United States Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. The Trump administration directed Sondland not to appear fora scheduled deposition that was part of the impeachment inquiry. (U.S. Department of State)

WASHINGTON – In an extraordinary show of defiance, the White House said Tuesday it would refuse to “participate” in the House impeachment inquiry, setting up a direct constitutional clash between the two co-equal branches of government.

The eight-page letter, sent to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and three committee chairmen, marks a major milestone in the impeachment drama, and came hours after the White House directly intervened to block a U.S. diplomat involved in the scandal from giving a voluntary deposition.

After offering an evolving series of defenses in recent days, the White House letter, signed by Pat A. Cipollone, counsel to the president, rolled them into a blistering critique of the integrity and motivation of Democrats as they examine whether Trump abused his power when he blocked military aid to Ukraine and then asked its president to investigate one of Trump’s political rivals for alleged wrongdoing.

Rejecting what he called “your baseless unconstitutional efforts to overturn the democratic process,” Cipollone said Trump and his administration “cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry under these circumstances.”

In the letter, Cipollone accuses Pelosi of violating “fundamental fairness and constitutionally mandated due process” in the House inquiry, saying Trump should be allowed to cross examine witnesses, receive transcripts of the testimony, have access to evidence the House collects and have counsel present during questioning.

“Your highly partisan and unconstitutional effort threatens grave and lasting damage to our democratic institutions, to our system of free elections, and to the American people,” he wrote.

House Democrats earlier said they would subpoena Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, to force him to testify and turn over documents and text messages, apparently from a private device, regarding the president’s dealings with Ukraine.

“The failure to produce this witness, the failure to produce these documents, we consider yet additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress,” Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, told a news conference.

He said Sondland has text messages and emails that the State Department is refusing to release.

In a tweet, Trump said Sondland would not appear because “unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away.”

Sondland, a key player in the unfolding impeachment scandal, was scheduled to answer questions Tuesday from three House committees.

Two South Florida businessmen who worked with Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer and back-channel emissary in Ukraine, will not give voluntary depositions Thursday, according to the Miami Herald.

Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled in May as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, is still scheduled to appear behind closed doors Thursday but may run into the same State Department restrictions as Sondland.

House Democrats warned that Trump administration efforts to slow the impeachment inquiry, including blocking Sondland’s deposition, could form grounds for an impeachment charge of obstruction.

Robert Luskin, Sondland’s lawyer, said in a statement that the State Department had directed his client not to appear and “as the sitting U.S. Ambassador to the EU and employee of the State Department, Ambassador Sondland is required to follow the department’s direction.”

Sondland had agreed to appear voluntarily “to answer the committee’s questions on an expedited basis,” the lawyer said. “He stands ready to testify on short notice, whenever he is permitted to appear.”

Sondland, a wealthy hotelier before joining the Trump administration, exchanged numerous text messages with other U.S. diplomats between July and September. The phone texts are under scrutiny by House Democrats looking into Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to help his reelection campaign by digging up dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden.

The texts were given to the committees by Kurt Volker, who stepped down as special envoy to Ukraine days after the impeachment inquiry began last month. 

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