The president is counting on the loyalty of subordinates who will face increasing pressure to testify, and analysts say that is risky
In the opening exchanges of the impeachment inquiry against him, Donald Trump has adopted a hardline strategy of angrily denying congressional requests for documents and testimony and attacking the proceedings as illegitimate. Analysts say this is risky.
For now, a Republican majority in the Senate insulates Trump against the threat of removal from office. But that advantage does not appear to be guiding the presidents hand.
In contrast with Bill Clintons deflect-and-minimize approach, Trump has taken a more Richard Nixon-like route, treating impeachment as an existential attack and digging in for a gunfighters last stand.
It is a strategy with little margin for error, analysts say, with Trump depending all at once on keeping public approval behind him, on blocking myriad avenues by which Congress might collect evidence and, crucially, on retaining the loyalty of subordinates who will come under increasing pressure to testify.
A major poll released on Tuesday indicated that Trump might be miscalculating badly about public opinion. A 58% majority now support the inquiry versus 38% who oppose it, the Washington Post-Schar School poll found. Support for an impeachment inquiry has grown 20 points in three months, the poll found.
Regardless, Trump redoubled his strategy of stonewalling, blocking the testimony at the last minute of Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union who had flown to Washington to tell Congress what he knew about the presidents efforts to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations Trump could use against Joe Biden. Those efforts are at the core of the impeachment inquiry.
Sondland was prepared to exonerate Trump, the president tweeted, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court.
In a statement issued by his lawyer, Sondland, a hotelier whose support for Trump wavered during the last presidential primary, sent a different message.
Ambassador Sondland is profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify today, the statement said. He stands ready to testify on short notice, whenever he is permitted to appear.
Hours later, congressional Democrats said Sondland had been blocked from testifying by a voicemail from superiors in the state department left at 12.30am. They announced they would subpoena Sondlands testimony and his personal messages, ratcheting up the stakes.
The blocking of Sondland is part of a wagon-circling throughout the executive branch. On Friday, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, missed a deadline to turn over documents. Congress has also issued subpoenas to the White House, the defense department and the Office of Management and Budget. Vice-President Mike Pence also faces a documents request.
Rudy Giuliani, Trumps personal lawyer, announced on Tuesday he would defy a congressional subpoena and said: The position Im stating is now the position of the administration.
Let them hold me in contempt, Giuliani told the Washington Post. Well go to court. Well challenge the contempt.
The non-appearance of Sondland would only accelerate proceedings, said Adam Schiff, chair of the House committee leading the impeachment inquiry.
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, Schiff said.
Even if Trumps stonewalling damages the ability of Democrats to collect evidence in the short term it could add to the case against him, said Bradley P Moss, a national security lawyer.
Although it arguably would be better from a factual record standpoint to have all relevant fact witnesses testify and produce relevant documentation, Moss wrote in an email, if the House Democrats believe they have enough evidence already to proceed to impeachment, they can simply lump in the White Houses refusal to let witnesses testify into an all-encompassing obstruction article of impeachment and throw that on the pile with everything else.
Kamala Harris, a California senator and candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, tweeted: Someone should tell Donald Trump that you can definitely be impeached for obstruction of justice.
Trumps reliance on the loyalty of subordinates also could represent a strategic misstep because former officials are already talking.
After resigning, Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, last week delivered to Congress pages of WhatsApp messages between himself and other diplomats that damaged Trumps efforts to characterize his negotiations on Ukraine.
Schiff has said he wants to speak with another diplomat, Bill Taylor, who wrote in the message exchange: I think its crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.