US former vice-president Joe Biden reverses his position on defying impeachment subpoena

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Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks during a campaign stop at Tipton, Iowa on Dec 28, 2019. PHOTO: AFP

FAIRFIELD, IOWA (NYTIMES) - United States former vice-president Joe Biden has backtracked from his stated position that he would not comply with a subpoena to testify in President Donald Trump's impeachment trial in the Senate.

Instead, he declared that he would abide by "any subpoena that was sent to me" even as he insisted there was no justification for calling him as a witness.

A day after reaffirming that he would not comply with a subpoena, Mr Biden tried twice on Saturday (Dec 28) to clarify his remarks, asserting that there would not be "any legal basis" for such a subpoena but left it unclear for much of the day if he would ultimately comply with one.

Then, questioned by a voter about the issue of compliance with subpoenas, Mr Biden answered unequivocally.

"I would obey any subpoena that was sent to me," he said at a townhall event in Fairfield.

Mr Biden's 180-degree turn on whether he would comply with a subpoena was one of the starkest and swiftest reversals by a candidate in the Democratic primary campaign and came after he faced questions and criticism about whether his initial stand would run counter to the rule of law.

Mr Biden's varied responses to a hypothetical question, in which he had criticised himself for drawing attention to in the first place, played out from a series of tweets on Saturday morning to remarks to reporters early in the afternoon to his answer in Fairfield on Saturday night.

The issue loomed over his campaign as he courted Iowa voters on a two-day swing, joining several other candidates under a dank grey sky with driving rain as they returned to the state just over five weeks before the nominating caucuses here.

On Saturday morning, Mr Biden wrote on Twitter that he wanted to clarify comments he had made last Friday, when he met the editorial board of The Des Moines Register, whose endorsement in the Iowa caucuses is highly sought after by presidential candidates.

Mr Biden was asked by The Register whether he stood by previous comments that he would not comply with a subpoena to testify in the impeachment trial. He said he did and explained that complying with a subpoena and testifying would effectively allow Mr Trump to shift attention onto Mr Biden and away from the President's own conduct. Mr Biden made similar comments to reporters aboard his campaign bus last Friday night.

On Saturday morning, Mr Biden elaborated on Twitter: "I am just not going to pretend that there is any legal basis for Republican subpoenas for my testimony in the impeachment trial. That is the point I was making yesterday and I reiterate: this impeachment is about Trump's conduct, not mine."

He also wrote that over the course of his decades-long political career, he had "always complied with a lawful order" and that in his two terms as vice-president, his office had "cooperated with legitimate congressional oversight requests".

Speaking to reporters after a townhall event in Tipton, Mr Biden said he had "no first-hand knowledge" about the accusations against Mr Trump, so there was "no basis" for calling him as a witness. But, he added, "I would honour whatever the Congress in fact legitimately asked me to do".

Asked if he would challenge a subpoena in court, he responded: "The answer is, I don't think that's going to happen to begin with. Let's cross that bridge when it comes."

He added that he would abide by "whatever was legally required of me".

One of Mr Biden's top rivals for the Democratic nomination, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, also weighed in on Saturday, telling reporters in Des Moines that "if there is a lawfully issued order for a subpoena, then he should comply".

As he spoke to reporters in Tipton, Mr Biden seemed to fault himself for creating a story line in the news media that continued on Saturday. He observed that "this is going to be the news today" and added that he was "criticising myself", not the press.

"I shouldn't even have answered the question," he said. "Because in answering the question, now there's going to be another round. We're not talking about: What did Trump do?"

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