WASHINGTON ― Donald Trump got another lesson on the limits of the presidency Friday as yet another executive branch member in his employ offered damaging testimony in his impeachment inquiry, despite his vow last month that his administration would not cooperate at all.
For six hours, ousted ambassador Marie Yovanovitch described to the House Intelligence Committee how she was fired by Trump after his personal lawyer and his now-indicted business partners smeared her reputation in Ukraine and lobbied for her dismissal. It came two days after two other State Department diplomats took their stories to Capitol Hill about Trump’s efforts to tie military aid to Ukraine to an investigation he wanted into the Democrat he most feared as a 2020 presidential opponent.
“He is not a king, and this is not the Trump Organization,” said Bradley Moss, a national security lawyer who often represents federal employees in administrative matters. “The president is learning the harsh truth that civil servants ultimately report to the office of the president, not the officeholder, and there are limits to their willingness to stay silent in the face of abuses of power.”
At least a dozen officials, including at least two political appointees, have appeared before the House Intelligence Committee already, both in closed-door depositions and, beginning this week, in public, televised hearings.
Just five weeks ago, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi: “President Trump cannot permit his administration to participate in this partisan inquiry under these circumstances.”
The White House did not respond to HuffPost queries regarding that letter’s apparent ineffectiveness.
Someone who refuses to honor a congressional subpoena risks being held in contempt of Congress, which results in, at the very least, hefty legal bills. Someone who honors the subpoena risks being fired. The latter choice, though, can make the subpoenaed witness seem more sympathetic to the public while making the White House appear both vindictive and secretive.
“Aside from firing them or revoking their clearance, the president has no power to unilaterally do anything against these individuals,” Moss said.
Trump, meanwhile, took matters into his own hands Friday, attacking Yovanovitch on Twitter as she began her testimony. He later defended that action and denied that it was designed to intimidate her or others. “I have the right to speak. I have freedom of speech just as other people do,” he said during a White House photo opportunity.
Though some of Trump’s top aides, including acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, have refused to comply with congressional subpoenas and some executive branch agencies, such as the Office of Management and Budget and the State Department, have refused to turn over requested documents, a growing list of officials from State, the National Security Council and the Defense Department have honored House demands to testify. On Saturday, an official from OMB, Mark Sandy, is scheduled to be the first from that office to appear for a deposition.
Trump has frequently disparaged career professionals in the federal government, particularly those in national security agencies including the intelligence community, the State Department and the Justice Department and FBI, as members of a “Deep State” that is trying to thwart his agenda and force him from office. His defenders outside the White House and in friendly media have gone as far as to accuse them of engaging in a “coup.”
Ned Price, a onetime CIA analyst and an NSC spokesperson under former President Barack Obama, said those testifying are only carrying out their duties as they swore to do them. “Trump is learning that, while he retains the loyalty of his senior staffers, career public servants have and always will remain faithful to the Constitution and the rule of law,” he said. “That’s why it’s unsurprising that they’ve complied with lawful subpoenas from a co-equal branch of government.”
Trump is facing an impeachment inquiry in the House after a whistleblower filed a complaint that the president was withholding $391 million in congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine unless its leaders announced investigations politically useful to Trump’s 2020 reelection.
According to witness testimony as well as the rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president, Trump demanded that Ukraine investigate former Vice President Joe Biden as well as support a conspiracy theory which falsely claims that Russian intelligence agencies did not help Trump win the 2016 election, but rather it was Ukrainian officials who framed Russia by using fake evidence. He made the military aid contingent on Ukraine publicly announcing the probes but then backed down after the White House learned that the whistleblower’s complaint on the matter was about to reach Congress.
“I think Trump’s overall war against public servants ― the intelligence community, federal law enforcement, diplomats, etc. ― is finally beginning to bite him in the ass, and we’re beginning to see a few of these patriots finally publicly fight back,” said former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh, who is running against Trump for the 2020 GOP nomination. “There will be more. Trump can’t stop them. All he can do is try to intimidate them with a tweet. But he’s finding out that his angry tweets are no longer as effective as they used to be.”