Game on. A joint congressional committee had requested a deposition from Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, over text exchanges regarding Donald Trump’s actions with Ukraine. That deposition was set for later this morning, until the State Department ordered Sondland not to testify on the issue. It’s the first real indication that the White House intends to play hardball on Ukraine-Gate on all fronts.
Sondland’s attorney told the committee that the State Department’s instructions left Sondland no choice but to comply:
Sondland’s attorney says that Sondland “is required” to follow the US State Dept.’s direction to avoid testifying, but he is “profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify today” and he “stands ready to testify on short notice, whenever he is permitted to appear.”
— NBC News (@NBCNews) October 8, 2019
The text exchanges in which Sondland participated are mainly noteworthy for what Ukraine charges d’affairs William Taylor wrote. Taylor expressed frustration over what he saw as a quid pro quo involving the held-up US aid to Ukraine, threatening at one point to resign over it. Sondland responded at one point that Trump had explicitly rejected a quid-pro-quo approach, which if true might have made Sondland a sympathetic witness for Trump.
Of course, that one message is not all that would have come up in today’s deposition:
In one text message, Sondland wrote that Trump “really wants the deliverable,” referring to a clear demonstration from Ukraine that it would undertake the investigations.
Sondland worked closely with Kurt Volker, the U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, to shape U.S. foreign policy around Trump’s desire to investigate Joe Biden’s son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, as well as an unsubstantiated theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 presidential election to undermine Trump’s candidacy.
Lawmakers heard last week from Volker after he resigned his position and turned over his communications to Congress. Sondland remains in his post and has turned over the documents that lawmakers want to the State Department instead, setting up a fight between the legislative and executive branches over access to the information.
Could Sondland have also resigned and then been deposed? Probably not. Volker turned his materials over to the State Department despite his resignation, not to Congress. His work at the State Department is still technically controlled by State whether he works there or not, and the same would be true for Sondland. Resignation doesn’t change that fact, nor would it be technically necessary for either to act as a “whistleblower” either, although testifying without permission would presumably result in an immediate termination for a presidential appointee.
State’s order to Sondland will force Congress to get a subpoena, both for the materials and for Sondland’s testimony, which will then force a court fight. If the White House makes an executive privilege claim on this, it will likely lose, but it will drag out for months. The strategy here is to force Nancy Pelosi to hold a House vote for a formal impeachment inquiry, one that will produce a more efficient system with fairer procedures and wider access for White House and Trump attorneys to evidence and testimony.
Until Pelosi holds that vote — and put her members on the spot — the White House has decided to conduct a legal form of trench warfare to freeze the process in place. Since the House decides when it has enough evidence to vote on impeachment, that may not work, but it will definitely matter when it comes to a removal vote. If Republicans can attack the process as patently unfair and a kind of kangaroo court, they can sell an acquittal that much easier.
Addendum: Trump’s tweets on the matter seem to underscore the strategic nature of the decision:
“Kangaroo court” is a phrase we will be hearing often, at least until Pelosi holds a formal vote and sets up a proper inquiry. (And let’s face, probably thereafter too, but with less cause.)