Trump bars testimony, escalating impeachment fight

The Associated Press   Republican lawmakers, from left, Rep. Scott Perry, R-Pa., Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, ranking member of the Committee on Oversight Reform, Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., and Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., speak to reporters after a formerly planned joint committee deposition with Ambassador Gordon Sondland, with the transcript to be part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, was canceled by order of the Trump Administration, on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump intensified his fight with Congress Tuesday over the Democrats' impeachment investigation, as the administration blocked a U.S. diplomat from testifying behind closed doors about the president's dealings with Ukraine. House committee chairmen said they would subpoena the envoy to force him to appear.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. European Union ambassador, was barred from appearing in a closed-door session with three House panels investigating Trump's entreaties to Ukraine. Text messages released last week revealed conversations between Sondland and two other U.S. diplomats who were acting as intermediaries as the president urged Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden's family and the 2016 U.S. election.

House intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff said Sondland's no-show was "yet additional strong evidence" of obstruction of Congress by Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. That will only strengthen the Democrats' case as they conduct an impeachment inquiry and consider an eventual impeachment vote, he said.

"By preventing us from hearing from this witness and obtaining these documents, the president and secretary of state are taking actions that prevent us from getting the facts needed to protect the nation's security," Schiff said. "For this impeachment inquiry we are determined to find answers."

Sondland's absence raised questions about whether other witnesses called by the committee would appear. Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was recalled from the post, is scheduled to testify Friday, and the committee has called two other State Department officials.

Trump indicated on Tuesday morning that it might have been his own decision to block Sondland's testimony, tweeting that he would "love to send Ambassador Sondland" to testify, "but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court."

Sondland's attorney, Robert Luskin, said in a statement that his client was "profoundly disappointed" that he wouldn't be able to testify.

"Ambassador Sondland traveled to Washington from Brussels in order to prepare for his testimony and to be available to answer the Committee's questions," Luskin said.

Democrats have struggled to investigate Trump and his administration all year as the White House has broadly blocked and ignored subpoenas for documents and witness testimony. While the Democrats are already in court to force some of that evidence, they are making it increasingly clear that they do not intend to wait much longer. Articles of impeachment, including for obstruction, could be drafted by the end of the year.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Schiff laid out four parameters of the committee's investigation — items that could potentially become articles of impeachment.

The panel is probing whether Trump solicited foreign help from Ukraine for his 2020 reelection, whether a never-realized White House meeting between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Trump was conditioned on the country conducting investigations, whether U.S. military assistance to Ukraine was conditioned on those investigations and whether the administration has obstructed justice.

Top Republicans generally have criticized Schiff and defended the president. Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan said Tuesday that "the president was just doing his job" to prevent corruption in Ukraine.

Across the Capitol, Senate Judiciary Committee Lindsey Graham — one of Trump's friends and staunchest defenders — said he would call the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to testify about corruption in Ukraine. Giuliani was communicating with Zelenskiy about the investigations that Trump sought.

"Given the House of Representatives' behavior, it is time for the Senate to inquire about corruption and other improprieties involving Ukraine," Graham said in a tweet. House Democrats are also seeking testimony from Giuliani.

Text messages released by House Democrats last week show Sondland working with another of Trump's diplomats, former Ukrainian envoy Kurt Volker, to get Ukraine to agree to investigate any potential interference in the 2016 U.S. election and also to probe the Ukrainian energy company that appointed Biden's son Hunter to its board. In exchange, the American officials dangled the offer of a Washington meeting between Trump and Zelenskiy.

There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by Biden or his son.

Among the most striking messages was one in which Sondland sought to reassure a third diplomat that their actions were appropriate.

"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 Zelenskiy promise during his campaign," he wrote, adding, "I suggest we stop the back and forth by text."

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