WASHINGTON - The Trump administration on Tuesday blocked a U.S. ambassador involved in orchestrating political pressure on Ukraine from being deposed by House Democrats leading an impeachment inquiry.
Gordon Sondland, President Donald Trump's ambassador to the European Union, was scheduled to appear before a trio of committees Tuesday morning to answer questions about his role in pushing Ukraine's president to open investigations aimed at former Vice President Joe Biden.
But the State Department directed him not to cooperate with the probe, according to Sondland's attorney, Robert Luskin.
"Early this morning, the U.S. Department of State directed Ambassador Gordon Sondland not to appear today for his scheduled transcribed interview before the U.S. House of Representatives Joint Committee," Luskin said.
Luskin said Sondland had agreed "to appear voluntarily ... in order to answer the committee's questions on an expedited basis." But as a sitting U.S. ambassador, he is required to follow the State Department's directive, Luskin said.
Trump defended the decision to prevent Sondland's testimony, saying the Democrats' inquiry is illegitimate.
"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," Trump tweeted Tuesday morning.
The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., said the administration's move to block Sondland's testimony, as well to withhold relevant documents, is "strong evidence of obstruction" of justice.
"The ambassador has text messages or emails on a personal device, which have been provided to the State Department," Schiff said. "The State Department is withholding those messages as well" as blocking Sondland's testimony.
" ... 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," Schiff said.
More: Read key text messages between diplomats on Trump, Ukraine president
Sondland had traveled to Washington from his posting in Brussels, and the committee staff was expecting him to testify. Schiff said he had no indication before Tuesday morning that Sondland would be a "no-show." And Luskin said Sondland still wants to cooperate.
"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," he said.
A State Department spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.
More: A visual timeline of the text messages in the Trump-Ukraine affair
The State Department's decision to block Sondland from speaking to House investigators dramatically escalates the showdown between Congress and the White House over Democrats' demands for information on Trump dealings with Ukraine.
Last week, House Democrats issued a subpoena to the White House for documents relating to the Ukraine matter, after Trump aides said the president would not cooperate with the ongoing impeachment inquiry until the full House votes to authorize it.
Schiff did not say on Tuesday whether he would subpoena Sondland. But he said it's "hard to overstate" the American diplomat's relevance to the impeachment inquiry, which is focused on allegations that Trump used the power of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election.
In a July 25 phone call, Trump pressed Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open an investigation into Biden and to probe a conspiracy theory about Ukraine's alleged role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Before the Trump-Zelensky call, Sondland and Kurt Volker, Trump's former special envoy to Ukraine, worked behind the scenes on the same pressure campaign; text messages show them pushing Ukrainian officials to make a public promise that they would investigate Biden and alleged 2016 election meddling. .
Democrats are also investigating whether Trump withheld U.S. military aid to Ukraine until he secured those commitments, and whether he used the promise of a White House meeting with Zelensky as further leverage.
"Heard from the White House," Volker wrote in a text to a top Zelensky adviser on July 25, just before Trump and Zelensky were scheduled to speak by phone in a call that helped spark the impeachment inquiry.
"Assuming President Z (Zelensky) convinces trump he will investigate/"get to the bottom of what happened" in 2016, we will nail down a date for visit to Washington. Good luck!," Volker told his Ukrainian counterpart.
After the Trump-Zelensky call, an unnamed whistleblower filed a complaint accusing Trump of using the power of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election. Biden is a leading 2020 candidate for the Democratic nomination.
Even before the whistleblower complaint, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, raised concerns about the apparent link between Trump's demands for a politically motivated investigation and granting Zelensky a meeting at the White House. Taylor also pressed Volker and Sondland on whether Trump was withholding nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid until Zelensky delivered on his demands.
"Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Taylor asked in a Sept. 1 text message to Volker and Sondland.
"Call me," Sondland texted back.
Taylor responded: "As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."
Sondland pushed back, saying Trump had been "crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind ... I suggest we stop the back and forth by text." He told Taylor to call "S," presumably referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, if he wanted to discuss the matter further.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told the Wall Street Journal last week that Sondland told him Ukraine would appoint a prosecutor who would, as Johnson put it, work to "get to the bottom of what happened in 2016 - if President Trump has that confidence, then he'll release the military spending."
"At that suggestion, I winced," Johnson told the Wall Street Journal. "My reaction was: Oh, God. I don't want to see those two things combined."
Johnson said he asked Trump about it and the president denied it.
"He said - expletive deleted - 'No way. I would never do that. Who told you that?'" Johnson told the Wall Street Journal.
Democrats have said the texts prove a quid-pro-quo - Trump wanted investigations into Biden and the 2016 election before he would meet with Zelensky. Trump's supporters say there was no such condition and the call was perfectly appropriate.
Contributing: David Jackson and John Fritze
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump blocks Sondland, player in Ukraine controversy, from testifying