STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How is the White House going to defend itself against an ongoing impeachment inquiry? Some White House officials and people connected to the White House have declared a congressional investigation to be unconstitutional and have said they will not cooperate. Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, says he does not have to comply with subpoenas. His lawyer wrote a letter saying the impeachment inquiry was unconstitutional and baseless, and then that lawyer resigned.
Vice President Pence has issued a more nuanced statement suggesting that he may be able to provide some documents in some circumstances. The White House counsel's office has said there is no need to cooperate with an illegitimate inquiry, and yet witnesses connected with the administration continue to appear before a House impeachment inquiry.
So what's going on? Steven Groves is on the line. He is a special assistant to the president, until recently was in the White House counsel's office and is now deputy press secretary. Mr. Groves, good morning.
STEVEN GROVES: Good morning, Steve. Thank you have for - for having me on.
INSKEEP: I want to begin with Rudy Giuliani's statement, the statement made by his lawyer who then resigned saying it was unconstitutional and baseless to investigate in this way and saying that he doesn't have to provide documents for various reasons. Really direct question because you're a lawyer - in the United States, can someone decide to ignore a subpoena?
GROVES: People can ignore or not comply with subpoenas, you know, if they're asking for materials that the person issuing the subpoena aren't entitled to. Like, for example, if someone subpoenaed you and said, I want all the communications between you, Steve Inskeep, and your lawyer, you don't have to necessarily comply with that subpoena. I mean, you might have to litigate and have a judge decide whether your attorney-client privilege can be overcome by the subpoena. But the subpoena alone is not something that cannot be challenged in the United States.
INSKEEP: In other words, you can say, sue me.
GROVES: You can, or the person issuing the subpoena can realize, oh, I'm asking for attorney-client privileged material here. Maybe I'll pursue other documents that aren't covered by a privilege.
INSKEEP: Well, I want to understand Giuliani's position. And I recognize that he's outside the White House. You don't directly speak for him.
INSKEEP: But you, of course, have to have some understanding of this. Giuliani has publicly said in the last couple of days, I don't care if people look into my business dealings in Ukraine. And, of course, Giuliani had business dealings in Ukraine while also representing the president of the United States in seeking an investigation of people connected with Joe Biden and Joe Biden himself. He said, I don't care if people look into my business dealings. They can look into it all they want. But then his lawyer drops this letter saying that we won't cooperate. If there is nothing to hide, why not cooperate?
GROVES: Well, you're quite right that, as a private citizen not working in the U.S. government, I don't speak for Rudy Giuliani. And more to the point, the letter that you referenced in the opening issued by the White House counsel, you know, that doesn't apply to people, you know, outside of the administration. I think that there may be some things that were subpoenaed from Giuliani that touch on attorney-client privilege if there were communications that he had with the president. But otherwise, you know, it's up to Giuliani to decide whether he is going to be complying with a congressional subpoena.
INSKEEP: Would you urge him to cooperate and comply with a legitimate subpoena?
GROVES: Well, it's definitely not my place to urge him about complying with a subpoena. That's something that he and, if he retains another lawyer, as you pointed out, they'll have to decide that or deal with Congress in their own way or have to go to court if the subpoena is going to be enforced or if Congress tries to hold him in contempt. These are all decisions that Giuliani will have to make.
INSKEEP: I'm trying to understand the White House - specifically the White House's strategy here as well because the White House counsel, as you know, for whom you worked until recently, has taken what to a layman seems like the same view. This is an illegitimate inquiry. We don't have to comply with anything. And yet, people who are in the administration still are testifying, showing up, complying with subpoenas, producing documents when asked. Are - is the White House doing anything to try to stop them?
GROVES: The White House has been clear on its position that, you know, in the past when impeachment inquiries have been opened, there's been certain processes that everyone has agreed to, whether it was Nixon with the Democrat Congress or Clinton with the Republican Congress. There's been a floor vote opening a formal inquiry. And then, most importantly, in both cases de minimis due process rights were afforded to both President Nixon and to Clinton. So...
INSKEEP: But I want to stop you for a second because we have discussed this. But you're in a situation now where you've said the House is being unfair. We don't have to cooperate. And yet, people are cooperating. Are you trying to stop them in any way?
GROVES: I believe - without getting into anything that's, like, internally deliberative - that witnesses have been informed about executive privilege and informed about classified information, and they have gone and participated or sat for depositions or interviews. Hopefully they, you know, are - you know, know what their obligations are as current or former employees of the federal government vis-a-vis revealing executive privilege and revealing classified information.
But, you know, we're going to go forward with this inquiry as best we can given the Democrats', you know, lack of transparency, lack of formality. And, you know, we'll see how this thing pans out in the end. But right now, the White House is clear that it's not going to participate in an illegitimate sham process, which is really what this is, Steve.
INSKEEP: But you're only going so far in stopping other people who are working for the U.S. government from participating. When you say we're going to go forward as best we can, that's what I hear you saying. And that's what seems to be happening.
GROVES: Well, we don't want people to be hurt. We don't want people to be held in contempt. You know, the Democrats are issuing subpoenas like hotcakes. And, you know, we have an obligation to protect classified information and executive privilege information. And we'll go forward in this vein, you know, as best we can. And we intend to go forward and not participate.
INSKEEP: Mr. Groves, thanks for your insights. Really appreciate it.
GROVES: Thank you, Steve.
INSKEEP: Steven Groves is a special assistant to the president of the United States.
NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been listening along with us. And Franco, what do you hear there?
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Well, I mean, he's following the administration line. He's talking about, you know, that the administration is - you know, is not going to cooperate with what it sees as a sham investigation, criticizing Pelosi and Democratic leadership of giving out subpoenas like hotcakes. But I found it interesting that, you know, he, you know, said that the administration won't cooperate, or at least the White House won't be - won't cooperate. But as you pointed out, we're finding out that many members of the administration are sitting down for these interviews.
INSKEEP: And the White House is only going so far to try to stop them. We haven't had court battles over the testimony of various U.S. diplomats, for example.
ORDOÑEZ: No, exactly. I mean, this is - this has been very - it's very fascinating. Particularly, you know, we have Sondland coming up. We just had Volker. We just had - we have McKinley coming tomorrow - pardon me - today. It's - you know, the next few days are going to continue to be very interesting.
INSKEEP: NPR's Franco Ordoñez, thanks so much.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.