The White House stirred new accusations of obstructing congressional oversight and obscuring access to the facts on Tuesday after President Donald Trump blocked U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland from giving highly-anticipated testimony to three House committees as part of the impeachment inquiry recently opened by Democrats in the House.
Sondland, Trump's ambassador to the European Union, had been expected to speak with the House Oversight, Foreign Affairs, and Intelligence Committees about his role in Trump's pressure campaign targeting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for help in taking down Trump's political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was among the critics who wondered what the administration is hiding.
What is the Trump administration trying to hide? https://t.co/M9WBle3efN
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) October 8, 2019
Others on social media, including President Richard Nixon's White House counsel John Dean, suggested Trump's refusal to allow Sondland to speak amounted to an admission of guilt.
No surprise that Trump blocks Sondland from testifying in the impeachment probe. When you have no defense you stonewall. When you have no guts to take on the boss you stonewall. It would have been a surprise if Sondland broke from the conspiracy! https://t.co/CFWqo1ICyN
— John Dean (@JohnWDean) October 8, 2019
— Tara Dublin Rockstober (@taradublinrocks) October 8, 2019
Progressive campaigners urged House Democrats to treat the White House's decision to block Sondland from speaking as an obstruction of justice and another reason to draft articles of impeachment against the president. The impeachment inquiry now has the support of 58 percent of Americans, according to a new Washington Post-Schar School poll out Tuesday.
"Donald Trump is obstructing justice by blocking Gordon Sondland from speaking to Congress—which is yet another impeachable offense. Americans support the impeachment inquiry and want to see Trump held accountable for his many crimes," said CREDO Action campaign manager Thaís Marques in a statement. "House Democrats need to move immediately to put forward articles of impeachment with a broad scope to encompass all of Trump's offenses."
"The House is on track to effectively lose its subpoena power if it doesn't take punitive action against this behavior," tweeted New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie, while CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder suggested the White House's actions on Tuesday could "become a separate basis for the impeachment inquiry."
One more example of obstruction of Congress’s oversight and investigation. This could, and if it continues like this should, become a separate basis for the impeachment inquiry. https://t.co/75vk0LZLtg
— Noah Bookbinder (@NoahBookbinder) October 8, 2019
The chairmen of the three committees—Reps. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), and Elijah Cummings (D-Md.)—announced Tuesday afternoon that they would issue a subpoena for Sondland, who had volunteered to speak to them preeviously.
Schiff called Sondland's planned testimony and electronic messages he was scheduled to turn over—whose release the State Department has now blocked—"deeply relevant to the investigation and the impeachment inquiry."
SCHIFF on Sondland not being allowed to testify & the administration withholding documents: "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." pic.twitter.com/UMKqjcaglL
— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) October 8, 2019
"We will consider this act today...to be further acts of obstruction of a co-equal branch of government," Schiff told reporters, adding that the White House has now offered "additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress."
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The House committees are investigating a scheme allegedly involved Trump threatening to withhold military aid from Ukraine if Zelensky would not investigate Biden's son Hunter's employment by Ukrainian gas company Burisma.
Sondland featured prominently in a series of text exchanges between Trump officials and diplomats regarding Ukraine that were released last week.
In the texts, State Dept. official William B. Taylor repeatedly expresses concerns to Sondland about withholding U.S. military assistance in exchange for help with a political campaign.
Among the exchanges, Taylor wrote to Sondland, "As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."
After five hours of silence, Sondland responded with what appeared to many as a canned response, "Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions," he wrote. "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."
As Philip Bump of the Washington Post noted, it was hard to read Sondland's response, "with its unusual formality and detail, as anything other than an attempt to establish a particular argument for the written record."
But the ambassador also reportedly told Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wisc.) that military aid was contingent on Ukraine's statement regarding the investigation, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Trump tweeted after Sondland was directed to withhold his testimony on Tuesday that "he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republicans' rights have been taken away."
The tweet provided "ammo for Dems to say Trump is obstructing [the] impeachment inquiry," Politico reporter Kyle Cheney wrote.
Trump takes ownership of decision to block Sondland — whose lawyer said order cake from State. This is ammo for Dems to say Trump is obstructing impeachment inquiry. https://t.co/e0NIphm7Du
— Kyle Cheney (@kyledcheney) October 8, 2019
Journalist Judd Legum added that Trump's tweet "should be attached as an exhibit to the articles of impeachment."