WASHINGTON — The White House declared Tuesday it will halt any and all cooperation with what it termed the “illegitimate” impeachment probe by House Democrats, sharpening the constitutional clash between President Donald Trump and Congress.
Trump attorneys sent a lengthy letter to House leaders bluntly stating White House refusal to participate in the inquiry that was given a boost by last week’s release of a whistleblower’s complaint that the president sought political favors from Ukraine.
“Given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the Executive Branch cannot be expected to participate in it,” White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote.
That means no additional witnesses under administration purview will be permitted to appear in front of Congress or comply with document requests, a senior official said.
The White House is objecting that the House has not voted to begin an impeachment investigation into Trump. It also claims that Trump’s due process rights are being violated.
House intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff tweeted in response that Trump’s refusal to cooperate with the inquiry signals an attitude that “the president is above the law.”
“The Constitution says otherwise,” he asserted.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has insisted the House is well within its rules to conduct oversight of the executive branch under the Constitution regardless of a formal impeachment inquiry vote.
The Constitution states the House has the sole power of impeachment, and that the Senate has the sole power to conduct impeachment trials. It specifies that a president can be removed from office for “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” if supported by a two-thirds Senate vote. But it offers little guidance beyond that on proceedings.
The White House letter marks the beginning of a new all-out strategy to counter the impeachment threat to Trump. Aides have been honing their approach after two weeks of what allies have described as a listless and unfocused response to the probe.
The president himself is sticking with the same Trump-as-victim rhetoric he has used for more than a year.
“People understand that it’s a fraud. It’s a scam. It’s a witch hunt,” he said on Monday. “I think it makes it harder to do my job. But I do my job, and I do it better than anybody has done it for the first two and half years.”
Early Tuesday, Trump escalated his fight with Congress by blocking Gordon Sondland, the U.S. European Union ambassador, from testifying behind closed doors about the president’s dealings with Ukraine.
Sondland’s attorney, Robert Luskin, said his client was “profoundly disappointed” that he wouldn’t be able to testify. And Schiff said Sondland’s no-show was “yet additional strong evidence” of obstruction of Congress by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo that will only strengthen a possible impeachment case.
The House followed up Tuesday afternoon with subpoenas for Sondland’s testimony and records.
Trump is also bulking up his legal team.
Former Republican Rep. Trey Gowdy is being brought on as outside counsel, according to an administration official. Gowdy, who did not seek reelection last year, led a congressional investigation of former presidential candidate Hilary Clinton and the terrorist attacks in Benghazi, Libya.
The whistleblower’s complaint and text messages released by another envoy portray U.S. Ambassador Sondland as a potentially important witness in allegations that the Republican president sought to dig up dirt on Democratic rival Joe Biden in Ukraine and other countries in the name of foreign policy.
Pelosi said thwarting the witness testimony on Tuesday was an “abuse of power” in itself by the president.
The White House letter to Pelosi, Schiff and other House committee chairmen, though asserting a legal argument that Trump and other officials cannot cooperate, would not be likely to win respect in court, said Stephen Vladeck, a law professor at the University of Texas.
“This letter reads to me much more like a press release prepared by the press secretary than an analysis by the White House counsel,” he said.
The White House is claiming that Trump’s constitutional rights to cross-examine witnesses and review all evidence in impeachment proceedings extend even to House investigations, not just a potential Senate trial. It also is calling on Democrats to grant Republicans in the House subpoena power to seek evidence in the president’s defense.
Elsewhere in Washington, a federal judge heard arguments Tuesday in a separate case on whether the House has actually undertaken a formal impeachment inquiry despite not having taken a vote and whether the inquiry can be characterized, under the law, as a “judicial proceeding.”
That distinction matters because while grand jury testimony is ordinarily secret, one exception authorizes a judge to disclose it in connection with a judicial proceeding. House Democrats are seeking grand jury testimony from special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation as they conduct their impeachment inquiry.
“The House under the Constitution sets its own rules, and the House has sole power over impeachment,” Douglas Letter, a lawyer for the House Judiciary Committee, told the court.
Behind the scenes, Tulsa officials were rehearsing a frantic effort to save lives in the most nightmarish of scenarios.
But on the public side of the curtain Tuesday morning, people simply lined up and quietly filled out paperwork, taking about four minutes on average to get in and out of a makeshift health clinic at Oral Roberts University.
“Our goal isn’t just to be fast,” said Alicia Etgen, the manager of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Program for the Tulsa Health Department. “Our goal is to be as efficient as possible, to be fast but to distribute the medication effectively, too.”
The Health Department has contingency plans for distributing antidotes or vaccinations to as many as 600,000 Tulsa County residents in case of a large-scale health emergency, such as a biochemical terror attack or pandemic outbreak.
But a plan is only as good as the personnel who have to execute it, so officials practiced emergency procedures while giving out free flu shots in the lobby of the Mabee Center, one of 10 designated crisis distribution points across the city.
Police patrolled the parking lot and guarded the entrance, just as they would during a real crisis, while health officials set up the clinic from scratch and rushed supplies to the scene, as if they had just been mobilized on the spur of the moment.
Of course, the flu shots were not such an urgent matter. But if officials have to practice giving shots to a large number of residents, it might as well be a vaccination that people can really benefit from.
Tuesday’s exercise served a dual purpose: rehearsing emergency efforts while kicking off the annual “Don’t Bug Me” flu awareness and prevention campaign.
The Health Department expected to give as many as 600 free flu shots before the end of the day, while timing how long it took to get each person through the process.
A similar event last year set a pace that would let officials distribute emergency medication to the county’s entire population within 24 to 48 hours, if all 10 emergency distribution points were activated and fully staffed, officials said.
“There’s only so much you can simulate for a training exercise,” said Leanne Stephens, a Health Department spokeswoman. “So it helps to have real people involved.”
Twenty other locations statewide will conduct similar exercises this week while distributing flu shots, officials said.
A decade after Ben Hill Community Center last hosted programming, and nearly 8 years since community outcry saved it from demolition, the idle recreational center is on its way back.
Tulsa Mayor G.T. Bynum and Reed Community Foundation founder Keith Reed announced a joint effort to renovate and reopen the center at a news conference Tuesday afternoon.
Through $177,000 in a 2006 sales tax package, the city will replace the center’s roof and repair its exterior. The Reed Community Foundation plans to renovate the interior.
The upcoming Improve Our Tulsa package up for a vote on Nov. 12 will also include $2.75 million to renovate the surrounding park. Bynum said it was “as exciting a moment I can recall in the recent history of our city” to announce the center’s revival.
“I’m so grateful that we found a partner with the vision and the commitment that is going to partner with us and help us reopen Ben Hill Community Center,” Bynum said. “Community centers in Tulsa have not had the best decade. I can easily recall talking to folks when I was running for mayor. ... When the city is going around tearing down rec centers under cover of darkness; we can do better as a city.
“Now in just the last year, we have not just saved, but revitalized three different community centers in Tulsa. Chamberlain, McClure and then today, Ben Hill.”
The community center, 210 E. Latimer Place, reportedly closed in 2002 but hosted off and on programming until about a decade ago. In 2012, it and eight other recreation centers were targeted for demolition at a time when the city considered them too far gone to refurbish. Crews demolished the center’s pool in 2013.
Reed, known as “Coach” to the kids he’s been a father figure for and as “Flash” in the ring, said it’s been a long journey to get the foundation to where it is. The foundation has outgrown its two other north Tulsa locations, and Reed said the time was right to expand while helping the city bring back a neighborhood institution.
“It’s unbelievable,” Reed said. “I’ve been working on this for years and now the dream is true.”
For more than 14 years, the foundation has offered programs and services including tutoring, physical conditioning and character development for more than 200 kids each year. Reed said the new location, which he said the foundation will occupy by May 2020, will let the team expand programs.
Bringing back the community center goes a long way for the neighborhood at large as well. Rev. Gerald Davis, one of the Reed Community Foundation’s board members and the chairman of the Greenwood Neighborhood Association, said the renovated community center gives residents a sense of ownership.
“This building represents the historical significance of bringing the community into a place that gives empowerment to individuals and the community,” Davis said. “And it represents the imagination to take people not just that, ‘I am somebody,’ but to where we can help others. This is a great day.
“This is ours. The community has always claimed Ben Hill Park as a beacon for what Greenwood is.”
After a restart and a bit of retooling, scientists enjoyed an uneventful and productive day surveying areas of Oaklawn Cemetery for unmarked burial sites from the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre.
The Oklahoma Archeological Survey team had to retrace its efforts from Monday because data gathered with subsurface scanning equipment was corrupted by interference from spectators’ electronics and Blue Tooth devices and from traffic on the adjacent highway.
The team still had to make some adjustments to its equipment on Tuesday, mostly because of the highway traffic.
The area surveyed Tuesday is near the southwest edge of the cemetery. The area has few markers, and officials said former cemetery employees had identified it as a place they believed massacre victims were buried.
Yellow tape marked off a large section of the cemetery on Tuesday, and a guard and a city employee met visitors at the gate. Unlike Monday, when a large number of spectators, including reporters and photographers, came to watch proceedings, few people except the workers were in evidence.
Mayor G.T. Bynum’s office has insisted that the Oklahoma Archeological Survey crew’s work be as open to the public as possible, but after Monday’s disruption, it issued a notice that cellphones and cameras are to be turned off if within 300 feet of the scanning equipment and that photography will be allowed only from a distance.
The notice also warns against loud noise, including talking.
On Wednesday, the team plans to scan around two headstones of known massacre victims near the site surveyed the past two days. One headstone is for a black man whose body was found in the immediate aftermath of the fighting. The other headstone is for a black man whose body was found east of the city several days later.
It is unclear when the headstones were placed or if they mark the two men’s actual burial sites. It is thought if two massacre victims are buried there, others might be nearby.
The team plans to scan at least two other sites at Oaklawn over the next three days. Scanning in and around Newblock Park, 1414 W. Charles Page Boulevard, and at Rolling Oaks Cemetery, 4300 E. 91st St., is also planned.
What is now Newblock Park was the city dump at the time of the massacre, and several oral histories have marked it as a place where bodies may have been taken. A nearby location, now a tent encampment by the Arkansas River, has also been identified as a place to search.
Rolling Oaks Cemetery was once known as Booker T. Washington Cemetery and was formerly reserved for African Americans. At least two other black cemeteries are in the immediate vicinity.