Congressional Democrats have launched contempt proceedings against Mike Pompeo for his refusal to comply with subpoenas for documents connected to the Ukraine scandal that led to Donald Trump’s impeachment.
The move is the culmination of a long-running struggle over Congress’s authority to conduct oversight of government agencies. The secretary of state, who was a fierce advocate of congressional rights when he was a Republican representative from Kansas, has ignored a string of demands for documentation from the Democrat-controlled House foreign affairs committee (HFAC).
Experts and former officials questioned what impact a resolution declaring Pompeo in contempt would have on a secretary of state determined to defy Congress and undermine its authority, other than to register frustration at his behaviour and the erosion of the constitutional division of power.
A state department spokesperson dismissed the contempt announcement as “political theatrics” and said the documents could be available to the HFAC, but gave a different version of the conditions attached from those laid down in a letter Pompeo sent to the committee on Thursday.
In that letter, the secretary of state said the documents would be handed over if Engel could confirm he was “substantively investigating” Ukraine’s alleged “corrupt influence” on US foreign policy – an apparent reference to a conspiracy theory that has been debunked by US intelligence agencies.
The spokesperson said on Friday the relevant documents would be produced to Engel on the “only condition being that he send a letter explaining what foreign policy issue he is investigating that requires these documents”.
Pompeo has swept away a raft of norms as secretary of state. In May, he orchestrated the firing of the inspector general who had been looking into his use of departmental resources for personal errands and his declaration of an emergency to get around a congressional block on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
This week, he took part in the Republican national convention with a filmed address from Jerusalem, while on a visit as secretary of state, in what legal scholars said was a likely violation of the Hatch Act, which prohibits public funds from being used for electoral purposes.
“He seems to think the office he holds, the department he runs, the personnel he oversees and the taxpayer dollars that pay for all of it are there for his personal and political benefit,” Eliot Engel, the HFAC chair, wrote.
The trigger for the contempt proceedings was Pompeo’s refusal to deliver to the HFAC documents about US policy towards Ukraine that the state department provided to the Republican-controlled Senate in the run-up to the impeachment of Trump.
At the end of July, Engel issued another subpoena for documentation on the alleged use of state department resources to collect material to supply to the Senate aimed at discrediting Trump’s challenger for the presidency, Joe Biden.
“From Mr Pompeo’s refusal to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry to his willingness to bolster a Senate Republican-led smear against the president’s political rivals to his speech to the RNC, which defied his own guidance and possibly the law, he has demonstrated alarming disregard for the laws and rules governing his own conduct and for the tools the constitution provides to prevent government corruption,” Engel said.
The HFAC published a letter Pompeo sent to Engel on Thursday, in which the secretary of state said he would hand over the material if the committee opened an investigation in line with a Republican-led Senate inquiry into allegations of Ukraine exerting influence on Obama administration policy towards the country through Biden’s son, Hunter. Hunter Biden was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma, from 2014 to 2019.
“If you can confirm by letter that the committee is, in fact, substantively investigating identical or very similar corruption issues involving Ukraine and corrupt influence on US foreign policy, the department is ready to commence production of documents,” Pompeo said in the letter.
No evidence of any such evidence has been found, and the head of the National Counterintelligence and Security Centre, has issued a warning that a pro-Russian politician in Ukraine has been “spreading claims about corruption..to undermine former Vice President Biden’s candidacy and the Democratic Party.”
The HFAC said Pompeo was seeking to involve the committee in a smear campaign being pursued by Senate Democrats.
“I want no part of it,” Engel wrote. “Under no circumstances will I amplify Putin’s debunked conspiracy theories or lend them credence. And I won’t stand by and see the committee or the House treated with such disdain by anyone.”
A state department spokesperson issued a statement setting out less onerous conditions for the delivery of the documents.
“We have previously offered to provide copies of these documents to Chairman Engel, with the only condition being that he send a letter explaining what foreign policy issue he is investigating that requires these documents,” the spokesperson said. “Once this letter is received, the Department will produce the documents. This press release is political theatrics and is an unfortunate waste of taxpayer resources.”
Former officials expressed concern the HFAC contempt proceedings might ultimately serve to underline the impotence of a Congress in the face of a defiant, rule-breaking executive.
Rori Kramer, the former deputy assistant secretary of state in the bureau of legislative affairs, said of Engel’s announcement: “That’s wonderful but there’s not as much teeth as there used to be with congressional oversight.
“It’s really shocking. Four years ago, it would have been completely bizarro Twilight Zone, that Congress could subpoena you and hold you in contempt, and the answer of the administration would be: “I don’t care”,” said Kramer, who is now director of US advocacy at the American Jewish World Service.
“The people who work for the people who say we don’t care about oversight [see that] and then his senior leadership and/or political appointees also don’t follow the rules… and it’s a race to the bottom.”
Originally published: 2020-08-28 14:13:36