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WASHINGTON – The Trump administration on Tuesday blocked a U.S. ambassador involved in orchestrating pressure on Ukraine from being deposed by House Democrats leading an impeachment inquiry.
Gordon Sondland, President Donald Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, was scheduled to appear before a trio of committees Tuesday morning to answer questions about his role in pushing Ukraine’s president to open investigations aimed at former Vice President Joe Biden.
But the State Department directed him not to cooperate with the probe, according to Sondland’s attorney, Robert Luskin.
“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,” Luskin said.
Luskin said Sondland had agreed “to appear voluntarily … in order to answer the committee’s questions on an expedited basis.” But as a sitting sitting U.S. ambassador, he is required to follow the State Department’s directive, Luskin said.
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., was scheduled to speak with reporters Tuesday morning about the surprise development.
The State Department’s decision to block Sondland from speaking to House investigators dramatically escalates the showdown between Congress and the White House over Democrats’ demands for information on Trump dealings with Ukraine.
Last week, House Democrats issued a subpoena to the White House for documents relating to the Ukraine matte, after Trump aides said the president would not cooperate with the ongoing impeachment inquiry until the full House votes to authorize it.
A wealthy former hotel magnate from Oregon, Sondland was tapped for the EU ambassador position after donating $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.
In recent days, Sondland has emerged as a central player in the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials to open an investigation into Biden and probe a conspiracy theory about Ukraine’s alleged role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Text messages released last week show that he and Kurt Volker, Trump’s former special envoy to Ukraine, orchestrated a months-long effort to push Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to make a public promise that he would order probes into both of those matters.
“Heard from the White House,” Volker wrote in a text to a top Zelensky adviser on July 25, just before Trump and Zelensky were scheduled to speak by phone in a call that helped spark the impeachment inquiry.
“Assuming President Z (Zelensky) convinces trump he will investigate/”get to the bottom of what happened” in 2016, we will nail down a date for visit to Washington. Good luck!,” Volker told his Ukrainian counterpart.
After the Trump-Zelensky call, an unnamed whistleblower filed a complaint accusing Trump of using the power of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election. Biden is a leading 2020 candidate for the Democratic nomination.
Even before the whistleblower complaint, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, raised concerns about the apparent link between Trump’s demands for a politically motivated investigation and granting Zelensky a meeting at the White House. Taylor also pressed Volker and Sondland on whether Trump was withholding nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid until Zelensky delivered on his demands.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” Taylor asked in a Sept. 1 text message to Volker and Sondland.
“Call me,” Sondland texted back.
Taylor responded: “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Sondland pushed back, saying Trump had been “crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind … I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.” He told Taylor to call “S,” presumably referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, if he wanted to discuss the matter further.
Democrats have said the texts prove a quid-pro-quo – Trump wanted investigations into Biden and the 2016 election before he would meet with Zelensky. Trump’s supporters say there was no such condition and the call was perfectly appropriate.
Contributing: Christal Hayes and David Jackson
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