President Trump on Tuesday defended his administration’s decision to block a key State Department witness from testifying before Congress as part of the House impeachment inquiry, claiming European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland would have been testifying before a “kangaroo court.”
“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 in a series of tweets Tuesday morning.
Trump tweeted shortly after news broke that the State Department had instructed Sondland not to appear before three House committees for closed-door testimony on Tuesday.
Democrats have sought testimony from Sondland because of his involvement in efforts within the Trump administration to get Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
In a July 25 call, Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyto to investigate Biden. Democrats are investigating, among other things, whether Trump withheld security aid from Ukraine in order to press for a probe.
Trump has insisted he did nothing wrong on his call with Zelensky and that he delayed security assistance to Ukraine — which was ultimately released to Kiev — because he wanted to get other allies to contribute more money.
Meanwhile, Trump has doubled down on his demands that Ukraine probe alleged corruption by Biden, a 2020 Democratic candidate, and his family. He has also urged China to investigate the Bidens. Trump has insisted his demands have nothing to do with politics and that he has an “obligation” to ask foreign governments to investigate corruption.
Sondland, a wealthy hotel magnate who donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee before being tapped as the U.S. ambassador to the EU, was scheduled to be deposed before the House on Tuesday.
However, his lawyer issued a statement early Tuesday saying Sondland, who had agreed to testify voluntarily, had been ordered by the State Department not to appear.
“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,” Robert Luskin, Sondland’s lawyer, said in a statement, noting his client was “profoundly disappointed” that he was not allowed to testify.
House Intelligence Committee Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said at a news conference later Tuesday morning that the State Department is also withholding text messages or emails that Sondland has on a personal device that are relevant to the impeachment inquiry.
Schiff called the decision by the Trump administration to direct the witness to avoid testifying evidence of 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, a coequal branch of government,” Schiff told reporters on Capitol Hill.
Neither the State Department nor the White House have responded to requests for more information on the decision to direct Sondland not to appear for the deposition.
House Democrats said later Tuesday they plan to subpoena Sondland in order to compel his appearance.
Text messages provided from former State Department special envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker and released by the House last week showed Sondland and other officials indicating that a meeting between Trump and Zelensky was contingent on Ukraine launching investigations related to 2016 interference and Burisma, the Russian energy company that Hunter Biden was affiliated with.
In one exchange, Bill Taylor, a top U.S. embassy official in Ukraine, expresses concern that security aid was being withheld from Ukraine for help with politically-motivated investigations.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote on Sept. 9.
“Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” Sondland replied. “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign.”
Sondland then recommended that the two should “stop the back and forth by text” and that Taylor should contact another official to discuss his concerns directly.
Trump cited that particular exchange in his tweets Tuesday morning, claiming it as proof there was no quid pro in his administration’s overtures to Ukraine.
“That says it ALL!” Trump wrote.
—Updated at 12:24 p.m.