Blindsided Trump Allies Urge Better Coordination on Impeachment

Josh Wingrove and Billy House

(Bloomberg) -- Donald Trump blindsided key Republican allies on Tuesday when the White House blocked a diplomat’s testimony in the House impeachment probe, and the lawmakers later asked the president to make sure it doesn’t happen again, according to people familiar with the matter.

Frustrated that they didn’t get a heads-up that Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, would be prevented from appearing on Tuesday, a handful of GOP lawmakers went to the White House to discuss the issue with Trump and senior advisers, one of the people said.

In response, White House officials agreed to improve communication of their impeachment strategy with allies who are on the front lines, the people said. They asked not to be identified discussing private conversations between Trump and the lawmakers.

The impromptu huddle highlights the risks of Trump’s vigorous but improvised self-defense against the impeachment inquiry House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced two weeks ago. While many Republicans, especially in the House, are anxious to defend the president, they could step into political danger if they’re caught off guard by Trump’s actions.

In the latest escalation of the fight between the administration and House Democrats, White House Counsel Pat Cipollone wrote a letter to Pelosi Tuesday calling the impeachment inquiry illegitimate and saying that the president and members of his administration won’t cooperate.

Blocked Testimony

Among the lawmakers identified as meeting with Trump on Tuesday were Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio, Mark Meadows of North Carolina, Matt Gaetz of Florida, Lee Zeldin of New York and Scott Perry of Pennsylvania. Before heading to the White House, the group spoke with reporters outside the congressional offices where Sondland was supposed to testify.

Those Republican lawmakers, like their Democratic counterparts, had been awaiting Sondland’s arrival Tuesday morning at the Capitol for a deposition before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform committees.

But less than an hour before the testimony was to begin, Robert Luskin, the attorney representing the ambassador, informed the committees that the State Department instructed his client not to appear. Republicans got that information from news reports.

Jordan, who is the senior Republican on the Oversight and Reform Committee, expressed regret that the panels wouldn’t hear from Sondland on Tuesday. But he said he understands why the State Department blocked the deposition “based on the unfair and partisan process” he said Democrats are running.

“Look, we were actually looking forward to hearing from Ambassador Sondland,” Jordan said. “We thought he was going to reinforce what Ambassador Volker told us last week,” that there was no quid pro quo for the Trump administration’s demands of the Ukrainian government.

Sondland, a hotel executive who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, came under increased scrutiny last week after Volker turned over text messages in his closed deposition, which showed Sondland seeking to encourage Ukrainian officials to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.

His lawyer said he had been planning to testify voluntarily. Democrats who head those panels say they will now subpoena Sondland to appear for a closed-door deposition.

House Republican are holding almost daily strategy sessions led by Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to combat the Democratic impeachment effort. Tuesday’s episode was the latest in what some Republicans have complained is the less-than-tight coordination between the White House and Trump’s Republican defenders in Congress.

Pelosi defended the work of Democratic-led committees and warned of the consequences if the Trump administration continues to stonewall the investigation.

“As President Trump is obstructing justice, abusing power and diminishing the office of the presidency, we have a responsibility to strengthen the institution in which we serve,” Pelosi said Tuesday in a letter to colleagues. “This is essential if we are to honor the separation of powers which is the genius of the Constitution.”

(Updates with White House letter to Pelosi in fifth paragraph. An earlier version of the story corrected Jim Jordan’s title.)

--With assistance from Erik Wasson.

To contact the reporters on this story: Josh Wingrove in Washington at jwingrove4@bloomberg.net;Billy House in Washington at bhouse5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kevin Whitelaw at kwhitelaw@bloomberg.net, Anna Edgerton, Alex Wayne

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