The fractures in the US political landscape widened dramatically on Tuesday as the White House declared it would not cooperate with the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump, setting the stage for a constitutional crisis as the country heads into an election year.
In an eight-page letter, White House counsel Pat Cipollone accused Democrats of an “illegitimate” and “unconstitutional” attempt to “to overturn the results of the 2016 election”.
It added: “The effort to impeach President Trump ... is a naked political strategy that began the day he was inaugurated.”
In response, Nancy Pelosi, the top Democrat in the House of Representatives, declared: “Mr President, you are not above the law. You will be held accountable.”
But Trump’s decision not to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry could backfire – Democrats have already made clear that his actions could be seen as obstructing the investigation, itself a potentially impeachable offence.
At the core of the impeachment inquiry is whether or not Trump used almost $400 million (£327.5m) in congressionally approved aid to Ukraine as leverage to pressure the Ukrainian president to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s main Democratic rivals as he seeks re-election in 2020.
The episode came to light after a US intelligence officer filed a whistleblower complaint. A second whistleblower who reportedly has firsthand knowledge of a number of allegations in the original complaint has been interviewed by the head of the intelligence community’s internal watchdog office.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and up until Wednesday his reaction was to do what he does best – attack.
The president’s Twitter account has been the busiest it’s ever been in recent days, mainly with tweets attacking the Democrats and the whistleblowers themselves.
Trump and the White House have attempted to frame the impeachment inquiry as nothing more than an extension of the special counsel’s “witch hunt” that earlier this year found no evidence of collusion between Trump’s campaign team and Russia.
But the Ukraine episode is different – the allegations are coming from within Trump’s own intelligence community, and there is already a growing body of evidence to support them.
As well as the whistleblower complaints, text messages between officials including ambassador Gordon Sondland show that top US diplomats were concerned that aid was being used to pressure the Ukrainians to dig up dirt on Biden.
Bill Taylor, the charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Ukraine, expressed alarm and questioned whether the money was being withheld until Ukraine agreed to Trump’s demand.
He wrote: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?”
Days later he messaged a friend, saying: “This is my nightmare scenario, we have already shaken their faith in us.”
The impeachment inquiry has asked Sondland to testify behind closed doors about the president’s dealings with Ukraine, but on Tuesday Trump blocked him from doing so, saying “he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court”.
Sondland’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, said his client was “profoundly disappointed” that he would not be able to testify.
Democrats later subpoenaed him, and three separate House committees are demanding that he appear at a deposition on October 16.
They are also demanding that he produce documents, including communications from his personal device that have been turned over to the State Department but not to Congress.
The White House’s decision later on Tuesday to not cooperate with the inquiry made clear that Trump would block any similar attempts to compel witnesses to testify.
A senior administration official told reporters that the administration has called “a full halt” because “this is not a valid procedure” for an impeachment inquiry.
The White House is claiming that Trump’s constitutional right to cross-examine witnesses and review all evidence in impeachment proceedings extend even to House investigations, not just a potential Senate trial.
It is also calling on Democrats to grant Republicans in the House subpoena power to seek evidence in the president’s defence.
Elsewhere, Democrats are making progress despite an obstinate White House – as well as the first whistleblower, lawmakers aim to hear later this week from a former US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, whom Trump removed from that post last May before her term was up.
Lawyers for the whistleblower are also working out how to protect their identity during any testimony, according to sources close to the talks.
But the stonewalling and just how much the Democrats and Trump can do to further their polarised objectives is set to test the limits of the US’s constitutional system of checks and balances.
Trump sees himself as immune as the country’s executive, but the Democrats see the inquiry as a natural part of holding the office of president to account.
The hot rhetoric in the high-stakes battle between Trump and Democrats who control the House is expected to intensify next week when Congress returns from a two-week recess.
On their return, members will huddle privately to discuss strategy if Pelosi decides in the coming weeks or months to go ahead with articles of impeachment against Trump.
Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he would have no choice but to initiate a Senate trial on whether to convict Trump of any formal charges of “high crimes or misdemeanours” lodged by the House, Reuters reports.
But he added in an interview with CNBC: “How long you’re on it is a whole different matter,” possibly referring to the right of any senator to move to dismiss the charges, thus short-circuiting a full-blown Senate trial and a vote on convicting Trump – if the motion were to be approved.
Republicans who control the Senate have shown little appetite for ousting Trump, and it would currently be them who decide.