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Democrats Postpone 1st Ukraine Deposition Following Pompeo Objections

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused committee staff of giving inadequate time for deposed individuals to prepare and retain proper legal counsel.
Drew Angerer
Getty Images
On Tuesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo accused committee staff of giving inadequate time for deposed individuals to prepare and retain proper legal counsel.

Updated at 5:17 p.m. ET

House Democrats postponed the first of their planned series of depositions about the Ukraine affair after objections by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday.

The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, had been expected to meet with the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors on Wednesday — but that has been moved to Oct. 11, a committee official said.

The second closed deposition, which is scheduled for Thursday with another former envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, is expected to go ahead as scheduled.

The concession followed Democrats' receipt of a letter from Pompeo accusing them of seeking to "intimidate" and "bully" State Department employees.

"I will not tolerate such tactics," Pompeo said in his Tuesday letter to House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, "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."

Engel and the leaders of two other key committees investigating Trump and Ukraine lobbed the charge back at Pompeo, saying he should stop "intimidating department witnesses in order to protect himself and the president."

The State Department also found itself further intertwined in the House impeachment inquiry after press reports that Pompeo was among the administration officials who listened in on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine's president.

That was the conversation in which Trump asked his counterpart for a "favor" — to investigate the family of former Vice President Joe Biden.

Democrats call that an abuse of power and say they're investigating whether it merits impeachment.

Engel and the two other Democratic committee chairmen said in a statement on Tuesday that they expect "full compliance" from the current and former State Department witnesses.

The "favor"

According to a partial transcript of the call released by the White House, Trump repeatedly asked President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to work with Attorney General William Barr and Rudy Giuliani — the former New York City mayor who's now Trump's personal attorney — on an investigation into the Biden family.

A whistleblower's complaint about the call said White House officials were so concerned about what the president had said that they acted to "lock down" the official transcript of the conversation by putting it into a secret code word system.

Last week, House Democratic leaders subpoenaed Pompeo for documents and raised questions about whether the State Department was involved in alleged efforts to pressure Ukraine to dig up dirt on Biden, a potential rival in the 2020 election.

Investigators want to learn more about what the whistleblower called the efforts that led up to Trump's call with Zelenskiy. The written complaint describes someone reaching out to Ukrainian officials beforehand to prime them about Zelenskiy playing ball with Trump.

The White House stopped military assistance approved by Congress for Ukraine before the phone call. The document describes Zelenskiy broaching it with Trump — and the American president responding with his request for the favor regarding the Biden investigation.

What isn't clear yet is whether anyone, per the complaint, did brief the Ukrainians beforehand about the halted assistance and prepare Zelenskiy to ask about it, potentially with the expectation that Trump might ask for something from him.

Trump's attorney, Giuliani, has been a key conduit between the White House and Kyiv. And what members of Congress also want to know is what role, if any, was played by officials or diplomats in the State Department.

The witnesses

On Sept. 27, Engel, joined by Reps. Adam Schiff of the Intelligence Committee and Elijah Cummings of the Oversight Committee, also wrote a letter to schedule the depositions of five State Department officials to be conducted over the next two weeks.

"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.

On Tuesday, Pompeo accused committee staff of giving inadequate time for deposed individuals to prepare and retain proper legal counsel. He said the committees have also sent "intimidating communications" to career department professional outside normal channels.

Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, ranking member of the Committee on Oversight and Reform, backed Pompeo. He accused Democrats of putting "our nation's diplomatic interests at risk."

"The Democrats are choosing confrontation over cooperation and exploiting their power solely to attack this president and undo the results of the 2016 election," Jordan said.

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Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.

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