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As Trump moves to bully witnesses and derail impeachment, Democrats see obstruction

Representative Adam Schiff and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are two of the Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
Representative Adam Schiff and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are two of the Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.Melina Mara/Washington Post

WASHINGTON — President Trump has sought to intimidate witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, attacking them as ‘‘Never Trumpers’’ and badgering an anonymous whistleblower. He has directed the White House to withhold documents and block testimony requested by Congress. And he has labored to publicly discredit the investigation as a ‘‘scam’’ overseen by ‘‘a totally compromised kangaroo court.’’

To the Democratic leaders directing the impeachment proceedings, Trump’s actions to stymie their probe into his conduct with Ukraine add up to another likely article of impeachment: Obstruction.

The centerpiece of House Democrats’ eventual impeachment charges is widely expected to be Trump’s alleged abuse of power over Ukraine. But obstruction of Congress is now all but certain to be introduced as well, according to multiple Democratic lawmakers and aides, just as it was five decades ago when the House Judiciary Committee voted for articles of impeachment against then-president Richard Nixon. But Nixon resigned before the full House vote.

‘‘It’s important to vindicate the role of Congress as an independent branch of government with substantial oversight responsibly, that if the executive branch just simply obstructs and prevents witnesses from coming forward, or prevents others from producing documents, they could effectively eviscerate congressional oversight,’’ said Representative David N. Cicilline, Democrat of Rhode Island ‘‘That would be very dangerous for the country.’’


Democrats argue that the Trump administration’s stonewalling — including trying to stop subpoenaed witnesses from testifying and blocking the executive branch from turning over documents — creates a strong case that the president has infringed on the separation of powers and undercut lawmakers’ oversight duties as laid out in the Constitution.

Laurence Tribe, a constitutional law scholar at Harvard Law School who has informally advised some Democratic House leaders, said Trump’s actions are unprecedented.

‘‘I know of no instance when a president subject to a serious impeachment effort, whether Andrew Johnson or Richard Nixon or Bill Clinton, has essentially tried to lower the curtain entirely — treating the whole impeachment process as illegitimate, deriding it as a ‘lynching’ and calling it a ‘kangaroo court,’ ’’ Tribe said.


‘‘It’s not simply getting in the way of an inquiry,’’ he added. ‘‘It’s basically saying one process that the Constitution put in place, thanks to people like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, for dealing with an out-of-control president, is a process he is trying to subvert, undermine, and delegitimate. That, to me, is clearly a high crime and misdemeanor.’’

Meanwhile, the country is sharply divided along partisan lines over whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll.

The poll finds that 49 percent of Americans say the president should be impeached and removed from office, while 47 percent say he should not. That finding is almost identical to support for impeachment in a poll by The Post and the Schar School taken earlier in October.

Among Democrats, support for removing the president from office is overwhelming, with 82 percent in favor and 13 percent opposed. Among Republicans, it is almost the reverse, with 82 percent opposed and 18 percent in favor, even as the president’s approval rating reached a new low among members of his party. Independents are closely divided, with 47 percent favoring removal and 49 percent opposed.

In recent weeks, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California; Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, Democrat of California; and other top Democrats have become more forceful in their obstruction language. They have regularly warned the White House that any attempt to withhold or conceal evidence related to the Ukraine episode from congressional investigators could be grounds for impeachment.


Republican lawmakers, meanwhile, have been accusing Democrats of overreaching, despite their own history of using congressional subpoenas to interrogate Obama administration officials while they held the majority.

‘‘Generally speaking, a fishing expedition that would offer subpoenas for high ranking executive officials is not something that Congress has ever expected in the past nor should it expect now — unless there is a true impeachment,’’ said Representative Mark Meadows, Republican of North Carolina and Trump confidant.

Lawmakers have wide latitude to decide what constitutes ‘‘high crimes and misdemeanors’’ in drawing up articles of impeachment, which would be voted on by the House and, if passed, be subject to trial in the Senate. The standard for constituting obstruction, therefore, is different than in a criminal probe, such as special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Barbara McQuade, a former Obama administration US attorney from Michigan, said there is no standard for impeachment.

‘‘Impeachment is anything Congress says it is for charging purposes in the House and for conviction purposes in the Senate,’’ said McQuade, a professor at the University of Michigan Law School. ‘‘There can be some crimes that are not impeachable, like littering or jaywalking, and then there are some that are impeachable but not criminal, such as abusing one’s power for personal purposes as opposed to acting in the best interests of the country.’’


Trump has called Democrats leading the process rank names, accused them of treason, and has said they should face criminal investigations for unspecified behavior. The president also has revived the same dismissive title for the impeachment inquiry that he wielded effectively for nearly two years against Mueller: ‘‘Witch Hunt.’’