WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration on Tuesday blocked the U.S. ambassador to the European Union from giving testimony in the House of Representatives’ impeachment investigation of the Republican president.
Gordon Sondland, who donated $1 million to President Donald Trump’s inauguration committee, had been due to meet behind closed doors with staff of three Democratic-led House committees Tuesday morning over the role he may have played in Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to probe former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival.
Sondland had appeared to agree voluntarily without a subpoena and, through his lawyer on Tuesday, 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.
Representatives for the White House and the State Department could not be immediately reached to comment.
The impeachment probe is focusing on a whistleblower’s allegations that Trump used U.S. military aid to secure a promise from Ukraine’s president to investigate Biden, a leading candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm.
(GRAPHIC: The impeachment inquiry – here)
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.
According to text messages released by House committee leaders last week, Sondland was heavily involved in contacts with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as he sought a meeting with Trump, and Ukrainian officials expressed concern at the administration’s decision to block nearly $400 million in U.S. military assistance for Kiev.
In one of the texts, for example, Sondland emphasized that Trump “really wants the deliverable.”
Charges that Trump pressured Zelenskiy in a July 25 telephone call to investigate Biden while withholding the military aid, helped prompt House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to announce a formal impeachment investigation last month.
Trump has denied wrongdoing.
Concerns about the call, and possible Trump threats to Ukraine, came to the attention of Congress in a report by a whistleblower. On Sunday, lawyers said a second whistleblower had come forward to substantiate that complaint.
The request for Sondland’s appearance marked a shift for the investigation because he is a Trump donor and political appointee. Previous witnesses have been career officials, including the former U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, and Michael Atkinson, the inspector general of the U.S. Intelligence Community.
Sondland was a Seattle-based hotelier until Trump nominated him to his position as ambassador in May. He was confirmed by the U.S. Senate in June and presented his credentials at the European Commission in July.
Another career diplomat, Marie Yovanovitch, is scheduled to meet with the committees behind closed doors on Friday. Yovanovitch was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until Trump recalled her in May before her term was up, after the president’s supporters questioned her loyalty.
The impeachment inquiry has heightened bitter partisan divisions in Congress. Trump’s fellow Republicans control the Senate while Democrats have a majority in the House.
Trump has reacted furiously to the inquiry, using obscenities and insulting nicknames for Democratic lawmakers in posts on Twitter. Administration officials – and some Republican allies in Congress – have questioned whether they have any obligation to cooperate with the inquiry.
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.
The impeachment investigation could lead to the approval by the House of formal charges against Trump.
A trial on whether to remove him from office would then be held in the Republican-controlled Senate, where Trump continues to enjoy nearly unwavering support from members of his party.
Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Scott Malone, Cynthia Osterman and Paul Simao