Gordon Sondland, a key witness in President Trump's purported pressuring of Ukraine to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden, has been ordered not to appear before a scheduled Tuesday hearing in the impeachment inquiry, The New York Times reports. House leaders fear that this could set a precedent for the Trump administration blocking witnesses and otherwise not cooperating with the probe.
Who Is Gordon Sondland And What Does He Know?
Sondland is the United States ambassador to the European Union. Trump allegedly spoke directly with Sondland several times during and around the time when Trump made the phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, reportedly asking him to launch the investigation.
Sondland was reportedly asked to take the lead in making that happen, and indeed, he and another diplomat worked on writing a statement that they wanted Zelensky to give, which would have committed him (Zelensky) to carrying out the investigation.
That seems to have been borne out by text messages. Sondland allegedly exchanged text messages with American diplomats in Ukraine, during which the topic of Trump purportedly withholding $391 million in military aid to the country unless the investigations into the Bidens were launched.
One recipient of a text message from Sondland was William B. Taylor Jr., a top American official in Ukraine. In a September conversation, Taylor expressed his concern that it was "crazy" to withhold military aid over a political issue.
Sondland responded that "the President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind."
"I suggest we stop the back and forth by text," Sondland then wrote.Blocked From Testifying
On Tuesday, Sondland was scheduled to give a deposition in a remote corner of the Capitol building (rather than in public testimony before a House committee). However, hours before he was to give his statement, the Trump administration ordered him not to talk.
Sondland's lawyer, Robert Luskin, said that his client was prepared and ready to give his statement, but that, as a State Department employee, he has no choice but to follow the White House's directives.
"Ambassador Sondland is profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify today... 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," Luskin said.
As for the administration, The New York Times suggests that blocking Sondland from giving his deposition is a calculated risk. Specifically, the administration believes that, though blocking Sondland from testifying will "risk the House's ire," blocking him is better than letting him speak, which would set a precedent that would allow other administration officials to appear before the impeachment probe.
What Happens Next?
That is unclear, as of this writing, although having Sondland placed under arrest is not outside the realm of possibility. As The New Yorker reports, the House has the power to detain, arrest and/or fine uncooperative witnesses. Whether or not they'll enact that power in this case remains unclear.