In a performatively outraged eight-page letter to the House of Representatives on Tuesday afternoon, the White House announced that it would not cooperate with the body’s impeachment inquiry under the circumstances in which it’s being conducted. Or, well, ever.
The tone of the letter, attributable to White House counsel Pat Cipollone, is shouty, reading as a lightly lawyered digest of the president’s tweets. It accuses House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic chairmen of three investigating committees of violating “the Constitution, the rule of law, and every past precedent” in the way they’ve conducted the inquiry.
“Never before in our history has the House of Representatives—under the control of either political party—taken the American people down the dangerous path you seem determined to pursue,” the letter reads. It also notes, three times, that President Donald Trump’s call with Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky was “completely appropriate,” and portrays the entire effort as a means of both overturning the 2016 election and corrupting the 2020 election.
Among the central issues the letter raises is one that House Republicans have been pressing incessantly: Democratic leaders’ refusal, thus far, to vote to establish a formal impeachment inquiry, as was done during the impeachment proceedings of Nixon and Clinton. Democrats have argued that such a vote is not necessary, as the investigating committees already have the full subpoena powers they didn’t have during previous impeachment inquiries.
“In the history of our Nation, the House of Representatives has never attempted to launch an impeachment inquiry against the President without a majority of the House taking political accountability for that decision by voting to authorize such a dramatic constitutional step,” the White House letter reads. “Here, House leadership claims to have initiated the gravest inter-branch conflict contemplated under our Constitution by means of nothing more than a press conference at which the Speaker of the House simply announced an ‘official impeachment inquiry.’”
Aside from their belief that they don’t need to vote, Democrats have political concerns. At the moment, there are still about 10 House Democrats who haven’t come out in support of an impeachment inquiry—and zero Republicans who have come out in support. Pelosi would rather take the vote, if she were to take the vote at all, when her side is 100 percent unified and the other is suffering defections. It’s possible that, with public support for an impeachment inquiry now a comfortable majority, she will be more inclined to hold the vote in the coming weeks.
Another reason Republicans want the vote is to establish parameters within the inquiry favorable to them, such as subpoena power for Republican ranking members of the investigative committees—a power they do not otherwise have.
“The right of the minority to issue subpoenas—subject to the same rules as the majority—has been the standard, bipartisan practice in all recent resolutions authorizing presidential impeachment inquiries,” the letter reads.
The risk of giving House Republicans subpoena power is that then you would be giving Republicans subpoena power, which they have no intention of using to investigate the president’s misconduct and would instead use to establish parallel investigations.
What the letter does not say, though, is that if Democrats leaders acquiesced to its many procedural demands, the White House would happily cooperate with the inquiry. Instead, it only urged them to “abandon the current invalid efforts to pursue an impeachment inquiry and join the President in focusing on the many important goals that matter to the American people.”
In a press call coinciding with the release of the letter, a senior administration official kept observing that the entire administration wouldn’t cooperate “under the present circumstances.” When asked the obvious question, though—if the House does vote and establish parameters, will the administration cooperate by providing documents and allowing witnesses to testify?—the official refused to answer.
“I don’t want to speculate about what would happen in various hypothetical situations,” the official said. “We’ll take this step by step. We have one concrete situation now that we’re confronting … If the House wants to engage and alter the current circumstances, then we’ll have to evaluate that as it goes along.” In other words: No quid pro quo.
The White House’s plan is to mark the impeachment process as an illegitimate sham, and granting Republican ranking members subpoena power and high-end massage chairs in committee rooms would just lead to new complaints about the rigged nature of the process. A letter like this is not sent as an opening offer in negotiations.