By Patricia Zengerle and Lisa Lambert
WASHINGTON, Oct 1 (Reuters) - Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday sternly objected to a move by the U.S. House of Representatives to obtain depositions from five current and former State Department officials as part of an impeachment inquiry targeting President Donald Trump, accusing Democrats of bullying and intimidation.
The five have been scheduled to give depositions this week and next as the Democratic-led House looks into Trump's request to Ukraine's president to investigate a domestic political rival, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Democrats last week launched the impeachment effort in light of a whistleblower complaint against the Republican president by a person within the U.S. intelligence community who accused Trump of soliciting foreign interference in the 2020 U.S. election for his personal political benefit. Trump, who is running for re-election next year
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi last week launched an impeachment inquiry into Trump over Ukraine - a step that could lead to approval of articles of impeachment - or formal charges - in the House. That would lead to a trial in the Senate on whether to remove Trump from office but the president's fellow Republicans control that chamber and have shown little appetite for removing him.
Pompeo, who is in Italy for a three-day trip, objected to a request by Democratic Representative Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, for the department to make the officials available for depositions. The officials include former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and former U.S. special representative for Ukraine Kurt Volker.
In a letter posted on Twitter, Pompeo told Engel, "I am concerned with aspects of your request that can be understood only as an attempt to intimidate, bully and treat improperly the distinguished professionals of the Department of State, including several career Foreign Service Officers, whom the committee is now targeting."
Pompeo said his department would respond to a Foreign Affairs Committee subpoena by Friday. Pompeo said proposed dates for the depositions do not provide adequate time for preparation and that the officials may not attend any depositions without executive branch counsel present to control disclosure of confidential information.
He said records that have been requested are subject to restrictions relating to classified information and other executive branch privileges. Pompeo added that there is no legal basis for the committee's assertion that a failure to appear would constitute evidence of obstruction.
Pompeo said he would use "all means at my disposal to prevent and expose any attempts to intimidate the dedicated professionals" at the State Department.
House Democrats did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Trump in a July 25 phone call asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate Biden and his son Hunter in coordination with U.S. Attorney General William Barr and Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Biden's son had served as a director for a Ukrainian gas company.
Pompeo also took part in the phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy, the Wall Street Journal reported, something likely to draw the attention of House investigators.
Pompeo's letter marked the latest bid by Trump's administration to avoid providing House Democrats testimony and documents relating to numerous different investigations of the president. Democrats have accused Trump of a policy of stonewalling legitimate congressional inquiries.
On Wednesday, three House committees - Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight - were due to get a deposition from Yovanovitch, whom Trump labeled "bad news" during his call with Zelenskiy. On Thursday, the committees were set to get a deposition from Volker, who resigned last week after the whistleblower named him as one of two U.S. diplomats who followed up with Ukrainian officials a day after Trump's Zelenskiy call.
AID TO UKRAINE
The Zelenskiy call occurred after Trump froze nearly $400 million in aid intended to help Ukraine deal with an insurgency by Russian-backed separatists. Zelenskiy in the call agreed to investigate. The aid was later provided.
No U.S. president has ever been removed from office using the impeachment process set out in the U.S. Constitution, though lesser officials have been removed.
The whistleblower's identity has not been made public.
Trump on Tuesday continued to assail the impeachment inquiry and defend his call with Zelenskiy. The president asked on Twitter "why aren't we entitled to interview & learn everything about the Whistleblower, and also the person who gave all of the false information to him."
But a senior Republican Senator, Chuck Grassley, came to the defense of the whistleblower.
"This person appears to have followed the whistleblower protection laws and ought to be heard out and protected," Grassley said in a statement. Grassley also said media reports concerning the whistleblower's identity "don't serve the public interest."
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle and Lisa Lambert; Additional reporting by David Morgan, Roberta Rampton, Susan Heavey and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Will Dunham Editing by Alistair Bell)