House Panel Launches Contempt Proceedings Against Pompeo

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo testifies during a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing in February about the Trump administration’s policies on Iran, Iraq and the use of force. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(CN) — Accusing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo of repeatedly refusing to cooperate with its investigations, the House Foreign Affairs Committee announced Friday it is launching proceedings to hold him in contempt.

According to Chairman Eliot Engel, Pompeo defied two subpoenas in an investigation of U.S. foreign policy relations with Ukraine.

“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,” the New York Democrat said, bashing Pompeo for his refusal to cooperate with President Donald Trump’s impeachment inquiry, which was set off as a result of a July 2019 call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky wherein Trump pressured the foreign leader to look into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

The first subpoena at issue was issued last September, seeking State Department records relevant to the House’s impeachment inquiry, which ultimately found the president abused the power of his office to pressure Ukraine for his own political gain.

The second was issued last month as part of the Foreign Affairs Committee’s investigation of Pompeo’s alleged misuse of department resources.

The committee claims Pompeo directed his department to give more than 16,000 pages of documents to two Republican-led Senate committees’ attempts to undermine Biden, who has been leading Trump in recent polls ahead of the November election. Democrats say Pompeo has refused to hand over the same information to the Foreign Affairs Committee, which has primary jurisdiction over his department.

The contempt proceedings are being launched in response to a letter the State Department sent to Engel on Thursday. In it, Acting Assistant Secretary of State Ryan Kaldahl again denied the House committee’s request and refuted allegations that Pompeo is playing politics by only providing documents to investigative committees controlled by his own party. 

“The department categorically rejects your baseless assertion that the department may have acted inappropriately or violated any law by producing documents to two Senate committees, in your words, in ‘what appears to be partisan misuse of resources,’” Kaldahl wrote.

He added that the State Department would hand over documents if the House Foreign Affairs Committee pens a letter stating that its investigation will also look like the GOP’s probe of Biden.

“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 related to U.S. foreign policy, the department is ready to commence production of documents responsive to such a request,” Kaldahl said.

According to Engel, the response is just further evidence of Pompeo and his team’s partisanship.

“In other words, Pompeo will give the committee what we were seeking if we join in a smear of the president’s political rival. Sound familiar?” Engel said, citing an Aug. 7 statement from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence about Russian officials “spreading claims about corruption” to interfere in the U.S. presidential election.

“I want no part of it. Under no circumstances will I amplify Putin’s debunked conspiracy theories or lend them credence,” Engel added. “And I won’t stand by and see the committee or the House treated with such disdain by anyone.”

The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the committee’s decision to move forward with contempt proceedings.

Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, said the House committee’s action is effectively a shot across the bow to get the documents they’re seeking.

“Where it goes from there depends on how the administration responds and how members of Congress choose to proceed,” he said in an interview. “The normal outcome here is it’s an expression of anger that goes public, but may not really change all that much. Information that was withheld will probably continue to be withheld and the members of Congress who are angry now are likely to remain unsatisfied.”

Farnsworth also added that treating the Republican-controlled chamber differently from the Democrat-run chamber is a recipe for generating “a lot of anger” within Congress.

“The path that the Democratic majority in the House is pursuing is a natural outgrowth of people upset about what appears to be very different treatment about ordinary requests for information,” he said. “This is a problem across the Trump administration—non-responsiveness to demands for information required for congressional oversight.”

Randy Pestana, an adjunct professor at Florida International University’s public policy institute, said in in an interview Friday that in general, “Congress has the constitutional right of oversight to request documents if wrongdoing is perceived.”

“Additionally, the denial of responding to a subpoena is grounds for contempt,” he said, adding he would expect that if Pompeo is held in contempt, it would be a similar scenario as the one that played out with former Attorney General Eric Holder in a case where the Justice Department was withholding documents related to Operation Fast and Furious.

“He was held in contempt by the Republican-controlled house with many Democrats boycotting the vote,” Pestana said. “A judge eventually dismissed the contempt charge on Holder, calling the motion unnecessary, but did require that non-privileged documents be released.”

Pompeo was also criticized by House Democrats on Tuesday for prerecording a speech in Jerusalem in support of President Trump for the Republican National Convention.

“The secretary of State seems to be courting trouble with this decision to tape while he was on a taxpayer-funded international trip,” Farnsworth said, noting Pompeo could have avoided the controversy by taping his remarks while he was still in Washington.

The Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, led by Democrat Joaquin Castro of Texas, has said it will look into whether the speech breached policies that forbid political activity in the office.

“This action is part of a pattern of politicization of U.S foreign policy, for which President Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives, that undermines America’s standing in the world,” Castro said in a statement Tuesday. “The American people deserve a full investigation.”

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