Trump impeachment: White House blocks crucial witness from testifying to congress

Gordon Sondland has no choice but to obey Donald Trump’s orders as he is still serving in the administration

Chris Riotta
New York
Tuesday 08 October 2019 14:20
Rudy Giuliani contradicts himself after claiming he would not cooperate with impeachment investigation

Donald Trump’s White House has blocked the US ambassador to the European Union from speaking to congress after he was deposed by house committees investigating the president amid an impeachment inquiry.

Gordon Sondland did not appear for his closed-door meeting with congress on Tuesday morning, as his attorney Robert Luskin said he had no choice following the White House orders.

“He is a sitting ambassador and employee of state and is required to follow their direction,” the attorney reportedly said.

House Democrats announced later on Tuesday afternoon they had issued a subpoena for the ambassador to appear on Capitol Hill following his absence from the committee hearing.

Mr Sondland became enveloped in the president’s impeachment scandal after text messages and a whistleblower complaint revealed he was a witness to allegations against Mr Trump after his July phone call with Ukraine.

The text messages released by house Democrats show Mr Sondland working with another one of Mr Trump’s envoys to get Ukraine to agree to investigate any potential interference in the 2016 US election and of the energy company that appointed former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter to its board.

In exchange, the American officials dangled the offer of a Washington meeting with Mr Trump for Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by Mr Biden or his son.

The messages also show Mr Sondland trying to reassure a third diplomat that their actions were appropriate, but that they should take precautions by limiting their text messages.

“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 promise [sic] during his campaign,” he wrote, adding, “I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”

Shortly after Mr Sondland failed to appear for his deposition, Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters the ambassador had text messages and emails that the US State Department was withholding from Congress.

The congressman described these messages as “deeply relevant” to the committees’ investigation into the president.

“The failure to produce this witness” would be considered “strong evidence” of the administration’s obstruction of justice throughout the congressional investigation, Mr Schiff added.

“We are looking into whether the president solicited foreign help in a US presidential election again,” Mr Schiff said. “We will consider this act today ... as well as the ambassador’s withholding of documents ... to be further acts of obstruction of a co-equal branch of government.”

Like Mr Trump, who picked him, Mr Sondland cut an unconventional path to becoming a Washington power broker.

Trump pictured with Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, at Melsbroek airbase in Brussels

The son of German immigrants who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and later founded their own dry cleaning business in Seattle, Mr Sondland is best known in the Pacific Northwest as the founder of the Provenance Hotels chain.

He and his wife also established a foundation that’s bestowed millions of dollars on healthcare and regional arts and culture programmes.

Mr Sondland donated $1m (£820,000) to Mr Trump’s 2016 campaign before he was appointed to the ambassador position he now serves in.

The president tweeted on Tuesday: “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 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,’” he added. “That says it ALL!”

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In a twist of events, Lindsey Graham – a top ally on Capitol Hill to the president – extended an invitation to Mr Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to speak before the Senate Judiciary Committee about his allegations of corruption surrounding Ukraine.

Shortly after news broke on Tuesday of Mr Sondland’s absence, the senator tweeted that he had “heard on numerous occasions disturbing allegations by [Giuliani] about corruption in Ukraine”.

“Given the House of Representatives’ behaviour, it is time for the Senate to inquire about corruption and other improprieties involving Ukraine,” he added.

Additional reporting by AP

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