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State orders EU ambassador not to testify before House

A key witness in the House impeachment inquiry was ordered not to appear at a scheduled deposition on Tuesday, ramping up tensions between congressional Democrats and the Trump administration.
 
The State Department instructed Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland not to appear for the deposition, according to his counsel.
 
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House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffCIA impeachment whistleblower forced to live under surveillance due to threats: report In our 'Bizarro World' of 2020 politics, the left takes a wrong turn Greenwald slams Schiff over Biden emails on Fox MORE (D-Calif.) later lashed out at the State Department, saying Sondland has messages on a personal device that are relevant to the impeachment inquiry. He and the chairmen of two other House panels said they would issue a subpoena to Sondland. 
 
Sondland, a wealthy hotelier who had donated $1 million to President TrumpDonald John TrumpStephen Miller: Trump to further crackdown on illegal immigration if he wins US records 97,000 new COVID-19 cases, shattering daily record Biden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll MORE's inaugural committee before taking his government position, was a figure in the text messages released by Democrats last week that showed administration officials discussing Trump's communications with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. 
 
Trump's efforts to pressure Zelensky to launch an investigation into former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden leads Trump by 8 points nationally: poll Ivanka Trump raises million in a week for father's campaign On The Money: McConnell says Congress will take up stimulus package at start of 2021 | Lawmakers see better prospects for COVID deal after election MORE and the business dealings of his son Hunter have become the impetus for the impeachment inquiry.
 
Sondland's lawyer said his client was "profoundly disappointed" that the State Department did not allow him to testify and expressed hope that the issues raised by the agency would be resolved promptly to allow him to testify. 
 
"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. 
 
As a sitting U.S. ambassador, Luskin said his client had no choice but to follow the State Department's direction. He noted that Sondland had traveled to Washington from Brussels to appear. 
 
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Kurt VolkerKurt VolkerGOP senators request details on Hunter Biden's travel for probe Yovanovitch retires from State Department: reports Live coverage: Senators enter second day of questions in impeachment trial MORE, the former special envoy to Ukraine, testified before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs, and Oversight and Reform committees last week and provided text messages between himself, Sondland and William Taylor, a top official in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.

Sondland is shown in the text messages to be rejecting concerns from Taylor, a career diplomat, that Trump wanted the Ukrainian government to dig up dirt on the Bidens to help his reelection campaign. Sondland is also shown suggesting that the diplomats take their conversations offline.

"As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold assistance for help with a political campaign," Taylor wrote in a Sept. 9 message.

Sondland replied: "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. I suggest we stop the back and forth by text," Sondland wrote.
 
Schiff said Tuesday morning that the State Department has not given Congress Sondland's personal device with pertinent messages.
 
"Not only is the Congress being deprived of his testimony, and the American people are being deprived of his testimony today, but we are also aware that the ambassador has text messages or emails on a personal device which have been provided to the State Department," Schiff told reporters. "Although we have requested those from the ambassador and the State Department is withholding those messages as well. Those messages are also deeply relevant to this investigation and the impeachment inquiry."
 
Schiff warned that blocking Sondland's testimony amounted to obstructing the investigation being conducted by the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees.

"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 co-equal branch of government," Schiff said.

Rep. Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanHouse Judiciary Republicans mockingly tweet 'Happy Birthday' to Hillary Clinton after Barrett confirmation Sunday shows preview: Trump, Biden gear up for final sprint to Election Day McCarthy faces pushback from anxious Republicans over interview comments MORE (Ohio), the ranking Republican on the House Oversight Committee, and other GOP lawmakers who had arrived in Washington for the deposition defended the State Department's decision. They called on Schiff to publicly release the full transcript of Volker's testimony beyond the batch of text messages that Democrats unveiled last week.
 
"We understand the reason why the State Department decided not to have Ambassador Sondland here today. It's based on the unfair and partisan process that Mr. Schiff has been running," Jordan told reporters.

Sondland also appears in the intelligence community whistleblower complaint. He allegedly accompanied Volker to meetings in Kiev with Zelensky and other Ukrainian officials to provide advice on how to "navigate" Trump's demands and the different messages they were receiving from "official U.S. channels on the one hand and from [Trump's personal lawyer Rudy] Giuliani on the other."
 
While Sondland in the text messages said he believed Taylor was mistaken about Trump's intentions, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that Sen. Ron JohnsonRonald (Ron) Harold JohnsonGeorgia Republican Drew Ferguson tests positive for COVID-19 GOP faces fundraising reckoning as Democrats rake in cash Overnight Defense: Trump campaign's use of military helicopter raises ethics concerns | Air Force jets intercept aircraft over Trump rally | Senators introduce bill to expand visa screenings MORE (R-Wis.) was told by Sondland that the Trump administration wanted the Ukrainian government to launch an investigation into the Bidens in exchange for the military aid. Johnson said that Trump denied it when he personally spoke to the president.

In another message days before the call between Trump and Zelensky on July 25, Taylor said that "Zelensky is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics."

Sondland responded, "Absolutely, but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative."
 
The three House committees are also trying to secure depositions with other State Department officials, including George Kent, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary in the Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, and State Department counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl.
 
At least one deposition is scheduled for this week. Marie Yovanovitch, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until May, when the Trump administration recalled her from the post, is set to testify in closed session on Friday.
 
Updated at 12:03 p.m.