The State Department waited until 12:30 a.m. on Tuesday to tell U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland not to show up for his scheduled deposition with three House committees later that morning, the ambassador’s lawyer told Yahoo News.
Robert Luskin, Sondland’s attorney, said he got the extraordinary middle-of-the-night directive in a phone call from a State Department official he declined to identify. The official offered no explanation of the grounds on which the State Department was blocking Sondland’s appearance at the last minute.
“He’s fully prepared to testify and disappointed,” Luskin said in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union, played a central role in the events surrounding President Trump’s July 25 phone call with the president of Ukraine and the withholding of military aid to that country, events that kicked off the impeachment inquiry in the House. Democrats consider his testimony and supporting documents crucial to their probe.
The blocking of Sondland’s testimony was immediately denounced by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, who said members had returned to Washington in the middle of a recess to hear his scheduled closed-door testimony.
“It is hard to overstate the significance” of Sondland’s testimony as well as that of other State Department officials, said Schiff in a hastily called meeting with reporters at the U.S. Capitol.
“The failure to produce this witness, the failure to produce these documents, we consider yet additional strong evidence of obstruction of the functioning of a coequal branch of government.”
Luskin confirmed that Sondland has already turned over to the State Department WhatsApp messages, text messages and other documents in his possession relevant to the House investigation.
While those messages were on Sondland’s personal devices and platforms, they are covered by laws governing official government records, and therefore decisions about releasing them belong to the State Department, not his client, Luskin said.
The decision to block Sondland from testifying heightens the conflict between the Trump administration and the House committees over the impeachment inquiry. In text messages released last week, Sondland was party to key exchanges on whether the White House was withholding the military aid package for Ukraine as part of a “quid pro quo” deal in exchange for a Ukrainian investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter and the allegation circulating in right-wing media that Ukraine, rather than Russia, sought to interfere in the 2016 U.S. election.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” U.S. Ambassador Bill Taylor wrote in a text message to Sondland at 12:47 a.m. on Sept. 9.
After a four-and-a-half-hour delay, Sondland replied: “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intensions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign.”
He then added: “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”
House investigators intended to grill Sondland — a hotel magnate whose companies funneled $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee — about what happened during the four-and-a-half-hour delay and what communications he had with Trump and other administration officials about the topic.
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