White House Blocks Key Witness From Testifying In Impeachment Inquiry The Trump administration has blocked Gordon Sondland, President Trump's ambassador to the European Union, from testifying before Congress on Tuesday. Sondland has been a key figure in the widening Ukraine scandal. This episode: political correspondent Scott Detrow, Congressional correspondent Susan Davis, and White House Franco Ordoñez. Email the show at nprpolitics@npr.org. Find and support your local public radio station at npr.org/stations.
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White House Blocks Key Witness From Testifying In Impeachment Inquiry

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White House Blocks Key Witness From Testifying In Impeachment Inquiry

White House Blocks Key Witness From Testifying In Impeachment Inquiry

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MICKEY: This is Mickey (ph) in Duluth, Minn. I'm in a parking lot, waiting to pick up a carload of smelly, teenage hockey players for my leg of the carpool. This podcast was recorded at...

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

I spent many years as the smelly teenager in the car pool with the hockey gear. I appreciate this, even though the people giving me a ride at the time didn't. It is 1:08 Eastern on Tuesday, October 8.

MICKEY: Things may have changed by the time you've heard this, but I'll still be driving with my windows down. OK, here's the show.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

DETROW: Febreeze.

SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: I didn't know you played hockey, Scott.

DETROW: I did, yeah. And my hockey bag was very smelly. Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the campaign.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: And I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

DETROW: So, Franco, this morning, we were expecting a key witness in the impeachment inquiry would be testifying before Congress, but that did not happen. What changed?

ORDOÑEZ: A lot changed. The ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, was expected to testify today about some of these text messages that he shared with other diplomats about this entire Ukraine matter. But we heard from his lawyers earlier today, and they said that the Trump administration had blocked him from testifying and that Sondland himself was profoundly disappointed and had actually traveled from Brussels to Washington for this testimony and to prepare. But, you know, as a sitting U.S. ambassador, Sondland is required to follow the department's direction.

DETROW: So, Sue, you are on the Hill today. I have not been over there, but I'm just going to go out on a limb and assume that House Democrats were not happy about this development.

DAVIS: They were not. And House Intelligence chairman Adam Schiff came out and addressed reporters after the news broke that Sondland would not be coming up to the Hill. And this is what he had to say.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM SCHIFF: The failure to produce this witness, the failure to produce these documents we consider yet additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress, a coequal branch of government.

DETROW: And we'll come back to that in a moment. But, Franco, first, let's remind everybody who Gordon Sondland is. He was a major Trump donor, then he was appointed.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. Gordon Sondland - he's a big Republican donor, who, like Trump, made his money managing hotels. You know, this - it appears to be his first full-time position in government. He's what's known as a political appointee. Interestingly enough, folks who have worked with him - his reputation is of someone who has a similar personality to President Trump. He's brash. He's confident. At one point, he even went over the rim and had a Independence Day celebration where he brought Jay Leno in to be the entertainment. And at that event was also the president of Ukraine, who happens to be also a former comedian.

DETROW: And, Sue, pertinent to this investigation, Sondland plays a key role in those text exchanges that we first saw late last week.

DAVIS: His name came up in a batch of text messages that the House Intelligence Committee released. We should caution, as we always do, that it has been a partial release of the text message exchanges. We haven't seen the whole thing. Sondland was involved in one of the key exchanges with another State Department official - Bill Taylor - in which Taylor says to Sondland - he expresses concerns and says, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign. And Sondland responds, but he says, Bill, I believe you're incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The president's been crystal clear - no quid pro quos of any kind. Clearly, that is language that the White House has used in this defense. He also then suggested to Taylor they take that conversation offline and speak in person not keep up with the text messages.

ORDOÑEZ: It was almost like he was foreshadowing this inquiry.

DETROW: Franco, the news question is, why did the White House block this? But I also want to know, like, why didn't they decide to block this before he got on a plane and flew from Brussels?

ORDOÑEZ: I mean, I think it's a great question. I mean, he had said that he was ready and voluntarily going to testify. The White House has come out today. President Trump tweeted, as he often does, about this and says that he would have actually loved for Sondland to testify but that it would have been before a totally, quote-unquote, "compromised kangaroo court." And Republicans were starting to hear from others on the Hill that are kind of giving this same line, so it's kind of interesting to hear that they're on the same page because last week, they were not really.

DAVIS: And remember. The Democrats have always said they do not consider a quid pro quo to be a threshold, right? Like, their - they have said the line is just the solicitation for help itself is enough to be considered an impeachable offense.

DETROW: And one thing I thought was interesting was the statement from Sondland, where he essentially said, I was ready to testify. I was looking forward to testifying. That seems surprising or at least notable to me, given that, again, he's a close Trump ally.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, absolutely. I mean, it was very interesting because he did volunteer to testify. We do know that friends of his in Oregon had also encouraged him to testify. And in his statement - it was very verbose from the lawyer, saying that he, as I said earlier, profoundly disappointed that he wasn't able to do it and that he traveled from Brussels to testify and - but he couldn't because he had to follow the direction of the Department of State. It really did make it seem like this was not his call. At the same time, you know, we do have to take that with a certain grain of salt because, you know, he may be trying to play the good guy here.

DETROW: Yeah.

DAVIS: In terms of posturing being like, I wanted to come, but they wouldn't let me.

DETROW: Right. The joke we were all making is it's like, oh, I would love to do that story, but my editor says no. I'm sorry, guys.

DAVIS: I'd totally get to it if I could.

ORDOÑEZ: I've been there.

DAVIS: We've all been there.

DETROW: Sue, should we expect a subpoena to come his way soon?

DAVIS: Yeah. The House Intelligence Committee has already said that they will issue a subpoena for him. You know, I'm not sure that that will result in a different outcome, but it certainly is a ratcheting up of the escalation between the committee and the administration as they go forward in the impeachment inquiry and, I think, pushes the House closer and closer to actually moving forward with articles of impeachment.

DETROW: And we are going to talk about that tension and what could come next. But first, we're going to take a quick break.

And we're back. So, Sue, the White House blocked Sondland from appearing before the House Intelligence Committee today. This is not the only step like that that the White House has taken, right?

DAVIS: No. I mean, the White House has made clear that they're not interested in complying, or certainly not easily, with this investigation. They've defied subpoenas for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and documents that they've asked for related to text messages and other communications within the department regarding matters of Ukraine, especially involving the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. There's also supposed to be additional depositions this week with two associates of Giuliani. Their lawyer has made clear that they are unlikely to appear up here. And I think it also raises a question now about Friday in which there was another scheduled deposition with a former Ukraine ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch - whether or not she will now appear and if the State Department tries to block her. What Schiff is saying and has been saying and reiterated today is that Democrats only see these acts as obstructive acts in an impeachment investigation, meaning they could amount to account in an article of impeachment. And also, they are interpreting - this is important. They are interpreting the White House's actions as blocking them from coming to tell Congress negative information. In other words, they see the obstruction as corroborating to the theory that the president solicited help in an election from a foreign government.

DETROW: Does Congress have any other power to force compliance, to force cooperation, other than bringing an obstruction of justice account of impeachment?

DAVIS: I mean, the short answer is no. There really isn't much here. It depends on - are we talking about the president or are we talking about the people involved in the investigation? - because for people like Pompeo or Sondland, Congress could do things like hold them in contempt of Congress. But that's really just kind of like a public slap on the wrist. So the question now is, you know, do they feel like they have enough to be able to move forward on articles of impeachment? And do they think that the public's going to support them and that they have the votes if they do?

ORDOÑEZ: That's why this point is so important. This is not just a legal issue. This is very much a public debate. So much of this has to do with trying to sway minds of the public and the American people. And which way are they going to fall? And both sides are clearly kind of making as many salvos as they can.

DETROW: So, Franco, what's the White House argument here with its across-the-board resistance to cooperating? - because congressional oversight is pretty clear in the Constitution. So is the power to impeach, and subpoenas are legal documents. Like, what is the grounds that they're standing on?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, the grounds that they're standing on is they feel that or they say they feel that Republicans don't have rights, that it is an improper investigation - as we said earlier, a kangaroo court. But there's, obviously, also some political strategy here. This is not only about legal issues. This is about politics. And they're trying to kind of bolster their base and their support. When I talk to Republican strategists and Republican surrogates of this administration, they make it very clear that part of the strategy to win this battle is they need to keep Republicans in line. They need to make sure this is a fight between Democrats and Republicans and try not to get into the minutia of what was done was correct or not.

DETROW: Well, early signs show that they are not doing too well in that public opinion fight. Sue, we've seen a lot of polls over the last week and a half or so, showing, to varying degrees, that there is movement in favor of this impeachment inquiry among Democrats but also among a lot of independents and a significant amount of Republicans.

DAVIS: There is. And the latest was a Washington Post poll out today that essentially meets that trend line, right? They did have one eye-popper in their poll, saying that 58% of people support the investigation; not that they support necessarily impeachment but they support the investigation. Although, almost half of Americans say they already support the impeachment of the president. The majority of that shift in public opinion we've seen has really been from Democrats, that there were Democrats that were hesitant about this. But they've all kind of come on board, especially as party leaders - and there's been sort of near unanimity in the Democratic Party on this. That's a main driver.

But you're totally right, Scott. I mean, the two main numbers to really watch here are, where do the independents go? And where do Republicans go? I think this is just - you know, the Washington Post poll out today showing movement among Republicans is significant, but we don't know if this is just a snapshot in time or if that's going to be part of a continuing trend line. But that's one of the things that we are all sort of breathtakingly watching - is, does the president's support within his own party start to weaken? - because if it does, that's when you would start to see Republicans on Capitol Hill maybe start to seek some distance from the president, which, quite frankly, we just simply haven't seen right now.

ORDOÑEZ: And that's exactly what, you know, the administration is trying to keep hold of. It's trying to keep control of their base and keep support of it. And until now, they have done a very good job of keeping that support. You've heard President Trump boast about some of the numbers that he has, many times exaggerating. But the point is clear that they are looking to keep Republican support not necessarily win over Democrats that they already know are against them.

DAVIS: I also think that people should keep something in mind when they're looking at these national poll numbers. In some regards, the national poll number doesn't matter as much to Republicans and Democrats up here as much as it matters what their own districts are thinking, right? You know, like, the national mood is different. If you're running for reelection, you care most about your own voters. And the Republican Campaign Committee was out in the field last week, doing polling in 95 congressional districts - 55 held by Democrats, 40 held by Republicans.

These are considered maybe the most possibly swingable (ph) or competitive districts in the country because most lawmakers in the House are never going to face a tough race unless they face a tough primary. And in those districts, the poll was conducted by Neil Newhouse, who's a very reputable pollster - showed just 37% of voters believe that President Trump's phone call with the Ukraine president was an impeachable offense. So there is a dropoff here. There's a disconnect between sort of the national mood and then the House battlegrounds. And I think we have to be mindful of both. If we start to see that number shifting in districts where the majority is won and lost, that's also going to be a huge driver - maybe even a bigger driver than what the national sentiment is.

DETROW: OK. That is a wrap for today. We will be back tomorrow because, in case you missed it, we're now a daily podcast. But until then, you can head to n.pr/politicsgroup to join our Facebook group. It's a place for you to connect with other listeners, ask questions about politics, talk to the people on the podcast and the producers who help put it together.

I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the campaign.

DAVIS: I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

ORDOÑEZ: And I'm Franco Ordoñez. I cover the White House.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")

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