Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, has been directed by the State Department not to appear Tuesday for a scheduled interview with House committees leading the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.
Sondland, a Trump political appointee, has emerged as a central player in Trump's bid to persuade Ukraine’s new government to commit publicly to investigate corruption and the president’s political opponents.
"Ambassador Sondland had previously agreed to appear voluntarily today, without the need for a subpoena, in order to answer the Committee’s questions on an expedited basis," Robert Luskin, Sondland's attorney, said in a statement.
"As the sitting U.S. Ambassador to the EU and employee of the State Department, Ambassador Sondland is required to follow the Department’s direction," Luskin continued, adding that Sondland "is profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify today."
Luskin noted that Sondland traveled to Washington from Brussels "in order to prepare for his testimony and to be available to answer the Committee’s questions."
"Arrangements had already been made with Joint Committee staff regarding the logistics of his testimony," Lusin said. "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."
Luskin said the ambassador "hopes" the State Department's qualms that "precludes his testimony will be resolved promptly."
"He stands ready to testify on short notice, whenever he is permitted to appear," Luskin said.
The New York Times was first to report that the administration had moved to block Sondland's interview, a move that is certain to inflame tensions between the White House and House Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry.
Sondland, a hotelier and Republican megadonor, was nominated to be ambassador to the European Union one year after a $1 million donation to Trump's inaugural committee. Text messages given to Congress show Sondland and another diplomat explicitly tying Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s willingness to announce an investigation to whether he would be granted a coveted White House visit.
Sondland's role in the Ukraine matter was also made clear in the whistleblower complaint that led the House to formally launch impeachment inquiry. According to the complaint, Sondland met at least twice with Ukrainian officials along with Kurt Volker, the Trump administration's special envoy to Ukraine who spoke to Congress last week, "to help Ukrainian leaders understand and respond to the differing messages they were receiving from official U.S. channels on one hand," and from the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, "on the other."
A dozen House Democrats have called for Sondland to resign from his role in the Trump administration in light of revelations regarding his role in the Ukraine matter.