The Trump administration has ordered top diplomat Gordon Sondland not to appear for a scheduled deposition with House committees conducting an impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, a lawyer for the diplomat said Tuesday.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said that the State Department had also blocked Sondland from sharing documents related to the impeachment inquiry. Schiff called the White House’s moves “further acts of obstruction of a coequal branch of government.”
Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was directed early Tuesday by the State Department not to show up for a closed-door hearing before the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees, said Sondland’s counsel, Robert Luskin, in a statement to NBC News.
Luskin said 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.” But “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.”
House Democrats have warned the Trump administration that any attempts to interfere with the impeachment inquiry will be viewed as evidence of obstruction.
Sondland’s text messages with other U.S. diplomats were released last week after they were given to those House panels by former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker during his own deposition. In a Sept. 9 exchange, Bill Taylor, a senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, told Sondland: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Sondland responded: “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. 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.”
Trump, in a pair of tweets, said Tuesday that he would “love” to send Sondland 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.”
Luskin said in his statement that Sondland “is profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify today.”
“Ambassador Sondland traveled to Washington from Brussels in order to prepare for his testimony and to be available to answer the Committee’s questions,” Luskin said, adding that his client “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.”
The New York Times first reported that the Trump administration made the move to block Sondland from speaking before the Democrat-led committees, which are in the midst of an impeachment probe sparked by Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Trump in that call asked Zelensky to “look into” unsubstantiated allegations against former Vice President Joe Biden — Trump’s possible opponent in the 2020 presidential election — and his son, Hunter.
Trump also asked Zelensky to “do us a favor though” and investigate Ukraine’s connection to the Russia probe concluded earlier this year by former special counsel Robert Mueller, after the Ukraine leader said his administration was “almost ready to buy more [Javelin missiles] from the United States for defense purposes.”
A whistleblower’s complaint that sounded alarms about Trump’s call with Zelensky also raised concerns among Democrats that the president may have withheld millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine in order to pressure Zelensky to investigate Trump’s political rivals. That aid, which was delayed for months without a clear explanation, was ultimately given to Ukraine last month.
The State Department did not respond to CNBC’s request for comment.
The Department of Defense, meanwhile, said in a statement to CNBC that it has issued an internal directive to retain documents related to the issue of aid to Ukraine.
“Last week the Department proactively issued an internal directive to retain documents related to this issue. As we’ve stated previously, we are prepared to work with Congress and other relevant parties on questions related to the issue of Ukrainian aid as appropriate,” Defense spokeswoman Jessica Maxwell said.
Read Luskin’s full statement below:
Early this morning, the U.S. Department of State directed Ambassador Gordon Sondland not to appear today for his scheduled transcribed interview before the U.S. House of Representatives Joint Committee. 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. 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.
Ambassador Sondland is profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify today. Ambassador Sondland traveled to Washington from Brussels in order to prepare for his testimony and to be available to answer the Committee’s questions. Arrangements had already been made with Joint Committee staff regarding the logistics of his testimony. 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.
Ambassador Sondland hopes that the issues raised by the State Department that preclude his testimony will be resolved promptly. He stands ready to testify on short notice, whenever he is permitted to appear.