The Trump administration has ordered the U.S. ambassador to the European Union not to appear at a scheduled Tuesday deposition on the Ukraine controversy, according to his lawyer — a move likely to significantly escalate tensions between House Democrats and the White House.
The move to block Gordon Sondland, first reported by The New York Times, is likely to infuriate Democrats who have indicated they will see any such move as an obstruction of its impeachment investigation into the controversy surrounding Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
An attorney for Sondland said the order not to appear came from the State Department. Attorney Robert Luskin said Sondland, who had previously agreed to appear voluntarily for the closed session, is required to follow the department’s direction. No reason for the direction was cited, he said.
Luskin said Sondland “is profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify.” His statement said: “Ambassador Sondland hopes that 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.”
Fox News is told, however, that while Sondland is not showing up “for now,” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., plans to draft a subpoena to try to secure his testimony later in the day.
In the July phone call in question, which was flagged as part of a whistleblower complaint, Trump urged Zelensky to look into possible interference by Ukraine in the 2016 election as well as former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter’s conduct in the country.
Democrats claim that Trump used $400 million in military aid as leverage in a quid pro quo for the Ukrainians to investigate a political opponent and have opened an impeachment inquiry, firing off a raft of subpoenas within a few days to top administration and White House officials. While a call transcript shows the president urging a Biden-related investigation, Trump denies any ‘quid pro quo’ claims.
Sondland is a key figure as he had texted with Bill Taylor, a top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, arguing over allegations of a quid pro quo.
In early September, Taylor wrote: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?”
Days later, he followed up: “As I said over the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Sondland responded, defending the president: “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. 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 is a wealthy hotelier, philanthropist and contributor to political campaigns.
The decision to block Sondland’s appearance comes as Democrats have been pushing forward with their inquiry. On Monday, House Democrats issued a fresh round of subpoenas to the Pentagon and the White House Office of Management and Budget for documents relating to reports that Trump ordered then-acting OMB Chief Mick Mulvaney to freeze aid to Ukraine.
On Saturday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reiterated prior statements that he would oppose any “harassment” of department employees by Congress.
One U.S. government official told Fox News regarding the directive blocking Sondland that the view at the State Department and White House is that House Democrats are not playing by the rules, suggesting the administration will cooperate in the investigation once they do.
Fox News’ Chad Pergram, Rich Edson and Catherine Herridge and The Associated Press contributed to this report.