WASHINGTON -- The Trump administration directed a U.S. ambassador not to appear for a scheduled deposition as part of the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry into the president Tuesday.
House Democrats decried it as proof of President Donald Trump's obstruction of Congress.
"The failure to produce this witness, the failure to produce these documents, we consider yet additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress," said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., at a news conference Tuesday morning.
Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, was scheduled to answer questions Tuesday from three House committees, part of a series of planned depositions this week that is also expected to include Marie Yovanovitch, who was abruptly ousted in May from her job as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
Democratic leaders have warned that attempts by the Trump administration to slow the impeachment inquiry could, in themselves, form grounds for an impeachment charge of obstruction. Schiff said he considers the administration blocking Sondland's testimony "further acts of obstruction of a coequal branch of government."
In a statement, Sondland's lawyer said that his client had been directed by the State Department not to appear, and "as the sitting U.S. Ambassador to the EU and employee of the State Department, Ambassador Sondland is required to follow the department's direction."
Sondland had agreed to appear voluntarily "in order to answer the committee's questions on an expedited basis," the statement said. "He stands ready to testify on short notice, whenever he is permitted to appear," the lawyer said.
The chairmen of the committees involved in the impeachment inquiry said Tuesday they will subpoena Sondland to come testify and turn over documents.
In a tweet, Trump said he had blocked Sondland's testimony because the House committees were a "kangaroo court, where Republican's rights have been taken away."
Sondland took part in a series of text messages that were released last week by House Democrats conducting the inquiry into Trump's efforts to get Ukraine to help him win reelection in 2020 by investigating former Vice President Joe Biden.
The messages came out after a 10-hour interview with one of the diplomats, Kurt Volker, who stepped down as special envoy to Ukraine amid the Democrats' impeachment inquiry.
Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, told reporters the State Department held Sondland from testifying because a transcript of Volker's testimony has not been made public, and only some of the 67 pages of text messages Volker provided the committee were released.
"We wish he would have been able to testify too, but we fully understand why the administration made the decision they did," Jordan said. "It's based on the unfair and partisan process that Mr. Schiff has been running."
In the text messages, top U.S. diplomats including Sondland encouraged Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, to conduct the investigations that Trump was seeking -- including into any Ukrainian links to the 2016 U.S. election -- in exchange for a visit to Washington with Trump. No evidence has emerged that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
In the exchange, Sondland said Trump "really wants the deliverable," referring to Ukraine's commitment to conduct an investigation.
Shortly before the July 25 telephone call between the two presidents, Volker wrote to Andrey Yermak, a top adviser to Zelenskiy: "Heard from White House -- assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / 'get to the bottom of what happened' in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington."
During the call, Zelenskiy expresses interest in receiving more U.S. military equipment, and then Trump asks Zelenskiy for a "favor," to launch an investigation into a Ukrainian company that hired Biden's son, Hunter, for its board. Numerous Ukrainian officials have said there is no evidence of any wrongdoing by the Bidens.
At the time of the call, Trump had blocked nearly $400 million in military and other congressionally approved aid to Ukraine -- a step that another U.S. diplomat worried was politically motivated.
"As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign," Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador in Ukraine, wrote in a text on Sept. 9.
Sondland pushed back and texted that Trump did not want a "quid pro quo," meaning a trade of favors, in response.
Republicans on Tuesday accused Schiff of selectively releasing the most damming text messages.
Volker answered questions from representatives and committee staff for several hours last week, and Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., told reporters that his testimony "obliterated" Democrats' narrative. Republicans say Volker -- despite his text message linking a Ukrainian investigation to a Trump meeting -- agreed that there was no quid pro quo and that Zelenskiy was not even aware that the aid had been withheld at the time of the July 25 call.
In the whistleblower complaint that triggered the impeachment inquiry, the whistleblower wrote that a day after the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy, Volker and Sondland met with the Ukrainian leader to offer advice about how to "navigate" Trump's request.
The complaint also alleged that U.S. officials had raised concerns in the spring about Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump's personal lawyer, and his dealings between Ukrainian officials and the president. Volker and Sondland met with Giuliani in "an attempt to 'contain the damage' to U.S. national security," the whistleblower wrote.
Since the inquiry was announced, the president's allies have resisted Democrats' demands for documents and testimony. Democratic leaders have said they won't accept White House efforts to impede the probe.
But Schiff did not say exactly how the House would respond to the administration blocking a federal employee from complying with their investigation.
Meanwhile, one of Trump's closest allies on Capitol Hill, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said he would give Giuliani an opportunity to testify publicly in the Senate Judiciary Committee that he leads.
"Given the House of Representatives' behavior, it is time for the Senate to inquire about corruption and other improprieties involving Ukraine," he wrote on Twitter.
The move allows Republicans, who control the Senate, an opportunity to lead some of the debate over the House's impeachment inquiry. But the hearing carries risks. Several House Republicans have publicly warned the president that Giuliani's public comments have been a political liability.
In addition, the Judiciary panel is stacked with 2020 Democratic presidential contenders who are well-versed in tough questioning, including Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota.
(Los Angeles Times staff writer Jennifer Haberkorn in Washington contributed to this report.)
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