Subpoena of US ambassador to EU focus of Democrat efforts

Gordon Sondland blocked by Trump from testifying in front of House committees

US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland: A lawyer for him says he had been prepared to testify but now has no choice.  Photograph: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP

US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland: A lawyer for him says he had been prepared to testify but now has no choice. Photograph: Daniel Mihailescu/AFP

 

Democrats moved to subpoena the US’s ambassador to the European Union after the Trump administration blocked him from testifying before three congressional committees on Tuesday.

Gordon Sondland, a key witness in the Ukraine investigation, was due to testify behind closed doors as part of the ongoing impeachment inquiry into the US president, Donald Trump. But hours before his appearance, the White House announced that Mr Sondland would not appear.

A lawyer for Mr Sondland said his client had been prepared to testify.

“Ambassador Sondland is profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify today,” Robert Luskin said. “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.”

Mr Trump defended his decision to block Mr Sondland from testifying.

“I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify,” he said on Twitter, “but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away.”

Three Democrat-controlled House of Representatives committees – Democratic-controlled committees – intelligence, oversight and foreign affairs – had planned to question Mr Sondland as part of their investigation into whether Mr Trump should be impeached for asking Ukraine to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden.

Act of obstruction

Adam Schiff, chairman of the House of Representatives intelligence committee, said the move to block Mr Sondland from testifying was an act of obstruction by the White House.

He said his committee had been in discussion with the state department’s legal advisor on Monday evening and “there was no indication that the ambassador would be a no-show”.

Mr Schiff also alleged that Mr Sondland had turned over a personal device with messages relevant to the investigation to the state department. Congress would now subpoena those messages and other documentation related to Mr Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy on July 25th last, he said.

Mr Sondland has emerged as an important link between Washington and the Ukrainian government.

Text messages released by former Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker last Friday during congressional testimony revealed that Mr Sondland was part of an effort to encourage the Ukrainian government to issue a statement agreeing to investigations demanded by Mr Trump.

Bill Taylor, the US ambassador to Ukraine, texted Mr Sondland, stating that he thought it was “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign”, undermining Mr Trump’s insistence that there was no quid pro quo involved in his requests to Mr Zelenskiy.

Mr Sondland replied to Mr Taylor by text. “The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quos of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelenskiy promised during his campaign.”

Whistleblower complaint

It was reported on Tuesday that Mr Sondland phoned Donald Trump before he sent that text message.

Mr Sondland, who contributed $1 million to Mr Trump’s election campaign in 2016, made a fortune in the hotel business before his appointment as the top US diplomat in Brussels.

The former US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled early by the Trump administration this year is also due to testify before the House committees later this week.

House Democrats are investigating the circumstance surrounding the July 25th phone call between Mr Trump and Mr Zelenskiy, during which the US president encouraged his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate Mr Biden and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. A whistleblower complaint about the phone call also alleges that senior White House officials sought to conceal details of the call.

The indications from the White House that it may block subpoena requests could open up a lengthy legal battle as the Trump administration cites executive privilege as a defence for not releasing documentation to the legislative branch of government.

Republican Lindsey Graham said on Tuesday that Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, should testify before the Senate judiciary committee, rather than the House committees that are leading the impeachment inquiry.