House Democrats are torn over how to respond after Rudy Giuliani gave them the equivalent of a massive middle finger on Tuesday, telling them he would completely ignore the subpoena that they served him for documents related to his expedition to dig up dirt in Ukraine on the Bidens in order to benefit President Trump.
To some Democratic lawmakers, the idea of Trump’s personal attorney skating by without a punishment while the courts decide whether he has to comply with their subpoena is infuriating. And it dredges up bad memories of their struggles to hold Trump administration officials to account for ignoring subpoenas over Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. In response, they want Giuliani to feel some pain, either personally or financially.
“You don’t get to say no to a congressional subpoena,” said Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT), who serves on the House Intelligence Committee, which is spearheading the impeachment inquiry. “That’s not a thing. That is a crime. He’s gonna show up, or he’s going to get fined, or he’s going to go to jail.”
But the party’s leadership is increasingly convinced that its Ukraine-focused impeachment inquiry is getting results—and that going after Giuliani with threats of contempt of Congress would turn a success into a show that unnecessarily muddies the waters.
And many in the caucus believe they already have a strong enough case to impeach Trump, and that Trumpworld’s stonewalling of subpoenas will only make it stronger.
Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) told The Daily Beast on Tuesday night that he supports holding individuals accountable for not complying with the House’s subpoenas. But he stressed that a court fight over that should not delay what he believes to be clearly justified articles of impeachment.
“We have this very clear and compelling evidence right out in front, and in the president's own words, and it's already been corroborated and confirmed by a bunch of first-person witnesses,” said Huffman. “I think we’ve got this, and in some ways we are now gilding the lily.”
As House Democrats return from a two-week recess poised to display their unity over the impeachment process—only seven of them do not openly support an inquiry—the divide over what to do about Giuliani is a point of divergence that reflects the differing views within the caucus over just how drawn out their impeachment inquiry can or should be.
Tuesday was the deadline for Giuliani to comply with a subpoena asking for a broad range of documents and correspondence focusing on his Ukraine activity. The four-page request touches nearly every corner of the Democrats’ probe, from the role of the $400 million in delayed security aid to his business interests in Ukraine, and covers the entirety of Trump’s presidency.
In a letter, Giuliani’s attorney—who was dropped by his client shortly after said letter went out—said the subpoena was “overbroad, unduly burdensome, and seeks documents beyond the scope of legitimate inquiry.”
In addition to Giuliani, the Department of Defense and the Office of Management and Budget faced a Tuesday deadline to produce documents that were requested in Democrats’ subpoenas. OMB said it would not be complying, but Pentagon chief Mark Esper has said he would turn over at least some documents that would help lawmakers better understand the role that the hold-up in security security aid played in Trumpworld’s campaign to pressure the Ukranians. “We will do everything we can to comply,” Esper told CBS’ Face the Nation on Sunday.
Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, faced a Tuesday request—not a subpoena—for documents illuminating his role in the Ukraine saga. But his office announced on Tuesday that it would not comply with any of the Democrats’ requests, casting their impeachment inquiry as illegitimate.
The moves echo past attempts from Trumpworld to stiff-arm subpoenas during the Mueller investigation, which prompted intense hand-wringing among House Democrats over how to respond. Ultimately, they did vote in June to hold Attorney General William Barr and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross in contempt of Congress for ignoring subpoenas. These were largely symbolic votes, however, and their ramifications were murky at best, leaving Democrats struggling to explain their import to the public.
That frustration is clearly animating some lawmakers’ desire to reconsider ways to assert their punitive authority—including the avenue of inherent contempt, which empowers the legislative branch to take would-be witnesses into custody until they comply with duly issued congressional orders.
“This is another example of why the House needs to revisit inherent contempt,” said Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) of Giuliani. “We need to enforce our own subpoenas. We can and we should.”
But others on Capitol Hill look back on those struggles and see a reason to simply move past it to focus on what they believe really matters. “If the administration, and the president’s private sector accomplices, are going to follow through on their promise not to comply with the investigation, including ignoring lawful subpoenas, and if the only recourse (court action) allows them to run out the clock on an active criminal scheme involving U.S. national security and elections, then the House has no choice but impeachment,” said a House Democratic aide.
Another House Democratic aide put it more bluntly: “They already have the Watergate tapes,” the aide said of the impeachment investigators, underscoring why the party was unlikely to pursue a punishment outside the normal legal system for those defying subpoenas.