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White House says it will not co-operate with impeachment inquiry after blocking ambassador from testifying to Congress

Follow the latest updates from Washington

Chris Riotta
New York
,Joe Sommerlad,Lily Puckett
Tuesday 08 October 2019 22:47 BST
Donald Trump defends decision to pull US forces out of Syria

Donald Trump’s ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, has been blocked from testifying before Congress about his role in the Ukraine scandal, the president calling the impeachment inquiry a “kangaroo court” as he frustrates its bid to examine the damning text messages Mr Sondland exchanged with another envoy, Kurt Volker.

The president meanwhile remains under fire from senior Republicans over his announcement that the US will withdraw troops from northern Syria - leaving its allies against Isis in the Syrian Democratic Forces exposed to Turkish aggression – a move that was also branded “bats*** crazy” by ex-US national security adviser Susan Rice and that reportedly left his own senior military officials completely blindsided.

“Everyone was absolutely flabbergasted by this. I tell you that as a fact,” admiral James Stavridis told MSNBC. “Nobody saw it coming, and that is a real problem when you’re trying to conduct not only foreign policy... but also military operations.”

The president also feuded with the mayor of Minneapolis, Minnesota today about security fees for a rally he'll hold in the city on Thursday.

Finally, the White House sent a letter to House leadership saying they would not cooperate with their impeachment inquiry. Ms Pelosi's office confirmed that she received it.

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Hello and welcome to The Independent's rolling coverage of the Donald Trump administration.

Joe Sommerlad8 October 2019 10:10

Donald Trump’s announcement that the US will withdraw troops from northern Syria - leaving its allies against Isis in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) exposed to Turkish aggression - has been branded “bats*** crazy” by ex-US national security adviser Susan Rice.

“It seems like six days a week, I just put my head in my hands. This is bats*** crazy,” the former Obama aide told satirist Stephen Colbert on The Late Show.

Another Obama-era appointee, ex-CIA director David Petraeus, meanwhile appeared on BBC Radio 4's Today programme to warn that there are "tens of thousands of Isis fighters still at large in Syria and Iraq", making a nonsense of Trump's claim to have "defeated" the Islamist extremists.

Speaking in the Roosevelt Room at the White House on Monday afternoon after signing two new trade agreements with Japan, Trump defended his decision to abandon America's key allies in the region and therein exposing the Kurdish fighters to an onslaught from Recep Tayyip Erdogan's forces - Istanbul deeming the SDF to be terrorists.

"We’ve been there for many, many, many years beyond what we were supposed to be. Not fighting. Just there. Just there. And it’s time to come back home," Trump said in his first public remarks since the shift was announced by the White House late on Sunday.

“A lot of people have their opinion. I could name many who are extremely thrilled that we’re coming home,” Trump added on the divisive nature of his call.

“The UK is very thrilled at this decision. As you know, they have soldiers over there also. And others. But many people agree with it very strongly. I understand both sides of it very well.”

Earlier in the day, Trump had further attempted to explain himself on Twitter, saying it was about bringing an end to "ridiculous endless wars" and threatening to "obliterate" Turkey's economy if it stepped out of line:

Andrew Buncombe and Kim Sengupta have this report.

Joe Sommerlad8 October 2019 10:25

While criticism from an Obama appointee like Rice will not mean much to Trump, the attacks he has received from his fellow Republicans will surely given him pause for thought.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said yesterday:

A precipitous withdrawal of US forces from Syria would only benefit Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime and increase the risk of reorganisation by Isis.

Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the UN, told him "leaving [the SDF] to die is a big mistake".

Utah senator and 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney called the move "a victory for Assad, Russia, Iran and Isis".

Wyoming congresswoman Liz Cheney felt the extent of the mistake was not only big but "catastrophic".

But perhaps the criticism that will have stung worst of all came from South Carolina senator Lindsey Graham, usually among his staunchest supporters, who called the move “impulsive”, and suggested it would undo “all the gains we’ve made [and] throw the region into further chaos”.

Chris Riotta has more.

Joe Sommerlad8 October 2019 10:40

During his Q&A with reporters at the White House, Trump assured the press he had taken consultation before announcing the call...

...which contradicts admiral James Stavridis, who gave the Pentagon's version of events, telling MSNBC:

Everyone was absolutely flabbergasted by this. I tell you that as a fact. Nobody saw it coming, and that is a real problem when you’re trying to conduct not only foreign policy... but also military operations. That kind of whipsawing effect is extremely detrimental, not only in this tactical situation, but strategically as our planners try and prepare in other theaters, from North Korea to Afghanistan.

A source quoted by Politico said Trump was operating against the advice of his national security leaders, noting that Sunday night's announcement came just three days after defence secretary Mark Esper spoke by phone with his Turkish counterpart Hulusi Akar, where the men agreed on the need for a safe zone system on the Turkey-Syria border.

POTUS went rogue. It’s not too surprising for those of us who’ve been following him, but it was a surprise and went against what Esper was talking to Akar about.

Joe Sommerlad8 October 2019 11:00

Among the most vehement critics of Trump yesterday was Brett McGurk, his own former special presidential envoy to the global coalition to defeat Isis. McGurk resigned on 22 December 2018 the last time Trump made this announcement, which he of course ultimately walked back, along with secretary of defence James Mattis.

McGurk wrote a long thread on Twitter calling out the president and his decision-making and made multiple media appearances throughout the day to decry events he - an expert - found "troubling". 

"It's very dangerous when president's make consequential historic decisions without facts, " he told Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC.

Joe Sommerlad8 October 2019 11:20

Away from Syria, Trump's team is seeking to freeze out critics of the administration from attending the 2020 Republican National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, next year, The Hill reports.

The president so far has three primary challengers - former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, former Illinois congressman Joe Walsh ex-South Carolina governor Mark Sanford - and none of them currently has a serious shot at winning the nomination.

That hasn't stopped the Trump campaign seeking to ensure that the August convention is a “four day advertisement for the president and not an internal debate among activists”, according to one senior official who took part in a conference call on the subject on Monday.

“We don’t care at all about the lighting or TV camera angles at the convention in Charlotte,” he said. “We do care about who is seated in all of the chairs on the convention floor... we care about that because we care about ensuring a predetermined outcome at the convention because history tells us... that a properly executed convention is the single most important thing a campaign can do to put their candidate on the pathway to re-election.”

The Hill states the campaign is "touting a months-long effort to install the president’s allies at the state-level positions charged with developing the rules that govern the nominating convention and delegate selection", risking the ire of critics who say they are trying to shut down a challenge to Trump.

Joe Sommerlad8 October 2019 11:35

Morning Joe has just broadcast this clip of Trump speaking in 2015 in which he admits to having "a little conflict of interest" in dealing with Turkey.

The hosts point to President Erdogan's habit of influencing Trump by phone, inspiring the previous attempt to withdraw US troops last Christmas that triggered the Mattis and McGurk resignations and getting him to quietly drop an assault charge against his bodyguards arising from a fracas with protesters when Erdogan last visited Washington in May 2017.

Louis Staples has more for Indy100.

Joe Sommerlad8 October 2019 11:50

Trump's ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, heads to Capitol Hill to face questions about the Ukraine affair today, the second time in as many weeks that congressional lawmakers have privately interviewed an ambassador about the president's push to get Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential election.

Sondland was apparently a late convert to Trump, initially supporting another candidate in the Republican primary and once refusing to participate in a fundraiser on his behalf. But he nonetheless ultimately donated $1m (£818,000) to Trump's election effort and scored a plum post as an envoy in return.

Now, a whistleblower's complaint and text messages released by Kurt Volker portray Sondland as a potentially important witness to allegations that the president sought to dig up dirt on a rival in the name of foreign policy.

Until last week, Sondland was far better known in his home state of Washington than in the nation's capital, where he finds himself embroiled in the impeachment inquiry centered on that 25 July call between Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky. But even if not accustomed to the global spotlight, the wealthy hotelier, philanthropist and generous benefactor of political campaigns has long been comfortable around the well-connected on both sides of the political aisle. A dozen House Democrats have already called for his resignation.

"He very much enjoyed having personal relationships with those in power," said David Nierenberg, a Washington state investment adviser who has known Sondland for years. "Some people collect books. Some people collect cars. He collected those relationships."

Text messages released by House Democrats show Sondland working with another of 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 Biden's son Hunter Biden to its board. In exchange, the American officials dangled the offer of a Washington meeting with Trump for Ukraine's new president. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son.

The messages also show 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 during his campaign," he wrote, adding, "I suggest we stop the back and forth by text."

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

The son of German immigrants who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and later founded their own dry cleaning business in Seattle, 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 health care and regional arts and culture programs.

While Sondland emerges in the texts as in sync with the president's wishes, he hasn't always been supportive of Trump himself. He took a meandering path to supporting the president, contributing over the years to eventual Trump adversaries like Mitt Romney and John McCain. In 2015, he donated thousands of dollars to a super PAC associated with Jeb Bush, Trump's Republican primary opponent.

But as Trump emerged as the Republican nominee, four limited liability corporations controlled by Sondland gave the Trump inaugural at least $1m, according to Federal Election Commission records and business filings in Washington state and Oregon.

He still had concerns, though. In August 2016, Sondland and another hotelier, Bashar Wali, refused to take part in a fundraiser for Trump over his criticism of the Muslim parents of an American soldier killed in combat, The Willamette Week reported. A spokeswoman for his hotel chain told the publication at the time that their names were added without their approval to a draft invitation for the event, and that neither would be participating.

"Mr Trump's statements have made it clear that his positions do not align with their personal beliefs and values," Buska told the publication. "Neither of them will be hosting or attending any fundraisers for the Trump campaign in Seattle or Portland."

Nierenberg, who recalled Sondland working with him to promote Bush's presidential campaign, said he was perplexed to learn that Sondland had contributed to Trump's inaugural committee but suspected that it might have had something to do with an ambition to get an ambassadorship.

"I'm profoundly troubled by something that is a lot bigger than Gordon's text messages," he said. "People who try to help the president wind up being thrown under the bus and soiled by their association with a person who is so profoundly narcissistic and ungrateful. Many good people have been hurt by their association with him. I'm saddened to see this happening to Gordon, as it happened to so many people before him."

In his role as the Trump administration's representative to the EU, Sondland has articulated the president's agenda through forthright, occasionally abrasive statements.

He has bristled at what he claims is the slow pace of the EU's executive arm, the European Commission, in trade talks. He's criticised the EU's stance on the Iran nuclear agreement and even waded into the chaos surrounding Brexit, saying Britain has "decided to leave, and we want them to leave in a way that they are free to do business with the United States."

Len Bergstein, a Portland, Oregon, political consultant who had worked with Sondland, described him as "a self-made man who had gotten where he was by putting together complex deals." But he said he remained puzzled about how and why Sondland became entangled in the Ukraine matter.

"The arc of Gordon's story is of a guy who's tremendously successful in everything he touches, reaches for the stars here, and gets in the middle of a little bit of a scandal," Bergstein said.

Joe Sommerlad8 October 2019 12:05

House Democrats are reportedly planning extreme measures to protect the identity of their CIA whistleblower after concerns were raised about their safety in response to Republican efforts to unmask them.

Here's our report.

Joe Sommerlad8 October 2019 12:20

With the Trump administration's relations with China already strained, not least thanks to the ongoing trade war and the president's awkward call for Beijing to investigate Biden, Washington has moved to blacklist 28 Chinese tech companies in response to the "brutal" treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province.

The banned groups are mostly technology companies, developing facial recognition, artificial intelligence and video surveillance equipment which the American government said was being used to repress minority groups.

Adam Withnall has more.

Joe Sommerlad8 October 2019 12:35

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