Trump Administration Blocks Key Diplomat From Testifying On Capitol Hill

Oct 8, 2019
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

U.S. ambassador to the European Union has been ordered not to testify today in a closed-door deposition on Capitol Hill. Gordon Sondland's lawyer said in a statement that Sunland was directed this morning not to appear before the Joint House Committee that is carrying out the Ukraine inquiry. NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez is following this story and joins me now. Hi, Franco.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hi.

GREENE: OK. So what exactly is Sondland's lawyer saying here about why he won't be appearing as part of this impeachment inquiry?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Sondland's lawyers have - say that the Trump administration has directed him not to testify. He volunteered to do so. The lawyers say Sondland was "profoundly disappointed," that's a quote, and traveled from Brussels to Washington for the testimony and to prepare in advance. But as a sitting U.S. ambassador, they say he's required to follow the Department of State's direction. They certainly seem to be making it sound like this was not his call.

GREENE: Well, and it sounds like it was a call that was made, or at least, communicated at the last minute if he traveled here and all the expectation was he'd be appearing today. So if this was a call made by the State Department, presumably the White House, are we hearing from the president or anyone yet?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, we have heard from the president. The president, Trump, weighed in, as he often does, via Twitter. He said he would love for Sondland to testify, but doing so would be before a, quote, "totally compromised kangaroo court where the Republicans would not have any rights."

GREENE: Wow. OK. So how are House Democrats responding to the president calling their impeachment inquiry a kangaroo court?

ORDOÑEZ: In many ways, how you would expect, with their own pushback. Representative Schiff - he's the chair of the House Intelligence Committee - this morning called Sondland's testimony deeply relevant to the Ukraine inquiry. He said that Americans have a right to know if the president is, quote, "working in their interests or his own political interest."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM SCHIFF: 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.

ORDOÑEZ: And I'll say, you know, we knew early on right when this decision was made to block his testimony that this would set off fireworks, considering Democrats have repeatedly warned that any effort to block testimony, to stop this thing, would be seen as another element of obstruction and another sign that impeachment was relevant.

GREENE: And just remind me, if you can, Franco, why Sondland's name became so important in recent days as this impeachment inquiry has been moving forward.

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Sondland is at - Sondland and his texts to other diplomats are at the center of this impeachment inquiry. The dozens and dozens of texts have been released to the House Committee, which were also released to the public. And the Democrats want to know more about many of these texts, including texts from him to Kurt Volker, who's the now former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, about President Trump wanting a, quote-unquote, "deliverable" regarding a visit by Ukraine President Zelenskiy to Washington, possibly being tied to commitments of an investigation of the Biden family. They also want to know, to ask him about a July 19 exchange between Sondland and Volker about securing cooperation from the Ukraine president before a call between the two leaders. And Sondland has said in those texts that he had spoken, quote, "directly to Ukraine President Zelenskiy" and gave him a full briefing. And he said, he got it.

So there's a lot of questions. And that's really not all. You know, it's as if he was foreseeing this investigation. There are texts from Sondland telling other concerned diplomats to stop using texts and to call, to almost take this conversation offline. So the deposition today was supposed to - we were supposed to get some answer to these questions, and now we will not.

GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thanks so much, Franco.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.