in the House of Representatives, both Republican and Democratic-led committees have conducted depositions for decades with high-level White House aides - include White House Chiefs of Staff,” they said in an emailed statement.

The three House committees 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.

This week, the committees have been releasing transcripts of the closed-door interviews, including with Taylor, Kent and former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who appears at a public hearing on Nov. 15.

Trump abruptly recalled Yovanovitch as ambassador in May.

Another transcript release is expected on Friday, although the committees declined to say which it would be.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Susan Cornwell; Additional reporting by Eric Beech; Editing by Peter Cooney

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