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Democrats step up impeachment probe as White House stonewalls

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Committees preparing to interview whistleblower

WASHINGTON: The Democratic-led US House of Representatives was set to step up its impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump over his dealings with Ukraine, as the White House declared it would not cooperate with the probe.

The three congressional committees leading the inquiry were working on final arrangements to interview a US intelligence officer who filed the whistleblower complaint that triggered the probe, a day after the State Department abruptly blocked the US ambassador to the European Union from speaking to them.

The investigation is focused on whether Mr Trump used almost US$400 million (S$552 million) in congressionally approved aid to Ukraine as leverage to pressure the Ukrainian president to launch an investigation into former Vice-President Joe Biden, one of Mr Trump's main Democratic rivals as he seeks re-election in 2020.

Mr Trump has denied wrongdoing.

White House Counsel Pat Cipolline wrote on Tuesday to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats that the administration would refuse to cooperate with what it called an "illegitimate" and "unconstitutional" impeachment inquiry.

"The effort to impeach President Trump... is a naked political strategy that began the day he was inaugurated," Mr Cipolline's letter added.

Ms Pelosi said in response to the letter: "Mr. President, you are not above the law. You will be held accountable."

She did not indicate what steps, if any, House Democrats might take to compel Mr Trump's cooperation.

In addition to the whistleblower, lawmakers aim to hear later this week from a former US ambassador to Ukraine, Ms Marie Yovanovitch, whom Mr Trump removed from that post last May before her term was up.

Lawyers for the whistleblower were focused on how to protect the person's identity from being made public during any testimony, according to sources close to the talks.

The showdown between Mr Trump and Ms Pelosi heightened just as a newly released Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll showed Democratic support rising for impeachment.

At the same time, 45 per cent of all adult Americans said they support impeachment while 39 per cent oppose it, unchanged from last week.

Relations between Democrats and Republicans in Congress were already raw when the State Department on Tuesday ordered US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a major Trump political donor, not to appear at a closed-door meeting of the three US House panels investigating Mr Trump.

Democrats view Mr Sondland as a key witness who could help shed light on whether Mr Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine as part of an effort to pressure it to investigate Mr Biden and his son Hunter, who had business dealings in Ukraine.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has said he would have no choice but to initiate a Senate trial on whether to convict Mr Trump of any formal charges of "high crimes or misdemeanours" lodged by the House. - REUTERS