WASHINGTON — Standing next to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in a conference room in the U.S. Capitol, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff charged Donald Trump with “incitement of violence” in his combative response to the whistleblower complaint alleging the president attempted to exert political influence during a July phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky.
“It’s hard to imagine a more corrupt course of conduct,” Schiff said of the phone call and the alleged efforts to keep private its contents, which White House aides knew would prove explosive if made public.
Schiff also warned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who recently admitted to having participated in the call with Zelensky, that “any effort” to keep State Department officials from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee would be “evidence of obstruction,” as well as, in his view, proof that the president indeed has something to hide.
Pompeo has complained that Democrats were trying to “bully” the department in seeking answers about the Ukraine call. At the same time, the State Department’s inspector general was set to brief members of Congress about protections for potential witnesses. That seemed to run counter to Pompeo’s warnings, which some have said were more for the protection of Trump than of career diplomats.
Trump watched the press conference, as he made clear with a tweet that called Schiff a “lowlife.” He said, in the same message, that Schiff “should only be so lucky to have the brains, honor and strength of” Pompeo. A subsequent message from the leader of the free world deemed the impeachment inquiry “BULLSHIT.”
At an Oval Office meeting with the president of Finland, Trump renewed his attacks on Schiff in a notably personal way, adding a note of macho bluster about the man he has at times mocked as “Liddle” (Schiff is actually 5 feet 11 inches tall) and “pencil-neck.”
“We don’t call him Shifty Schiff for nothing,” Trump said, adding that the congressman had the temerity to criticize Pompeo. “There’s an expression, ‘He couldn’t carry his blank strap.’ I won’t say it, because it’s so terrible to say.”
Schiff was the only member of Congress other than Pelosi to speak at her weekly press conference. The room was so crowded with members of the media that Pelosi joked she should invite Schiff every week. Pelosi used the closely watched press conference as an opportunity to first discuss Democratic efforts on health care and tariffs. She also brought up the long-held possibility of congressional Democrats working with Trump on infrastructure.
In a Twitter message, Trump rejected the possibility of such collaboration, deeming overtures by the speaker as “just camouflage for trying to win an election through impeachment.” He added that “The Do Nothing Democrats are stuck in mud!”
The presence of Schiff at Pelosi’s side was the latest sign that he has become the de facto leader of the impeachment inquiry, sidelining high-ranking Democratic committee chairmen, including Jerry Nadler of New York, who heads the House Judiciary Committee, and Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who chairs the House Oversight Committee. Both have been leading investigations of their own, which have now been superseded by Schiff’s probe.
“We’ve been very busy, as you can tell, this week; we’re going be very busy again next week,” Schiff said. “We are proceeding deliberately, but at the same time, we feel a real sense of urgency here that this work needs to get done, and it needs to get done in a responsible period of time.”
Schiff said that on Thursday former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker will testify before the Intelligence Committee in a closed hearing. The inspector general of the intelligence community, Michael K. Atkinson, who was the recipient of the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s call with the Ukrainian president, will testify on Friday.
Next week Schiff intends to interview Masha Yovanovitch, who was abruptly recalled from her position as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in May. Schiff said he was in conversation with “other State Department witnesses” about the possibility of testifying, though he did not say who these were.
He did, however, warn Pompeo that efforts to hinder that inquiry would backfire.
If the administration is “going to prevent witnesses from coming forward to testify on the allegations in the whistleblower complaint, that will create an adverse inference that those allegations are in fact correct,” Schiff said.
Schiff added that it was imperative for investigators to parse the involvement of the State Department and the Justice Department in Trump’s interactions with the Ukrainian president in order to discover “the full depth of the president’s misconduct.”
He said that once those depths were fully plumbed, even some Republicans would come to support impeachment. Thus far, the GOP has stood uniformly behind Trump, though public opinion polls show rising approval for impeachment. That could shift considerations for some legislators in districts where support for the president has been tepid.
Pelosi, who had been hesitant to launch impeachment proceedings until last week, depicted the Democrats as undertaking a methodical approach. “We are investigating. We are litigating,” she said. Both she and Schiff framed Trump’s behavior as an affront to the spirit in which the nation’s founders drafted the Constitution, as well as a dereliction of his duty to the American people.
“This is sad,” the speaker said.
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