To hear President Donald Trump tell it, there was no need for Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, to testify before a House committee on Tuesday because his publicly released text messages said everything that needed to be heard.
"I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify," Trump claimed in a tweet, "but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court . . ."
"Importantly," he added, "Ambassador Sondland's [text], which few report, stated, 'I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The President has been crystal clear: no quid pro quo's of any kind.' That says it ALL!"
With those messages, Trump did two things that are not at all helpful to his position. The first is he indicated it was his decision to prevent Sondland from offering testimony. The second was to draw attention to Sondland's text message. Acting Ukraine ambassador Bill Taylor had expressed concern about what he perceived as an effort to predicate aid to Ukraine on investigations that were politically useful to Trump. Sondland rejected that idea - reportedly only after speaking to Trump. He then suggested further conversation happen over the phone, so no record would be kept.
Those two calls - between Trump and Sondland and between Sondland and Taylor - are precisely the sort of thing House Democrats would like to hear about. Which is almost certainly why Trump would prefer Sondland not testify.
The last-minute decision to block Sondland's testimony is one of numerous examples of people who still work for the Trump administration being prevented from offering information to the House. There are numerous subpoenas, and scheduled depositions still await, with potential witnesses slated to offer information to investigators.
If they are allowed to is another question.
This all began with that conversation between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in late July. Trump leveraged his position to ask Zelensky to look into former vice president Joe Biden, a possible 2020 opponent of Trump's.
Trump was operating in part on a conspiracy theory promoted by Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney. Giuliani, in turn, was working with a team of people that included Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman and Semyon Kislin. With Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on the line, Trump and Zelensky also discussed the May ouster of then-Ambassador Masha Yovanovitch. An aide to Vice President Mike Pence also was on the call; Pence and Zelensky met in early September.
Information about the call traveled to Sondland and State Department special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, who worked to manage a response to the call, at times working with Giuliani. A whistleblower within the intelligence community, meanwhile, learned of Trump's demands and filed a complaint with the inspector general for the intelligence community, Michael Atkinson. That complaint alleged a State Department staffer named T. Ulrich Brechbuhl was on the call as well. He was not.
With the exception of Biden and Zelensky, each of the individuals above has been the subject of a request from House investigators, either for documents or for testimony.
A statement from Sondland's attorney on Tuesday indicated the State Department was blocking his appearance (apparently at Trump's direction, according to Trump's tweets). Brechbuhl was also blocked from offering testimony in a letter sent by Pompeo. Pompeo himself skipped an Oct. 4 deadline to turn over material.
Yovanovitch plans to offer testimony later this week; because she is no longer an employee of the State Department, the administration does not have the same leverage. Volker, in a similar position, spoke to investigators last week.
Two of the Giuliani aides have indicated they did not have enough notice to respond to the House subpoenas. Giuliani himself told The Washington Post on Tuesday he would not comply with requests. Trump and Pence have not yet hit deadlines for turning over material.
Atkinson sent the whistleblower's complaint to the acting director of national intelligence for it to be sent to Congress, but that move was blocked in early September. Eventually, because of pressure from Congress and the media, the complaint was released publicly, and Atkinson provided testimony to investigators.
The image above highlights the challenge for House investigators. Trump has leverage over employees within the government and allies like Giuliani. Giuliani, in particular, would probably be able to cite attorney-client privilege to avoid offering documents or testimony. (He told The Post on Tuesday he would not testify if Democrats asked.) Those who have left the administration can be more forthcoming.
After learning Sondland would not testify on Tuesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., made clear his position on Trump's reticence to provide information to Democrats.
"It is hard to overstate the significance of not just Ambassador Sondland's testimony and the documents but the testimony of others as well," Schiff said. "The failure to produce this witness, the failure to produce these documents, we consider yet additionally strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress, a coequal branch of government."
House Democrats were looking at four national security issues related to the Ukraine call, he said, including "the question of whether there has been an effort by the president, the secretary of state and others to cover up this misconduct."
Trump and his allies generally claim to be protecting the power of the presidency in rejecting demands from House Democrats. The line between that and the obstruction Schiff alleges can be awfully blurry - as when Trump blocks an ambassador from telling investigators why, exactly, he insisted no quid pro quo had occurred.