UPDATE, 3:16 p.m. PT: The White House sent a letter to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic committee chairs vowing not to cooperate with a “partisan inquiry.”
“Given that your inquiry lacks any legitimate constitutional foundation, any pretense of fairness, or even the most elementary due process protections, the Executive Branch cannot be expected to participate in it,” wrote Pat Cipollone, counsel to President Donald Trump.
Rep. David Cicilline (D-R.I.), a member of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs committee, said on CNN that the letter was “an effort to distract from the core allegations of the impeachment inquiry.”
The inquiry centers on a July 25 phone call Trump made to the president of the Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, in which the president asked for him to investigate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. At the time that Biden was vice president, his son was a director of a Ukrainian gas company, but so far there has been no evidence uncovered of wrongdoing.
Fox News host Laura Ingraham called the White House letter “brilliant.”
“Time to play offense,” she wrote on Twitter. “This is pure politics by pro-impeachment forces — so time to smash back with better political arguments.”
EARLIER, 7:43 a.m. PT: Reporters on Capitol Hill were staked out on Tuesday to capture a key witness arriving to provide behind-closed-doors testimony to Congress. Instead, about an hour before Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, was to start, his lawyer announced that he would not show.
News networks quickly focused on the increasing possibility that this could trigger an additional article of impeachment against President Donald Trump, this time for obstruction.
Appearing at the Capitol before cameras on Tuesday morning, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) didn’t go as far, but confirmed that it may only add to their case.
“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,” he said. He revealed that also being withheld were some of Sondland’s text messages on one of his personal devices.
Sondland, a real estate investor and top donor to Trump’s inaugural committee, wrote a key text message exchange with Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in the Ukraine, that showed concerns over efforts to secure a commitment from the Ukrainian president for an investigation of Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” Taylor wrote to Sondland and Kurt Volker, then a special envoy to the region, on September 1.
“Call me,” Sondland replied.
On September 9, Taylor wrote, “As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.”
Almost five hours later, Sondland replied, “Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”
The Wall Street Journal reported that Sondland had spoken to Trump in the intervening time.
On Tuesday, Sondland’s attorney made it clear that he was directed by the State Department not to testify.
“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,” his attorney Robert Luskin said in a statement.
Trump himself confirmed that the White House ultimately was blocking Sondland’s testimony, writing on Twitter that “he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public to see.”
Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), one of Trump’s staunchest GOP defenders as he has faced the impeachment inquiry, appeared before reporters shortly after Schiff made a statement.
“We understand the reason why the State Department decided not to have Ambassador Sondland appear today. It’s based on the unfair and partisan process that Mr. Schiff has been running,” Jordan said.
The White House strategy appears to be one of attacking the validity of the impeachment process itself. Sondland agreed to testify voluntarily. Schiff and other House Democratic committee said that they were issuing a subpoena to Sondland and for his text messages. They have indicated that failure to honor subpoenas, which seems ever more likely, will be considered as evidence of obstruction.
“Since when is it up to the State Department to determine if they like the investigation or not?” asked Poppy Harlow, co-anchor with Jim Sciutto of CNN Newsroom.
The reaction to the latest developments only added to the daily, even hourly, drama coming from Capitol Hill and the White House.
Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL), who favors an inquiry but not an impeachment one, said on Fox News that the average American is just seeing confusion.
“We don’t know really who to believe anymore,” he said, adding that “there is disinformation coming from all over the place.”