STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The House of Representatives and the White House have begun a battle for power - the power to shape an impeachment inquiry. On the basic issue, the United States Constitution could hardly be more clear. The House, it says, shall have the sole power of impeachment. House committees are now gathering evidence about the president's efforts to have a political rival investigated in Ukraine. But in a letter, the top White House lawyer contends that the president does not have to cooperate. The letter alleges the inquiry is illegitimate and unfair. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has replied, Mr. President, you are not above the law. You'll be held accountable.
Let's explore the politics and the law starting with NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Hi there, Mara.
MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: What is the immediate effect of the White House saying no?
LIASSON: Well, the White House says it can't participate in this inquiry. The immediate effect means that the House will not get any more documents or witnesses from the administration. They already weren't getting many. Gordon Sondland, the EU ambassador who was supposed to testify yesterday - at the last minute, the administration said he wouldn't. The president said that's because the inquiry is a kangaroo court. We now have this huge separation of powers clash. It also means this probably will go to the courts, which could drag it out all the way to the election - doesn't mean that that will stop the Democrats from going forward with the impeachment inquiry or with impeachment itself because the House leadership has said very clearly that they consider the administration's decision not to cooperate to be obstruction. And that could be yet another article of impeachment.
INSKEEP: I think I've heard two ways the Democrats can respond. One is by going to court, and the other is by lengthening the indictment, so to speak, against the president.
INSKEEP: Suppose the House were to meet all of the president's demands, would he then cooperate?
LIASSON: The senior administration officials who briefed reporters on background yesterday were asked this over and over again, and they said that's a hypothetical. In other words, even if the House complied with all of the requests that the White House is making - to have a vote, to give the minority the right to question witnesses and call witnesses - that doesn't mean that they would comply. So the White House has clearly made the political judgment that it's worth the potential price of creating the impression that they're hiding something, and - but that's better than what might happen if they do turn over these documents and allow witnesses to testify.
INSKEEP: You just referred to a political judgment. Is this letter from the White House lawyer really about the law?
LIASSON: I think it's about the law as they see it, but it's also about politics because this is a huge political battle. It's now escalated. No one seems willing to give up right now. It's possible this never gets resolved. But the White House has decided it is in their interest not to cooperate. And don't forget, they already were pursuing this approach with other investigations, non-impeachment investigations where they decided they didn't want to turn over witnesses and documents.
INSKEEP: Mara, thanks.
LIASSON: Thank you.
INSKEEP: That's NPR's Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.