The Trump administration on Tuesday stopped U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland from testifying before a House panel, blocking a planned deposition from Sondland that was to have been part of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
Last week, Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, turned over to Congress text messages in which Sondland, a wealthy Trump donor before he was appointed E.U. ambassador, spoke about plans to pressure Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter in exchange for a White House meeting and the release of nearly $400 million Congressionally-appropriated military aid.
Sondland created the text thread, in which the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, expresses concerns about the plan being discussed. “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote. Volker, who was also on the text message thread, resigned from his position shortly after reports of a campaign to pressure Ukraine into conducting investigations of the president’s top political rival surfaced.
Sondland, who is based in Brussels, had flown to Washington D.C. prepared to testify on Tuesday, his lawyer said in a statement that blamed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for his client’s abrupt reversal. Last week, Pompeo declared State Department personnel would not testify voluntarily before the House committees. (Pompeo himself has admitted to being on the phone call that initially sparked the inquiry.)
“Ambassador Sondland had previously agreed to appear voluntarily today, without the need for a subpoena, in order to answer the Committee’s questions on an expedited basis,” his lawyer, Robert Luskin, said in a statement. “As the sitting U.S. Ambassador to the EU and employee of the State Department, Ambassador Sondland is required to follow the Department’s direction.”
Sondland, who owned a chain of Portland hotels before he was appointed E.U. ambassador, was “profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify today.”
“Ambassador Sondland believes strongly that he acted at all times in the best interests of the United States, and he stands ready to answer the Committee’s questions fully and truthfully,” Luskin said.
Shortly after the news broke, the president chimed in, via Twitter: “I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public….” Second tweet: “….to see. Importantly, Ambassador Sondland’s tweet, which few report, stated, ‘I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind.’ That says it ALL!”
Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said on Tuesday that Sondland’s refusal to testify — as well as his refusal to turn over additional evidence “deeply relevant” to the investigation and stored on a personal device — was ”yet additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress.”