U.S. State Department blocks ambassador from testifying in Ukraine probe

The State Department has barred Gordon Sondland, the U.S. European Union ambassador, from appearing Tuesday before a House panel conducting the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, his lawyer said.

Attorney Robert Luskin said his client was “profoundly disappointed” that he wouldn’t be able to testify.

“Ambassador Sondland travelled to Washington from Brussels in order to prepare for his testimony and to be available to answer the committee’s questions,” said Luskin.

Luskin did not give a reason for the non-appearance, and the State Department had no immediate comment, but it was clear the decision had the support of the White House.

Trump gave his version of why the envoy was blocked, tweeting that “I would love to send Ambassador Sondland” to testify, “but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court.”


A whistleblower’s complaint and text messages released by another envoy portray Sondland as a potentially important witness to allegations that the Republican president sought to dig up dirt on a Democratic rival in the name of foreign policy.

On Tuesday, Sondland had been scheduled to face questions about the episode, the second time in as many weeks that lawmakers would have privately interviewed an ambassador about the president’s push to get Ukraine to investigate Democrat Joe Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The session had been scheduled for several days.

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 an impeachment inquiry centred on a July 25 call between Trump and the Ukrainian president. But even if not accustomed to the global spotlight, the wealthy hotelier, philanthropist and contributor to political campaigns has long been comfortable around the well-connected on both sides of the political aisle.

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 U.S. election and also probe the energy company that appointed Biden’s son Hunter to its board. In exchange, the American officials dangled the offer of a Washington meeting with Trump for Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son.

The President is obviously terrified of what Sondland might tell Congress. What else is the president hiding from the American people?– Democrat Don Beyer

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.”

Virginia congressman Don Beyer, a Democrat, called the move by the administration as “obstruction.”

“The president is obviously terrified of what Sondland might tell Congress. What else is the president hiding from the American people?” said Beyer. “This will not end here.”

The House Democrats have found themselves blocked on several occasions from gaining access to administration officials or documents in various inquiries since the 2018 midterms.


House intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff arrives at work Tuesday on Capitol Hill in Washington. Schiff and other Democratic commitee chairs have been stymied by the White House on a number of occasions in their bid to interview officials or obtain documents. (Michael Reynolds/EPA-EFE)

As the Ukraine probe has ramped up, Democrats have warned that the Trump administration’s obstruction of the investigation is itself a potentially impeachable offence.

Intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff said the cancellation took him by surprise, as the committee members had flown back to Washington for what was a special session.

Characterizing the administration’s decision as “further acts of obstruction of a co-equal government,” Schiff said the committee had also been denied access to pertinent text messages involving Sondland.

Ohio Republican Jim Jordan, a staunch Trump supporter, impugned the motives of the Democrats and accused them of selectively leaking Sondland texts to the media last week.

Meanwhile, the Republican chair of the Senate’s judiciary committee has invited Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, to testify about corruption in Ukraine.

South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham said on Twitter that he wants testimony about the firing of a former Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was widely seen by the West as corrupt. Shokin was ousted in 2016.

“It is time for the Senate to inquire about corruption and other improprieties involving Ukraine,” said Graham.

Giuliani travelled to Kyiv on multiple occasions to meet with officials of the past two Ukraine governments despite not being a part of the administration or State Department.

He has been subpoenaed by the House intelligence committee to provide any documents related to his Ukraine work as part of its probe, but the former New York City mayor has given conflicting signals over whether he’ll co-operate, accusing Schiff of a lack of objectivity.

Large donor to Trump inauguration

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

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.


Sondland, right, appears in June with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels. (Francois Lenoir/Reuters)

While Sondland emerges in the texts as in sync with the president’s wishes, he hasn’t always been supportive of Trump himself, having donated thousands of dollars to a super PAC associated with Jeb Bush, Trump’s Republican primary opponent in 2016.

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

Listen: Historian on Trump impeachment prospects

Allan Lichtman, who has accurately predicted presidential elections since 1984, says impeachment would stop Trump from being re-elected. 8:13

Sondland in his role 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 criticized 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.”

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