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Democrats pursuing their impeachment inquiry of U.S. President Donald Trump demanded Wednesday that the State Department release key documents they had subpoenaed about his efforts to pressure Ukraine to open investigations to help him politically.
The lawmakers said the State Department was withholding emails, text messages, diplomatic cables and other information in its files from the last several months that were directly related to their expanding impeachment investigation.
Three House of Representatives committee chairs - Adam Schiff of Intelligence, Eliot Engel of Foreign Affairs and Carolyn Maloney of Oversight - said the information was "central to the inquiry's core area of investigation: the president's efforts to press Ukraine to initiate investigations that would benefit his personal and political interests, and not the national interest."
They said the material included diplomats' contacts with Kyiv officials and information before and after Trump's late July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which he asked that Ukraine open investigations into one of Trump's leading 2020 Democratic challengers, former Vice President Joe Biden, and the role his son, Hunter Biden, played as a board member at a Ukraine natural gas company, Burisma.
The lawmakers said if the State Department continues to defy the congressional subpoena for the documents it would consider it an obstruction of lawful congressional oversight and could "draw the inference that their nonproduction indicates that these documents support the allegations against the president and others."
The State Department and some other federal agencies in Trump's administration have defied congressional subpoenas targeting information sought by the impeachment investigators, but some officials, including some still on the government payroll, have ignored administration requests that they not testify and have complied with their subpoenas.
Senior defense officials said Wednesday the Pentagon will defer to the White House's assertion of executive privilege as grounds for refusing to provide some of the documents sought after via a subpoena by the House impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
"We're really in uncharted territory here," said one of the officials said, adding that the last time the Department of Defense was issued a subpoena by Congress was in 2007.
House impeachment investigators are seeking information regarding Trump's decision to withhold nearly $400 million in aid to Ukraine for several months.
The official said the Pentagon had provided the House with "thousands of pages of documents" that officials had determined would not potentially come under executive privilege, the political principle that claims a president has the right to withhold certain information from Congress or the courts, even when faced with a subpoena.
"Executive privilege is only for the White House to assert, and we will have to follow their lead," another official said when asked if the Defense Department General Counsel could act independently of the White House.
Meanwhile, Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, testified before impeachment investigators in a closed hearing after a five-hour delay due to a couple dozen House Republican lawmakers forcing their way into the secure room where the hearing was being held.
The lawmakers demanded that the majority Democrats hold public sessions and release transcripts of earlier testimony. Democrats say public hearings will follow the investigation.
The Republican protest came a day after Trump said his Republican allies in Congress need to "get tough and fight" against his impeachment.
Schiff, who is leading the investigation of Trump, has said the interview sessions have been held behind closed doors so that future witnesses cannot compare notes to tailor their testimony to that of other officials who have already testified.
But Schiff, a regular target of Trump's ire about the impeachment investigation, says the transcripts eventually will be released and testimony heard in public.
On Tuesday, in what some Democrats say was the most damaging testimony yet against Trump, William Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told congressional investigators he was told the White House would only free military aid to Ukraine if it publicly promised to investigate whether Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election to work against Trump and probe the Bidens' actions in Ukraine.
Taylor's closed-door testimony in the Trump impeachment inquiry contradicted the president's assertion that there was no "quid pro quo" with Ukraine, but the White House continues to deny there was any such arrangement.
Trump spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham called Taylor's testimony "just more triple hearsay and selective leaks from the Democrats' politically motivated closed-door secretive hearings. Every day this nonsense continues, more taxpayer time and money is wasted."
Ambassador Taylor repeated his belief that it was "crazy" to make badly needed military aid to Ukraine contingent on Kyiv's promise to investigate alleged corruption by former Vice President Biden.
Taylor said in his opening statement that he had a telephone conversation with U.S. Ambassador to the EU and Trump campaign donor Gordon Sondland, who testified last week.
"During that phone call, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants (Ukrainian) President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election."
Trump alleges that when Biden was second in command to former President Barack Obama, he threatened to hold up loan guarantees to Ukraine unless it stopped an earlier corruption probe of Burisma.
But there has never been any evidence of corruption by the Bidens. Allegations that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election on behalf of Democrats was based on a debunked conspiracy theory.
Taylor said Sondland told him Trump wanted Zelenskiy "in a public box by making a public statement about ordering such investigations."
According to Taylor, Sondland admitted he made a "mistake" when he told Ukrainian officials that only a White House meeting with Trump depended on Zelenskiy publicly promising investigations.
"In fact, Ambassador Sondland said 'everything' was dependent on such an announcement, including security assistance," Taylor added.
Sondland had earlier said when he told other diplomats Trump insisted there would be no "quid pro quo" with Ukraine, he was actually repeating what Trump told him what to say in a telephone call.
Democratic-led House committees are holding closed-door hearings to decide whether to recommend Trump's impeachment in part for allegedly reaching out to a foreign government to interfere in a U.S. election.
Florida Democrat Debbie Wasserman Schultz called Taylor's testimony "the most damning testimony I've heard."
Pentagon Correspondent Carla Babb contributed to this report.