Moving Closer to Trump, Impeachment Inquiry Faces Critical Test

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WASHINGTON — House impeachment investigators are speeding toward new White House barriers meant to block crucial testimony and evidence from the people who are closest to President Trump — obstacles that could soon test the limits of Democrats’ fact finding a month into their inquiry.

What has been a rapidly moving investigation securing damning testimony from witnesses who have defied White House orders may soon become a more arduous effort. Investigators are now trying to secure cooperation from higher-ranking advisers who can offer more direct accounts of Mr. Trump’s actions but are also more easily shielded from Congress.

Democrats are likely to face the first such roadblock on Monday, when one of Mr. Trump’s closest advisers is expected to defy a subpoena as he awaits a federal court to determine whether he can speak with impeachment investigators. But others could soon follow, legal experts and lawmakers say, forcing Democratic leaders toward a consequential choice: Try to force cooperation through the courts or move on to begin making an argument for impeachment in public.

At stake is not just how quickly the investigation concludes, but how much evidence ultimately undergirds the case against Mr. Trump.

Many Democrats involved in the inquiry already believe they have collected enough to impeach him for abusing his power by enlisting a foreign government to smear his political rivals. But to persuade the public — and the necessary number of Republican senators — that the president should be convicted and removed from office, they may need additional proof tying him directly to certain elements of the alleged wrongdoing. They could potentially unearth stronger evidence by turning to the courts, but that could also stall the case for months and risk losing public support, much as some Democrats believe happened in the Russia inquiry.

“As in many investigations, you get to a point where you have to decide how much is enough and whether the incremental value of the additional juice is worth the squeeze,” said Ross H. Garber, a lawyer who is one of the nation’s leading experts on impeachment. “If anything, they may be surprised by how much cooperation they have gotten from witnesses already, notwithstanding the position of the executive branch.”

For now, Democrats have not yet exhausted testimony from officials who appear willing to cooperate and have at least peripheral knowledge of the case. At least two more White House officials are scheduled to testify this week, and are expected to confirm key events. Other officials from the State and Defense Departments involved in Ukraine policy are set to appear, as well.

Democrats believe a reconstructed transcript released by the White House of a July phone call between Mr. Trump and President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine also significantly bolsters their case. In the call, Mr. Trump pressed Mr. Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and unproven theories about Democratic collusion with Ukraine during the 2016 election.

“We have a tremendous table of evidence before us that fills in all of the principal, material questions that were raised by the whistle-blower,” said Representative Jamie Raskin, Democrat of Maryland, referring to an anonymous C.I.A. whistle-blower whose complaint about Mr. Trump’s actions toward Ukraine helped prompt the impeachment inquiry.

But the story lawmakers have uncovered so far has also pointed further into Mr. Trump’s inner circle, offering tantalizing leads that Democrats have signaled they intend to at least try to run down.

They have indicated that they want to talk to John R. Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser, who is said to have been deeply alarmed by what he saw transpiring with Ukraine. They may also seek testimony from Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff who helped carry out Mr. Trump’s order to freeze the aid; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; and Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who was deeply involved in implementing the president’s agenda. And then there is Rudolph W. Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s private lawyer, who appears to have orchestrated the campaign to secure the investigations.

The president has greater powers to shield from Congress his conversations with close aides, as well as greater pull on the loyalties of potential witnesses, who have already begun to indicate they cannot simply defy White House orders like others who have already testified.

One of the first signs Democrats would now face a more difficult trek emerged late on Friday when the president’s former deputy national security adviser, Charles M. Kupperman, took the unusual move of filing the lawsuit, asking a federal judge to rule on whether he should be forced to testify about his conversations with Mr. Trump. Democrats had subpoenaed Mr. Kupperman to appear on Monday but Mr. Trump ordered him not to by invoking a rarely used and untested theory that top presidential aides are absolutely immune from testimony.

Mr. Kupperman worked directly with Mr. Trump on Ukraine policy and served as his acting national security adviser in September, when Mr. Trump decided to release $391 million in aid for Ukraine that he had temporarily frozen. Some impeachment witnesses have said the president had been using the aid as leverage to force the Ukranians to investigate Mr. Trump’s political rivals.

The suit could have ramifications that go far beyond Mr. Kupperman. The lawyer who filed the suit, Charles Cooper, also represents Mr. Bolton, and Mr. Cooper will almost certainly handle requests for Mr. Bolton’s testimony the same way.

Mr. Trump’s advisers are bullish that claims of absolute immunity and executive privilege can help gum up Democrats’ progress and may force them to leave certain potential witnesses and documentary evidence uncollected in the interest of time.

Indeed, the suit and the potential that the White House could invoke immunity over other top aides raises profound and largely unanswered legal questions about the extent of the president’s ability to shield private communications from Congress, especially in the face of an impeachment inquiry. Even on an expedited schedule, the disputes could take months to sort out and end up before the Supreme Court.

The challenge does not have a neat historical parallel. Unlike in the impeachment proceedings against Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Bill Clinton, the House is not building its case on a federal law enforcement investigation, which obviated the need for the kind of primary fact finding underway right now.

Though they have not entirely ruled out using the courts to knock down claims of immunity they view as spurious, Democrats led by Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, have hinted for weeks now that they do not intend to wait around for decisions. They still, however, want to force each witness to decide how to respond, testing for additional cracks in the president’s stonewall.

On Saturday, Mr. Schiff and two others leading the inquiry wrote to Mr. Kupperman’s lawyer that if Mr. Kupperman fails to show up on Monday as scheduled, he will expose the president to further charges of obstructing Congress — possibly an impeachable offense — and run the risk of being held in contempt of Congress.

The House, they wrote, may well assume “that your client’s testimony would have corroborated other evidence gathered by the committees showing that the president abused the power of his office by attempting to press another nation to assist his own personal political interests, and not the national interest.”

Several current and former diplomats have backed up that account in private testimony in recent days. The most startling came last week from William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, who told investigators that Mr. Trump sought to condition the entire United States relationship with Ukraine, including the aid package and a coveted White House meeting for Mr. Zelensky, on a promise that the country would publicly investigate his rivals.

Mr. Taylor said that when he objected to what he saw as the manipulation of the aid, Mr. Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, Gordon D. Sondland, told him there was no quid pro quo but went on to describe just that.

The testimony privately shook the confidence of many Republican lawmakers, and Democrats claimed it was a smoking gun. But allies of the president quickly pointed to what could be a central topic of debate if the Democrats proceed to impeach: Mr. Taylor’s account was not based on firsthand encounters with the president.

“How would you really know,” asked Senator Roy Blunt, Republican of Missouri, noting that Mr. Taylor’s information appeared to be second- and thirdhand.

Mr. Sondland, a Trump supporter testified a week before, is the closest anyone directly interacting with Mr. Trump has come to implicating him. He told investigators that Mr. Trump had handed over Ukraine policy to Mr. Giuliani to his alarm. On Saturday, Mr. Sondland’s lawyer acknowledged that his client had also testified that he believed Mr. Trump had withheld a White House meeting from the Ukrainians as part of a quid pro quo to secure the politically beneficial investigations, a development first reported by NBC News and The Wall Street Journal.

Maggie Haberman contributed reporting.