Congress is seeking to "intimidate, bully and treat improperly" career staff, says President Trump's top diplomat.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday he would shield career employees and other agency officials from a congressional deposition request issued as part of the House’s impeachment inquiry into President Trump, saying the mandate lacked legal basis and was meant to “intimidate” his workforce.
Pompeo, in a letter responding to a request from the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he would not allow five employees to deliver depositions before Congress. Last week, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the head of the foreign affairs panel, joined Reps. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the chairmen of the House committees on Intelligence, and Oversight and Reform, respectively, in requesting testimony from five department officials—four current and one former—with ties to Ukraine policy.
The House has also issued a subpoena to Pompeo demanding documents related to the administration’s interactions with Ukraine and Russia.
Pompeo accused House Democrats of sending “intimidating communications to career department professionals,” rather than going through State’s Bureau of Legislative affairs.
“The requests could "be understood only as an attempt to intimidate, bully and treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State, including several career foreign service officers," the secretary said. "Let me be clear: I will not tolerate such tactics, and I will use all means at my disposal to prevent and expose any attempts to intimidate the dedicated professionals who I am proud to lead and serve alongside at the Department of State."
He went on to suggest that Congress could not compel depositions without issuing a subpoena, which it had not done for the five individuals in question. That list includes Marie Yavanovitch, a career foreign service officer and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who Pompeo recalled in May and who Trump issued ominous warnings about on his now-public call with the Ukraine president; Kurt Volker, former special envoy to Ukraine who resigned on Friday; George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of State in the European and Eurasian Bureau; T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, State’s counselor; and Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
Pompeo castigated the lawmakers for requesting documents directly from the State officials, saying those materials belong to the department.
“By purporting to induce individual department professionals and career foreign service officers to produce materials that are not theirs to produce—which could potentially constitute a violation of numerous civil and criminal statutes and regulations if proper procedures are not followed—the committee has engaged in an act of intimidation and an invitation to violate federal records laws,” Pompeo said.
He accused the committee chairmen of providing “woefully inadequate opportunity” for both State and the witnesses to prepare. The lawmakers had suggested deposing Yovanovitch on Wednesday, followed by the other four officials over the next week. The secretary said State must have time to consult with the individuals and their attorneys “regarding the department’s legitimate interests in safeguarding potentially privileged and classified information.” Pompeo added that department attorneys must be present for all depositions, something the lawmakers had intended to prohibit.
For their part, Engel, Schiff and Cummings said in a joint statement that they were the ones trying to protect the State employees from "harassment and intimidation."
“Any effort to intimidate witnesses or prevent them from talking with Congress—including State Department employees—is illegal and will constitute evidence of obstruction of the impeachment inquiry," the chairmen said. "In response, Congress may infer from this obstruction that any withheld documents and testimony would reveal information that corroborates the whistleblower complaint."
The secretary did not rule out making the State officials available eventually. He said State would contact the committees “in the near future as we obtain further clarity on these matters.” After Pompeo sent his letter, CNN reported Volker, the recently resigned special envoy, will give deposition to Congress on Thursday and Yovanovitch, the recalled ambassador, will testify next week.
Legal experts have suggested the Trump administration’s refusal to comply with congressional investigations could put federal employees in murky legal water as they are forced to choose between lawmakers’ demands and direction from their supervisors. Tom Devine, legal director at the nonprofit Government Accountability Project, a whistleblower protection advocacy group, said, for example, that retaliating against an employee who refuses to obstruct congressional communications would constitute a prohibited personnel practice. While career workers maintain a legal right to disobey illegal orders, government watchdogs have warned those individuals could put their careers at risk in the short term.
Advocates for career foreign service officers and former officials who supervised them, meanwhile, have warned the administration’s public comments in response to the whistleblower complaint that led to the impeachment inquiry could scare career diplomats from serving in politically charged regions or delivering important information that might disrupt the administration’s preferred narratives.
This story has been updated with additional comment from House Democrats and information about the deposition schedule.