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Assessing The Balance Of Power In Trump Impeachment Inquiry


How far can the White House go in blocking an impeachment inquiry? The White House counsel has called the House probe illegitimate and said President Trump had no need to cooperate, yet witnesses have been coming forward in the past few days, such as a recalled ambassador to Ukraine on Friday and the current ambassador to the European Union, who is expected this week. Gregg Nunziata served in senior counsel roles for Republican Senator Marco Rubio and the Senate Judiciary Committee, so he's going to give us some analysis. He's in our studios. Good morning.

GREGG NUNZIATA: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: How well is the White House legal strategy working?

NUNZIATA: It's not much of a real legal strategy, honestly. It's - the White House counsel sent a letter that is full of hyperbole, attempts to completely delegitimize congressional oversight of the president, and it tries to support that political argument with a quasi-legal case to claim that congressional oversight in this instance is somehow unconstitutional itself. I don't think it convinced any lawyers. I think it probably alienated some likely allies on Capitol Hill by suggesting that Congress has no role here.

And it also hurts, I think, the president's legal strategy going forward. You want the White House counsel's office to be laser-focused on really defending institutional prerogatives of the president and of the White House, and they failed to do that here, and they kind of threw out some credibility.

INSKEEP: Well, that's an interesting point that you make because the White House counsel - it's tempting to call him the president's lawyer, but he's not, right? I mean, he is the counsel for the presidency, who is supposed to defend the office and the institution.

NUNZIATA: That's correct, yeah.

INSKEEP: And you're saying that's not really happening here.

NUNZIATA: No, I think this letter was a mistake. You know, and the letter also - to the extent the White House counsel's office should be engaged in trying to protect this president from impeachment, the letter practically writes another article of impeachment for Democrats in Congress by refusing to cooperate with their, I think, legitimate oversight into some of these questions that happened around the call with the leadership of Ukraine.

INSKEEP: But this is classic political strategy by President Trump, which has seemingly worked for him before, which is just refuse everything, deny everything, say that even if I did it it was great. Is there some benefit to the president in this kind of scorched-earth policy? Because it is a negotiation, maybe if he takes an extreme position, he doesn't have to give up quite as much in the end to the House investigators.

NUNZIATA: There may be a political benefit, but if I were counseling the president, I would suggest leaving those kinds of political tactics to the political operation in the White House, the communications team. I do think that the lawyers in the White House need to have real legal credibility, and this wasn't a serious legal argument whatsoever. I mean, the question here - there was a call, and a call that I think raised a lot of eyebrows. The president certainly speaks in ways that are impolitic, that a lot of politicians wouldn't - uses phrases a lot of politicians wouldn't use. To many of his supporters, that's an asset.

But the question here was - was this conversation with Ukraine just the president kind of being the president, or was it part of a larger strategy, a part of a larger story between our two governments? It appears that it's been a larger. We have...

INSKEEP: Because of Rudy Giuliani's months-long efforts to gain dirt in Ukraine - that sort of thing.

NUNZIATA: Correct. And then the next question is, what was the nature of that story? Was it a legitimate attempt to put pressure on Ukraine, to clean up some of its practices? Or was it connected to something less legitimate, namely the president's personal and political interests?

INSKEEP: Do you feel you understand what is happening in this respect - the White House counsel says totally illegitimate inquiry, we're not going to cooperate with you at all, and yet members of the executive branch are stepping forward and testifying anyway?

NUNZIATA: Well, you know, that's another aspect to this in which I think the counsel's office made a mistake because now you have these witnesses having to come forward in some legal jeopardy to themselves. The White House no longer has control as it should have over this process, to be able to protect legitimate claims of executive privilege and the like. I mean, we're kind of in the Wild West here with testimony coming from individual members and former members of the government just speaking on their own, outside of coordination with the government.

INSKEEP: One other thing to ask about - of course, the president was seeking political dirt or information, an investigation of Joe Biden and of his son. And Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden, also has involvement in China. He's now resigning from a hedge fund that he was involved in in China. Are there - in your view, however inappropriate it may have been for the president to pursue them, are there legitimate questions about Joe Biden and his family here that deserve to be investigated?

NUNZIATA: Yes. I mean, I think there's legitimate questions to investigate. I think, frankly, anyone who's been exposed to the business of foreign advocacy in Washington and foreign lobbying probably would tell you that the whole field needs to be cleaned up. And this is not just a question of president - Vice President Biden or his son or his family; it's an industry in Washington that has many unsavory aspects.

INSKEEP: Mr. Nunziata, thank you so much.

NUNZIATA: Thank you for having me, Steve.

INSKEEP: Gregg Nunziata held senior Republican counsel positions on Capitol Hill and now advises business. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.