WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House’s promise to stonewall a congressional impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump will get an early test on Friday, when the former ambassador to Ukraine is scheduled to testify to House of Representatives investigators.
FILE PHOTO: U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Louise Yovanovitch is seen during a ceremony to mark World AIDS Day in Kiev, Ukraine December 1, 2017. REUTERS/Gleb Garanich/File Photo
Marie Yovanovitch, a career diplomat who was abruptly recalled from Ukraine in May, is scheduled to give a deposition to congressional investigators probing Trump in a scandal that has cast a pall over his presidency.
Congressional lawmakers were waiting to see if she shows up after the White House said earlier this week it would refuse to cooperate with an impeachment inquiry that Trump has termed “a kangaroo court.”
The pledge from White House lawyer Pat Cipollone came hours after the administration blocked another key witness, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, from testifying to congressional panels.
The inquiry was launched after a whistleblower complaint about a July 25 phone call in which Trump pressed his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to investigate former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, a leading Democratic contender for the right to face Trump in the November 2020 election.
Democrats have accused Trump of pressuring a vulnerable foreign ally to dig up dirt on a domestic political opponent for his own political benefit. Trump has denied he did anything wrong on the call.
On Thursday, two foreign-born Florida businessmen who had helped Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani investigate Biden were arrested in what prosecutors said was a scheme to illegally funnel money to a pro-Trump election committee and other U.S. political candidates.
The pair, Ukraine-born Lev Parnas and Belarus-born Igor Fruman, were arrested at an airport outside Washington carrying one-way tickets to Vienna. Prosecutors said they conspired to contribute foreign money, including at least $1 million from an unidentified Russian businessman, to candidates for federal and state offices to buy influence.
The two had donated $325,000 to a pro-Trump political action committee called America First Action in May 2018, and the money was falsely reported as coming from a purported natural gas company set up to conceal its true source, according to the indictment.
STILL EXPECTED TO APPEAR
The investigation of Trump could lead to the approval of articles of impeachment – or formal charges – against the president in the House. A trial on whether to remove him from office would then be held in the U.S. Senate, where the Republicans who control the chamber have shown little appetite for ousting the president.
The testimony from Yovanovitch is the first of several depositions of key figures planned by the House committees spearheading the probe, and whether she makes her appearance will offer an early gauge of White House cooperation.
Yovanovitch was still expected to appear as of late Thursday, a House aide said.
Yovanovitch, described by colleagues as a consummate professional, became the target in March of allegations – vehemently denied by the State Department – that she gave a Ukrainian prosecutor a list of people not to prosecute.
Trump allies called for her removal, accusing her of criticizing the president to foreign officials, something current and former colleagues found inconceivable. Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, alleged she blocked efforts to persuade Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.
According to a White House summary, Trump described her as “bad news” to Zelenskiy in the July call in which he sought Zelinskiy’s help to investigate Biden and his son. “She’s going to go through some things,” Trump added.
One of the foreign-born businessman arrested on Thursday, Parnas, sought the help of a U.S. congressman – identified by a person familiar with the matter as Republican Pete Sessions – to get Trump to remove Yovanovitch, according to the indictment.
Giuliani told Reuters last week he had provided information to both Trump and the State Department about Yovanovitch, who he suggested was biased against Trump.
Sessions lost his House seat from Texas last year to a Democrat. In a statement quoted by Politico, he said his motivation in urging the removal of Yovanovitch was his belief that “political appointees should not be disparaging the president, especially while serving overseas.”
Reporting by Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Peter Cooney