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Washington Post: Democrats to subpoena Gordon Sondland, say Trump’s move to block deposition amounts to obstruction

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Washington, October 8, 2019 | comments
Democrats to subpoena Gordon Sondland, say Trump’s move to block deposition amounts to obstruction

BY SHANE HARRIS & JOHN WAGNER - 10/08/2019

The Trump administration on Tuesday blocked a planned deposition from Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union and a central figure in the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.

Democrats called the administration’s move an act of obstruction and said they would issue a subpoena for Sondland’s testimony, as well as emails and text messages that Sondland held on a personal device and that have been turned over to the State Department, which has yet to release them.

In a trove of text messages that were turned over to the House by another former official, Sondland emerged as a central player in the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations of the president’s political rivals.

Democrats accused President Trump of hiding information about his efforts to make military aide and other U.S. support to Ukraine conditioned upon those investigations. Democrats had earlier said that any attempt to block statements from witnesses, including Sondland, could constitute an impeachable act.

Sondland was scheduled to be deposed Tuesday morning , his lawyer, Robert Luskin, said in a statement.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week rebuked efforts by the committees to interview Sondland and other officials, saying Democratic lawmakers had “harassed and abused State Department employees” by contacting them directly.

But Sondland was willing to testify and didn’t appear on Tuesday at the direction of the State Department, Luskin said.

“As the sitting U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. and employee of the State Department, Ambassador Sondland is required to follow the Department’s direction,” Luskin said. “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.” 

The State Department left a voice-mail message with Sondland’s attorneys at 12:30 a.m. Tuesday, informing them that he would not be allowed to testify, the Democratic committee chairmen leading the impeachment inquiry said in a joint statement.

President Trump said on Twitter that he “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 Republican’s [sic] rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public to see.”  

Speaking to reporters, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee and Democrats’ point man on the impeachment inquiry, called the administration’s efforts to block Sondland’s deposition “further acts of obstruction of a coequal branch of government.”

Schiff said that the committee had been discussing Sondland’s deposition with the State Department’s legal adviser as recently as Monday evening and “there was no indication that the ambassador would be a no-show.”

Schiff said that Sondland, who remains a State Department employee, had turned over text messages and emails from a personal device to the department, communications that are “equally relevant to this investigation and the impeachment inquiry.”

Trump referred to some of those communications, pointing in his tweet to comments that Sondland had made to Ambassador William B. “Bill” Taylor, the senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.

“Importantly, Ambassador Sondland’s tweet, which few report, stated, ‘I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo’s of any kind.’ That says it ALL!” the president said on Twitter.

Sondland made those comments in a text message, not a tweet, that was part of a trove of communications turned over to Congress last week by Kurt Volker, who resigned late last month as Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine.

The messages show Sondland and Volker worked together to shape U.S. foreign policy around Trump’s desire to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, as well as an unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 presidential election to undermine Trump’s candidacy.

Democrats say the statement of Sondland’s that Trump cited — “no quid pro quo’s of any kind” — shows Sondland’s effort to minimize political fallout from the administration’s dealings with Ukrainian officials.

On Sept. 9, Taylor had texted Sondland, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” according to messages Volker provided to lawmakers last week.

Hours later, Sondland, who had been aggressively pursuing a public agreement for Ukraine to launch the investigations, replied that Taylor was incorrect and that there was no quid pro quo. He then sought to move the conversation to a phone call rather than written messages, the texts show.

The text messages show that Sondland, whose portfolio does not include U.S.-Ukraine relations, inserted himself into the effort to obtain a commitment from Ukraine to launch the investigations. At the time, the government in Kiev was eagerly awaiting the release of nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid and the arrangement of a face-to-face meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

In one text message, Sondland wrote that Trump “really wants the deliverable,” referring to a clear demonstration from Ukraine that it would undertake the investigations.

The State Department’s move to block Sondland from appearing Tuesday drew condemnation from rank-and-file Democrats as well.

“This is obstruction,” tweeted Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.). “Sondland is a key witness to the President’s attempts to seek campaign interference from Ukraine. The President is obviously terrified of what Sondland might tell Congress.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said the Trump administration’s move showed “consciousness of guilt.”

Republicans supported the administration’s decision to block Sondland’s deposition and accused Democrats of trying to lead Volker to conclusions that were politically damaging to the president. GOP lawmakers have complained that Democrats didn’t release all of his text messages, including ones they say show the administration wasn’t pressuring Ukraine in exchange for aid and support.

“The way [Schiff] treated Volker last week, that treatment is the reason why the State Department and the White House said we’re not going to subject Ambassador Sondland to the same treatment,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), the ranking member of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, told reporters. The committee is one of three investigating the president as part of the impeachment inquiry.

“Ambassador Volker was not giving them the answers that they were leading Ambassador Volker to conclude,” said Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.), another of the president’s allies on Capitol Hill. “This president did not hold aid to try to influence a foreign country to do anything.”

Sondland, 61, appears never to have held a position in government before being named the ambassador to the E.U. in June 2018. He built his fortune acquiring and managing luxury hotels in the Pacific Northwest and gave $1 million to Trump’s inaugural fund via shell companies that obscured his involvement.

Separately, some Republicans were welcoming testimony from Trump allies who they felt could exonerate the president.

Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday that he would welcome testimony from the president’s personal attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, about “corruption and other improprieties involving Ukraine.” Giuliani has urged the Ukrainians to investigate Hunter Biden’s role at Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that employed him, among other things.

In a string of tweets, Graham chastised House Democrats and said “it is time for the Senate to inquire about corruption and other improprieties involving Ukraine.”


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