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White House aide told not to appear at impeachment probe

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Via Financial Times

The White House has instructed Robert Blair, a top adviser to Donald Trump’s chief of staff, not to appear before the Congressional committees leading the impeachment investigation into the president, the Financial Times has learnt.

The House of Representatives panels pursuing the impeachment inquiry had asked Mr Blair, a close adviser to acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, to appear on Monday.

But the White House has told Mr Blair, who has not been served a subpoena, not to appear on the grounds that the committees do not allow witnesses to have White House lawyers present when they testify, according to Whitney Ellerman, a lawyer for Mr Blair.

Mr Blair is one of the US officials who listened to the July 25 telephone call between Mr Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart that has resulted in Mr Trump becoming only the fourth American president to face impeachment proceedings.

“Mr Blair is caught between the assertions of legal duty by two coequal branches of government, a conflict which he cannot resolve,” Mr Ellerman told the FT.

“In light of the clear direction he has been given by the executive branch, Mr Blair has respectfully declined to appear and testify,” Mr Ellerman added. “Nevertheless, he will fulfil all his legal duties once that conflict is appropriately resolved.”

House investigators are examining whether Mr Trump tried to pressure President Volodymyr Zelensky to find dirt on Joe Biden, the former vice-president running for the Democratic presidential nomination, by withholding $391m in congressionally mandated military aid designed to help Ukraine respond to Russian threats.

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The White House decision to prevent Mr Blair from testifying comes one day after the House of Representatives voted almost entirely along party lines to start the next phase of the impeachment inquiry, in which witnesses will appear in public before the committees instead of giving depositions to lawmakers behind closed-doors.

Mr Zelensky did not open an investigation into Mr Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company. But current and former US officials have told congressional investigators in recent weeks that Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, had tried to apply pressure on Ukraine to open a probe.

Alexander Vindman, the White House National Security Council official in charge of Ukraine policy, this week told lawmakers that he was “concerned” about comments Mr Trump made in the July 25 call. “I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a US citizen,” Mr Vindman told the impeachment inquiry.

After saying that he wanted “a favour”, Mr Trump asked his counterpart to look into a debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 US election. He then mentioned “the other thing”, which he explained was related to allegations that Mr Biden put pressure on Ukraine in connection with his son’s Ukrainian business activities.

Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador to Kyiv, told the inquiry that Mr Trump had pressured Mr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens. He said Tim Morrison, the top NSC official for Europe and Russia, had described having a “sinking feeling” after Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, told him that Mr Trump wanted Mr Zelensky to make a public announcement that he was going to investigate the Bidens. 

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Mr Morrison this week said the description was “accurate”, but stressed that he did not think Mr Trump did anything illegal on the July call.

According to text messages provided to investigators last month, Mr Taylor told Mr Sondland that it was “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign”. Mr Mulvaney last month told reporters that the funds had been withheld for political reasons, but later said that the media had misinterpreted his comment.

Mr Trump has described the investigation as a “witch hunt” pursued by Democrats who are upset that they lost the 2016 election and were worried about losing again in 2020.

“It’s a scam. It’s a hoax,” Mr Trump told reporters on Saturday. “The Democrats are using it for political purposes, to try and win an election that they’re not gonna win.”

The White House has refused to co-operate, but officials such as Mr Vindman were not barred from testifying because as career employees — and not political appointees — they were not entitled to claim “executive privilege” to justify not testifying. 

Charles Kupperman, who was deputy national security adviser under John Bolton, was told by the White House not to comply with a subpoena. He has asked the courts to adjudicate the competing orders. Mr Bolton, who left the administration in September, has refused to testify without a subpoena.

Follow Demetri Sevastopulo on Twitter: @dimi

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