State De­part­ment, Dems in show­down Move to block en­voy’s Ukraine tes­ti­mony is la­beled ‘strong ev­i­dence of ob­struc­tion’

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Deirdre Sh­es­green and Christal Hayes

WASH­ING­TON – House Democrats said Tues­day that they would sub­poena Gor­don Sond­land, a U.S. am­bas­sador in­volved in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s deal­ings with Ukraine, af­ter the State De­part­ment blocked his ap­pear­ance be­fore their im­peach­ment in­quiry.

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 in­ves­ti­gate for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den.

“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,” said Robert Luskin, Sond­land’s at­tor­ney.

Luskin said Sond­land had agreed “to ap­pear vol

House Democrats lead­ing an im­peach­ment in­quiry say they will sub­poena Gor­don Sond­land, am­bas­sador to the Eu­ro­pean Union; Repub­li­cans blast an “un­fair and par­ti­san process.”

un­tar­ily ... in or­der to an­swer the com­mit­tee’s ques­tions on an ex­pe­dited ba­sis.” But as a sit­ting U.S. am­bas­sador, he is re­quired to fol­low the State De­part­ment’s di­rec­tive, Luskin said.

Trump de­fended the de­ci­sion to pre­vent Sond­land’s tes­ti­mony, say­ing the Democrats’ in­quiry is il­le­git­i­mate.

“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 Repub­li­can’srights have been taken away, and true facts are not al­lowed out for the pub­lic,” Trump tweeted Tues­day morn­ing.

Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who leads the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, said the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s move to block Sond­land’s tes­ti­mony, as well as with­hold rel­e­vant doc­u­ments, is “strong ev­i­dence of ob­struc­tion” of jus­tice.

“The am­bas­sador has text mes­sages or emails on a per­sonal de­vice, which have been pro­vided to the State De­part­ment,” Schiff said. “The State De­part­ment is with­hold­ing those mes­sages, as well” as block­ing Sond­land’s tes­ti­mony.

Sond­land trav­eled to Wash­ing­ton from his post­ing in Brus­sels, and the com­mit­tee staff ex­pected him to tes­tify. Schiff said he had no in­di­ca­tion be­fore Tues­day morn­ing that Sond­land would be a “no-show.” Luskin said Sond­land still wants to co­op­er­ate.

“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,” he said.

A State De­part­ment spokes­woman did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment.

The State De­part­ment’s de­ci­sion es­ca­lates the show­down be­tween Congress and the White House over Democrats’ de­mands for in­for­ma­tion on Trump’s deal­ings with Ukraine.

“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. What else is the Pres­i­dent hid­ing from the Amer­i­can peo­ple? This will not end here.”

Rep. Mark Po­can, D-Wis., threat­ened to with­hold Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo’s salary over the State De­part­ment’s de­ci­sion to block Sond­land’s tes­ti­mony.

“While Democrats seek to un­der­stand the full scope of the pres­i­dent’s crim­i­nal ac­tions, we refuse to bankroll those in his ad­min­is­tra­tion who hold wit­nesses hostage,” Po­can said in a state­ment Tues­day.

Repub­li­cans ar­gued Trump was right to block Sond­land’s ap­pear­ance be­fore the House Democrats’ im­peach­ment probe.

“It’s based on the un­fair and par­ti­san process that Mr. Schiff has been run­ning,” said Ohio Rep. Jim Jor­dan, the top Repub­li­can on the House Over­sight Com­mit­tee.

Last week, House Democrats is­sued a sub­poena to the White House for doc­u­ments re­lat­ing to the Ukraine mat­ter af­ter Trump aides said the pres­i­dent would not co­op­er­ate with the im­peach­ment in­quiry un­til the full House votes to au­tho­rize it.

Be­fore the an­nounce­ment about the sub­poena, Schiff said Tues­day that it’s “hard to over­state” Sond­land’s rel­e­vance to the im­peach­ment in­quiry, which is fo­cused on al­le­ga­tions that Trump used the power of his of­fice to so­licit for­eign in­ter­fer­ence in the 2020 elec­tion.

In a phone call July 25, Trump pressed Ukraine’s pres­i­dent, Volodymyr Ze­len­sky, to open an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Bi­den and Ukraine’s role in the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

Be­fore the Trump-Ze­len­sky call, Sond­land and Kurt Volker, who was Trump’s spe­cial en­voy to Ukraine, worked be­hind the scenes: Text mes­sages show them push­ing Ukrainian of­fi­cials to make a pub­lic prom­ise that they would in­ves­ti­gate Bi­den and al­leged 2016 elec­tion med­dling.

Democrats are in­ves­ti­gat­ing whether Trump with­held U.S. mil­i­tary aid to Ukraine un­til he se­cured those com­mit­ments and whether he used the prom­ise of a White House meet­ing with Ze­len­sky as fur­ther lever­age.

“Heard from the White House,” Volker wrote in a text to a top Ze­len­sky ad­viser July 25, just be­fore Trump and Ze­len­sky were sched­uled to speak by phone.

“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 uniden­ti­fied 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.

DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP VIA GETTY IM­AGES

Gor­don Sond­land, who was in­volved in the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s deal­ings with Ukraine, had flown to Wash­ing­ton for his sched­uled tes­ti­mony Tues­day.

WIN MCNAMEE/GETTY IM­AGES

Adam Schiff of the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, is lead­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Pres­i­dent Trump’s deal­ings with Ukraine.

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