The State Department directed U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland not to appear Tuesday morning for a scheduled hearing about President Donald Trump’s communications with Ukraine.
Sondland, a key figure in the burgeoning scandal at the heart of the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry, had previously agreed to appear voluntarily before the House Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight committees behind closed-doors.
The decision to block the top diplomat from speaking with lawmakers is certain to provoke an immediate backlash with potentially significant consequences for Trump and his administration. House Democrats have repeatedly warned that if the administration attempts to interfere with their investigation, they will view the move as evidence of obstruction — a charge believe could be potentially worthy of impeachment.
Robert Luskin, the ambassador’s lawyer, said in a statement Tuesday morning that his client has no choice but to comply with the administration’s instruction. He said Sondland had been prepared to testify and would so in the future, if allowed.
“Ambassador Sondland is profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify today,” Ruskin said. “Ambassador Sonland hopes that the issues raised by the State Department that preclude his testimony will be resolved promptly. He stands ready to testify on short notice, whenever he is permitted to appear.”
Sondland, a wealthy hotelier who has donated heavily to Trump’s political efforts, took a lead in relations between the White House and Ukraine. Democrats consider him a key witness to understanding the president’s communications with Ukraine, including Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Trump asked Zelensky on the call to do him “a favor” and investigate the business dealings of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, and a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election.
A whistleblower complaint to the intelligence community, made public last month by the House Intelligence Community, showed Sondland and another top U.S. diplomat had provided advice “to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the president had made of Mr. Zelensky.” That allegedly occurred the day following Trump’s call with his Ukrainian counterpart.
Text messages provided to Congress last week revealed that Sondland and former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, worked on language for a statement they wanted the Ukrainian president to release in August, which would have committed him to the investigations sought by Trump. The diplomats consulted with Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, about the statement.
Sondland was also involved in a text exchange with U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor last month. The back and forth showed some senior State Department officials believed Trump could have been using nearly $400 million in security aid for Ukraine as leverage to ensure the launch of investigations that would benefit him politically and personally.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote in one message in early September.
Sondland replied that he believed Taylor was “incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” claiming that Trump “has been crystal clear no quid pro quos of any kind.” He added, “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”
There have been conflicting accounts of Sondland’s views, however. Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wisc., told the Wall Street Journal last week that the ambassador had told him in August, roughly a week before Sondland’s text exchange with Taylor, that the release of the aid was contingent upon Ukraine opening the investigations.
Johnson, the chairman of a Senate subcommittee with jurisdiction over Ukraine, said he was alarmed after speaking with Sondland. A day later, he raised the matter with Trump, who denied pursuing any such arrangement.
In the wake of reports that the White House blocked Sondland’s testimony, Trump tweeted that he would “love” for the diplomat to testify, but said he refuses to send him to appear in front of a “totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public to see.”
Meanwhile, House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the White House’s decision to block Sondland’s testimony is an “act of obstruction.”
He added Sondland has “text messages or emails on a personal device” the committee would like to see.
“Although we have requested those from the ambassador, the State is withholding those messages as well,” he said. “Those messages are also deeply relevant to this investigation and the impeachment inquiry.”
“The failure to produce this witness, the failure to produce these documents we consider yet additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress,” Schiff declared.
Rep. Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, said in a statement Tuesday morning that Schiff is following orders from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to “strike while the iron is hot.”
“In his efforts to rush this impeachment circus, Chairman Schiff is trampling on Constitutional considerations and disregarding legitimate concerns about due process and fairness while conducting all of this behind closed doors,” Jordan said.