By Michael Hernandez
WASHINGTON (AA) - The U.S. State Department blocked Gordon Sondland, Washington’s EU envoy, from appearing before House of Representatives committees Tuesday to delivery testimony as part of an ongoing impeachment investigation into President Donald Trump.
Sondland's lawyer, Robert Luskin, said his client was "profoundly disappointed” he could not testify before the House.
"He is a sitting Ambassador and employee of State and is required to follow their direction," Luskin said in a widely-reported statement issued just hours before Sondland was scheduled to be deposed.
The State Department did not provide immediate comment, but Trump said testifying would have put the envoy before a sham court.
"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," the president wrote on Twitter.
Text messages made public last week, as well as a whistleblower complaint that served as the impetus for the impeachment inquiry, put Sondland in the middle of the Trump administration's requests to have Ukraine probe former Vice President Joe Biden and his son on the president's so-far uncorroborated claims of corruption.
The whistleblower complaint lays out Trump's repeated requests to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to probe the Bidens during a July 25 call, requests Trump later confirmed he made during remarks to reporters.
The text messages released by the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees show Sondland working with Trump's former special envoy to Ukraine to get Zelensky to open the probe into Burisma Holdings, a gas company on whose board Hunter Biden served.
Trump's efforts to get Zelensky to investigate the elder Biden, a political rival heading into next year's presidential elections, have been the foundation for the House's impeachment inquiry.
Hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid previously appropriated by Congress was being held up at that time. Trump has defended doing so, saying he was seeking to pressure European nations to contribute to the effort to arm Ukraine, whom he has described as Europe's bulwark against Russia.
"As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold assistance for help with a political campaign," Bill Taylor, the U.S. Chargé d’Affaires in Ukraine, wrote in a Sept. 9 message.
"Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions," Sondland replied. "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."
The Trump administration's decision to bar Sondland from testifying drew a swift rebuke from Democrats leading the impeachment probe.
"Not only is the Congress being deprived of his testimony, the American people are being deprived of his testimony today," said House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff.
He further alleged that Sondland has text messages and emails on a personal device that has been handed over to the State Department, who he said is withholding the communications that are "deeply relevant" to the impeachment inquiry.
Congressman Jim Jordan, the top Republican on the House Oversight Committee, however, said the decision to keep Sondland from testifying "is based on the unfair and partisan process that Mr. Schiff has been running."
On the other side of Congress, Senator Lindsey Graham, a staunch Trump ally, said he would invite Rudy Giuliani, Trump personal counsel, to testify before the Senate.
"Have heard on numerous occasions disturbing allegations by @RudyGiuliani about corruption in Ukraine and the many improprieties surrounding the firing of former Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin. Given the House of Representatives’ behavior, it is time for the Senate to inquire about corruption and other improprieties involving Ukraine," he said on Twitter.
Shokin is the prosecutor Biden successfully pressured Ukraine to fire in 2016. While his ouster was sought by many western European countries and the International Monetary Fund seeking to reign in corruption in Ukraine, Shokin was at the time probing Burisma Holdings, the company on which Hunter Biden served.
Graham did not set a date for the testimony to take place, and it is unclear if Giuliani would accept the offer to appear before the Senate Judiciary Committee, which Graham chairs.