Impeachment Probe Wants To Hear From White House Heavy Hitter

Nov 4, 2019
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Four White House officials were called today for closed-door depositions in the ongoing House impeachment inquiry. So far, none of them have shown up. And NPR has confirmed that none of them intend to participate despite being subpoenaed. This comes as Democrats are moving into a new stage of the investigation - moving out of the fact-finding stage, which has taken place in closed-door hearings, and into a more public phase. Representative Eliot Engel, the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said yesterday to expect transcripts and public hearings shortly.

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ELIOT ENGEL: Well, there will be public hearings very, very soon. This week, we're having the last of the witnesses come in. And then it will be released. The transcripts will be released. Everything is transparent.

GREENE: Now, among those last witnesses who had been called today is John Eisenberg, a top lawyer from President Trump's National Security Council. Let's bring in NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith to talk us through all of this. Hi, Tam.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Hi.

GREENE: Let's start with Eisenberg. Why were House investigators so interested in him?

KEITH: They wanted to hear from him because he was a point person for National Security Council officials and others who had concerns about President Trump's call with the Ukrainian president, also people who were concerned about the lead-up to that call. Two witnesses said that they went to Eisenberg after a July 10 meeting at the White House where visiting Ukrainian officials were trying to get an Oval Office meeting between the two presidents. And they were told about the need for investigations. Also, there is reporting that Eisenberg is the one who made the decision to lock down records of President Trump's July 25 call into a secure system to keep it away from prying eyes.

GREENE: OK. So as I mentioned the top though, we have multiple White House officials declining to testify today. What is the reasoning here for that?

KEITH: Well, in the case of Eisenberg, President Trump directed him not to appear before the committee via a letter from the White House counsel Pat Cipollone. The White House counsel's office cites a Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinion issued over the weekend after Eisenberg was subpoenaed, saying that the president can block him from testifying, citing the precedent that close aides to the president of the United States are, quote, "immune from congressional testimony."

This is something that hasn't been fully tested in the courts yet, but it is being tested as we speak. Eisenberg's lawyer, Bill Burke (ph) wrote in a letter to House investigators that, quote, "under these circumstances, Mr. Eisenberg has no other option that is consistent with his legal and ethical obligations except to follow the direction of his client and employer, the president of the United States."

GREENE: So are you hearing that the reason is the same reason that's being cited by all of those who are not showing up today?

KEITH: No. That's the fascinating thing. So I spoke to Paul Butler, who is a lawyer for Michael Ellis. He's a deputy counsel to the National Security Council. He's another - Ellis is another one of these people who was called to testify today and is not showing up. He got his subpoena at 9:30 last night and then received a Justice Department Office of Legal Counsel opinion that says that because lawyers for the administration weren't going to be allowed to be present for his closed-door deposition that the subpoena was, quote, "invalid." So, you know, it's fascinating that the White House is citing different reasons for different people it seems...

GREENE: For different people - yeah.

KEITH: ...For different people.

GREENE: Well, what about the rest of this week? I mean, who - are we going to hear from anyone? (Laughter) Who else is scheduled?

KEITH: (Laughter) Well, it's not clear that we're going to hear from anyone else. A lot of the people who have been called to testify are folks who have made it clear that they don't intend to participate, including the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought, who was on Fox News last month saying he wouldn't show.

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RUSSELL VOUGHT: We're not going to be a part of any sham process that's designed to relitigate the last election when the American people spoke very clearly and soundly in saying that they want President Trump to be their president. And that's now being used to relit (ph) - to influence the next election.

KEITH: If you look through the witness list, it is essentially a list of people not really expected to show up. And that's what you would expect at the end of the fact-finding part as they are moving now to the public portion of this.

GREENE: A different phase that we'll obviously be covering. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith. Tam, thanks.

KEITH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.