U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland was originally slated to appear before the House impeachment inquiry on Tuesday, but just after midnight, Sondland received a telephone call from the State Department ordering him not to appear. On Friday, after the issuance of a subpoena, Sondland has agreed to appear, with his testimony slated for Oct. 17.
That initial testimony would have been voluntary, and Sondland had offered to come in. But the ambassador’s extensive knowledge of the events in Ukraine made Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo anxious to close down his testimony. Soon after the inquiry committees were told that Sondland would not appear, the White House issued a letter declaring that Trump would not cooperate with the inquiry. The chairmen of the three committees involved in the inquiry issued a statement directly describing the action from the White House, and the order for Sondland not to appear, as “obstruction of the impeachment inquiry”—which was itself one of the impeachment charges against Richard Nixon.
Sondland, a hotel magnate who became ambassador through the usual route—he gave Trump $1 million for his sparsely attended inaugural “celebration”—became a focus of public attention after a series of texts were released showing that he played a central role in Ukraine. He both spoke to Ukrainian officials to set up Trump’s phone call with President Volodymyr Zelensky, and was also involved in making sure that those officials were aware of Trump’s desire for a trumped-up investigation into Joe Biden.
In particular, Sondland is sure to be asked about his exchanges with U. S. Charge d’Affaires William Taylor.
Taylor: Are we now saying that security assistance and White House meetings are conditioned on investigations?
Sondland: Call me.
What Sondland said to Taylor, what he said to Ukrainian officials, and his instructions from both Trump and Pompeo, are sure to form the nexus of his testimony.
A week after that “call me” text, Taylor and Sondland had another exchange that would seem to indicate that, once the two were speaking rather than texting, Sondland was more explicit about his instructions to Taylor.
Taylor: As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.
Sondland: Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quos of any kind.
Trump has pointed at Sondland’s response as proof that he did nothing wrong. But there’s an issue. That first text from Taylor came at 11:47 a.m. The reply from Sondland was almost five hours later. This raises a strong possibility that Sondland phoned home for instructions and spoke with either Pompeo or Trump before making his reply. Sondland ends that second exchange by again telling Taylor they should talk. That second exchange was also happening after news of the first whistleblower complaint had reached the White House, so there was a very good reason for Sondland to be suddenly circumspect.
Sondland’s initial testimony would have been voluntary. Now it will be in response to the subpoena issued on Tuesday evening.