WASHINGTON: The Trump administration on Tuesday blocked an ambassador from testifying to the US House of Representatives’ impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, drawing condemnation from Democrats leading the probe.
The move came less than two hours before US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a Trump donor who started his diplomatic job in July, was due to meet behind closed doors with staff of three House committees. The investigators were interested in what the ambassador knew and what his role was in the president’s efforts to get Ukraine to probe former Vice President Joe Biden, Trump’s political rival.
Sondland had apparently agreed to testify without a subpoena. Through his lawyer on Tuesday, he said he hoped “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,” Sondland’s lawyer, Robert Luskin, said in a statement.
State Department officials could not be immediately reached to comment on what issues had blocked his testimony.
The impeachment probe is focusing on a whistle-blower’s allegations that Trump used nearly $400 million (Dh1.5 billion) in US military aid to secure a promise from Ukraine’s president to investigate Biden, a leading candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination. The whistle-blower’s legal team was in the final stages of talks for the intelligence officer to speak to both Democratic and Republican-led congressional intelligence committees as early as this week, congressional officials said.
Representative Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the House intelligence committee spearheading the impeachment probe, told reporters the move to block Sondland from testifying or turning over his text messages or emails was obstruction.
“We will consider this act today ... to be further acts of obstruction of a coequal branch of government,” Schiff told reporters.
Sondland was a key witness for the House Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight Committees, whose staff had been expected to ask him why he became involved in dealings with Ukraine, which is not a member of the EU.
Trump has derided the impeachment inquiry and has denied he did anything wrong in a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which Trump pushed for an investigation of Biden and his son.
“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 Republicans’ rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public ... to see,” Trump wrote on Twitter.
According to text messages released by House committee leaders last week, Sondland was heavily involved in contacts with Zelenskiy as he sought a meeting with Trump, and Ukrainian officials expressed concern at the administration’s decision to block US military assistance for Kiev.
In one of the texts, for example, Sondland emphasised that Trump “really wants the deliverable.” Following the allegations that Trump pressured Zelenskiy to investigate Biden while withholding the military aid, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment investigation last month.
Concerns about the July 25 call, and possible Trump threats to Ukraine, came to the attention of Congress in a report by a whistle-blower. On Sunday, lawyers said a second whistle-blower had come forward to substantiate that complaint.
NEGOTIATIONS ON WHISTLEBLOWER TESTIMONY
Sondland’s appearance would have followed officials, including the former US special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, and Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the US intelligence community.
Another career diplomat, Marie Yovanovitch, is scheduled to meet with the committees behind closed doors on Friday.
Yovanovitch was the US ambassador to Ukraine until Trump recalled her in May before her term was up, after the president’s supporters questioned her loyalty.
Congressional staff and lawyers for the first whistle-blower, a US intelligence officer, are close to making final arrangements for the witness to speak to Congressional investigators away from Capitol Hill as early as this week, a source close to the parties said on Tuesday.
The first whistle-blower’s lawyers are in discussions with the Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate intelligence committees, a Congressional official said. All the talks include efforts to keep the whistle-blower’s identity concealed from committee members and the public.
Trump has called for the whistle-blower to be publicly identified.
Asked whether House Republicans could take legal action to unmask the whistle-blower’s identity, Republican Representative Jim Jordan said: “I think the American people have the right to know who the whistle-blower is. But we’re not going to do that.”
The impeachment inquiry has heightened bitter partisan divisions in Congress. Trump’s fellow Republicans control the Senate where a trial on whether to oust the president would be held if the House ultimately votes to impeach him.
The White House was expected to tell Pelosi this week that it would ignore lawmakers’ demands for documents until the House holds a vote to approve the impeachment inquiry.
Pelosi says a vote is not needed, although Democrats say the House would back the inquiry if there were a vote.