WASHINGTON (CN) – House lawmakers announced Tuesday they would subpoena Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, after the State Department abruptly barred him testifying as part of the congressional impeachment inquiry this morning.
“We consider this interference to be obstruction of the impeachment inquiry,” House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel and House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings said. “We will be issuing a subpoena to Ambassador Sondland for both his testimony and his documents.”
A key figure in the probe of President Donald Trump’s solicitation of a foreign power to interfere in the 2020 election, Sondland had traveled from Brussels to Washington to testify today before chairmen in a closed-door session. But in the wee hours of the morning, the State Department and White House stepped in to waylay the appearance.
“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,” Sondland’s attorney Robert Luskin said.
Representative Schiff lamented the move Tuesday morning in a press conference with reporters, saying that lawmakers received no indication, “well into yesterday afternoon and evening,” from the State Department’s legal adviser that Sondland would be a no-show.
“Not only are we being deprived of his testimony today, we’re also aware the ambassador has text messages and emails on a personal device that have been provided to the State Department and the State Department is withholding those messages as well,” Schiff said. “Those messages are also deeply relevant to this investigation and the impeachment inquiry.”
Text messages already published by House Democrats last week appeared to show Sondland and Kurt Volker, the U.S. representative to Ukraine, discussing a possible September visit to the White House for Zelensky but also potentially withholding the visit.
The discussion to withhold the visit came as Trump, according to a White House summary of his call with Zelesnky, appeared to ramp up pressure on Ukraine to investigate his 2020 U.S. election opponent Joe Biden, and Biden’s son, Hunter.
Another text by Sondland shows the ambassador denying the existence of a quid pro quo while also indicating that President Trump was intent on reaching a “deliverable” before the Zelensky meeting.
“We know that Sondland has information relevant to the meeting the Ukrainians sought with Trump and how it was being conditioned on this,” Schiff said. “The failure to produce this witness, to produce these documents, we consider yet additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress, a coequal branch of government.”
For Schiff, the four issues at the center of the impeachment inquiry are whether Trump solicited foreign help for the 2020 election; whether the meeting Ukraine sought was being conditioned on the willingness of Ukraine to investigate Trump’s conspiracy theories on Biden and the 2016 election; whether Ukraine was given reason to believe that the military assistance it needed would be withheld unless it complied; and whether the Trump White House engaged in a cover-up to hide a pressure campaign.
“All of these issues go to the heart of national security and by preventing us from hearing this witness, the president and Secretary of State [Mike Pompeo] are taking actions that are preventing us from protecting national security,” Schiff said.
Representative Jim Jordan, an Ohio Republican, told reporters Tuesday the Democrats’ investigation was little more than an “unfair and partisan process” to influence the U.S. election, which is now just 13 months away.
Representative Mark Meadows, a North Carolina Republican, was also dismissive of the impeachment inquiry.
“Chairman Schiff says there are four acts in their impeachment inquiry,” he told reporters. “Well, the first, second and third act have already reached their conclusion – let the American people decide what the final act will be because when the truth comes out, you will find this president did not hold aid in order to try and influence a foreign country.”
President Trump weighed in meanwhile via Twitter this morning.
“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’s rights have been taken away and true facts are not allowed out for the public to see,” Trump wrote.
The president also suggested that his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton, should enter the 2020 race to “try and steal it away from Uber Left Elizabeth Warren.”
“Only one condition. The Crooked one must explain all of her high crimes and misdemeanors including how and why she deleted 33,000 Emails AFTER getting ‘C’ subpoenaed,” Trump wrote. [Emphasis original]
The White House nor the State Department immediately responded to request for comment Tuesday.