- U.S. Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland was barred from giving a scheduled testimony before Congress regarding President Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Zelensky and other matters involving the impeachment inquiry.
- Sondland was revealed to be a key organizer of the call with Zelensky in a series of released text messages between U.S. diplomats, Rudy Giuliani, and a top Zelensky aide.
- Democrats have accused Secretary of State Pompeo, who recently revealed he was on the July call, of obstructing the inquiry by preventing witnesses in the State Department from testifying before Congress.
Sondland Barred From Testimony
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, a key figure in the impeachment inquiry, was blocked by the Trump administration from giving a planned testimony before Congress in a last-minute move Tuesday.
“Early this morning, the U.S. Department of State directed Ambassador Gordon Sondland not to appear today for his scheduled transcribed interview before the U.S. House of Representatives Joint Committee,” the law firm that represents Sondland said in a statement hours before his deposition.
“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,” the statement continued.
“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.”
The administration’s efforts to bar Sondland’s testimony angered Democrats, who have sparred with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo over his attempts to prevent State Department officials from testifying in the ongoing impeachment investigations into President Donald Trump.
The Democrats impeachment inquiry centers around a whistleblower complaint that claims Trump pressured Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate his 2020 opponent Joe Biden during a July phone call.
Democrats also are looking into whether or not Trump decided to withhold nearly $400 million in security aid to Ukraine so he could have leverage over Zelensky.
Pompeo Blocks Testimonies
On Sept. 27, Congress sent Pompeo a letter informing him of the dates they had scheduled testimonies from State Department officials.
Pompeo responded by writing to the House Foreign Affairs Committee accusing Democrats of “an attempt to intimidate, bully, and treat improperly” State Department officials.
Several representatives chairing the committees leading the impeachment inquiry responded in a letter shortly after. In the letter, the members noted that there were reports that Pompeo had been on the Ukraine call, and as a result, had a conflict of interest.
“Any effort by the Secretary of the Department to intimidate or prevent witnesses from testifying or withhold documents from the Committees shall constitute evidence of obstruction of the impeachment inquiry,” the chairs wrote. Obstructing an impeachment inquiry is an impeachable offense.
A few days later Pompeo confirmed for the first time that he was on the July call with Zelensky.
On Oct. 6, Pompeo said that the Department of State will follow the law in the impeachment investigation. But Democrats seem skeptical.
Following the news that Sondland’s testimony had been blocked, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, said that House Democrats are seeking “additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress.”
On the other side, some Republicans defended the move.
“The way [Schiff] treated Volker last week, that treatment is the reason why the State Department and the White House said we’re not going to subject Ambassador Sondland to the same treatment,” Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) told reporters Tuesday, referring to the testimony of the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker.
Trump also appeared to justify his administration’s efforts on Twitter Tuesday morning.
“I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately 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,” he wrote.
Volker Testimony and Text Messages
In addition to upsetting Democrats, the administration’s endeavor to bar Sondland’s testimony will likely have major repercussions, especially because of Sondland’s role in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine and Zelensky.
Before serving as the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., Sondland was a major donor to Trump and reportedly donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee. Sondland was appointed to his position back in March 2018, despite the fact that he appears to have no official political or diplomatic experience.
Sondland was mentioned by name in the whistleblower’s complaint alongside Volker.
In the complaint, the whistleblower wrote that Volker and Sondland “reportedly provided advice to the Ukrainian leadership about how to ‘navigate’ the demands that the President had made of Mr. Zelenskyy.”
The complaint also notes that the two men, along with other State Department officials, “had spoken with Mr. Giuliani in an attempt to ‘contain the damage’ to U.S. national security”
Volker testified behind closed doors on Thursday. Later that night, the House released a set of text messages between Volker, Sondland, and other officials including Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, a top aide to Zelensky named Andrey Yermak, and Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine.
In one of the exchanges between Sondland and Volker from July 19, a few days before Trump’s call with Zelensky, Volker texted Sondland about plans for the call.
“Most [important] is for Zelensky to say that he will help investigation—and address any specific personnel issues—if there are any,” he wrote.
In another text preparing for the call two days after that, Taylor noted that Zelensky “is sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics.”
To which Sondland responded, “Absolutely, but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext. I am worried about the alternative.”
Then, on July 25, the morning of the call, Volker texted Yermak, “Heard from White House—assuming President Z convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington. Good luck!”
Skipping ahead a month to Aug. 28, Yermak texted Volker a news story titled “Trump Holds Up Ukraine Military Aid Meant to Confront Russia” and said “we need to talk.”
A few days later on Sept. 1, Taylor pressed Sondland on the aid to Ukraine.
“Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” he asked. Sondland responded by asking Taylor to call him.
After that, the conversations started to shift heavily towards the decision to withhold aid. In a Sept. 9 text, Taylor expressed doubt about the plan in his messages to Sondland.
“As I said on the phone, I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” he wrote.
“I believe you are incorrect about President Trump’s intentions,” Sondland responded. “The President has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind. The President is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that President Zelensky promised during his campaign I suggest we stop the back and forth by text.”
House Democrats said Tuesday they plan on issuing a subpoena for Sondland’s testimony.
See what others are saying: (NPR) (Axios) (The Washington Post)
Jan. 6 Rally Organizers Say They Met With Members of Congress and White House Officials Ahead of Insurrection
Two sources told Rolling Stone that they participated in “dozens” of meetings with “multiple members of Congress” and top White House aides to plan the rallies that proceeded the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Rolling Stone Report
Members of Congress and White House Staffers under former President Donald Trump allegedly helped plan the Jan. 6 protests that took place outside the U.S. Capitol ahead of the insurrection, according to two sources who spoke to Rolling Stone.
According to a report the outlet published Sunday, the two people, identified only as “a rally organizer” and “a planner,” have both “begun communicating with congressional investigators.”
The two told Rolling Stone that they participated in “dozens” of planning briefings ahead of the protests and said that “multiple members of Congress were intimately involved in planning both Trump’s efforts to overturn his election loss and the Jan. 6 events that turned violent.”
“I remember Marjorie Taylor Greene specifically,” the person identified as a rally organizer said. “I remember talking to probably close to a dozen other members at one point or another or their staffs.”
The two also told Rolling Stone that a number of other Congress members were either personally involved in the conversations or had staffers join, including Representatives Paul Gosar (R-Az.), Lauren Boebert (R-Co.), Mo Brooks (R-Al.), Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), Andy Biggs (R-Az.), and Louie Gohmert (R-Tx.).
The outlet added that it “separately obtained documentary evidence that both sources were in contact with Gosar and Boebert on Jan. 6,” though it did not go into further detail.
A spokesperson for Greene has denied involvement with planning the protests, but so far, no other members have responded to the report.
Previous Allegations Against Congressmembers Named
This is not the first time allegations have surfaced concerning the involvement of some of the aforementioned congress members regarding rallies that took place ahead of the riot.
As Rolling Stone noted, Gosar, Greene, and Boebert were all listed as speakers at the “Wild Protest” at the Capitol on Jan. 6, which was arranged by “Stop the Steal” organizer Ali Alexander.
Additionally, Alexander said during a now-deleted live stream in January that he personally planned the rally with the help of Gosar, Biggs, and Brooks.
Biggs and Brooks previously denied any involvement in planning the event, though Brooks did speak at a pro-Trump protest on Jan. 6.
Gosar, for his part, has remained quiet for months but tagged Alexander in numerous tweets involving Stop the Steal events leading up to Jan. 6, including one post that appears to be taken at a rally at the Capitol hours before the insurrection.
Notably, the organizer and the planner also told Rolling Stone that Gosar “dangled the possibility of a ‘blanket pardon’ in an unrelated ongoing investigation to encourage them to plan the protests.”
Alleged White House Involvement
Beyond members of Congress, the outlet reported that the sources “also claim they interacted with members of Trump’s team, including former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, who they describe as having had an opportunity to prevent the violence.”
Both reportedly described Meadows “as someone who played a major role in the conversations surrounding the protests.”
The two additionally said Katrina Pierson, who worked for the Trump campaign in both 2016 and 2020, was a key liaison between the organizers of the demonstrations and the White House.
“Katrina was like our go-to girl,” the organizer told the outlet. “She was like our primary advocate.”
According to Rolling Stone, the sources have so far only had informal talks with the House committee investigating the insurrection but are expecting to testify publicly. Both reportedly said they would share “new details about the members’ specific roles” in planning the rallies with congressional investigators.
See what others are saying: (Rolling Stone) (Business Insider) (Forbes)
Jan. 6 Committee Prepares Criminal Charges Against Steve Bannon for Ignoring Subpoena
The move comes after former President Trump told several of his previous aides not to cooperate with the committee’s investigation into the insurrection.
Bannon Refuses to Comply With Subpoena
The House committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection announced Thursday that it is seeking to hold former White House advisor Steve Bannon in criminal contempt for refusing to comply with a subpoena.
The decision marks a significant escalation in the panel’s efforts to force officials under former President Donald Trump’s administration to comply with its probe amid Trump’s growing efforts to obstruct the inquiry.
In recent weeks, the former president has launched a number of attempts to block the panel from getting key documents, testimonies, and other evidence requested by the committee that he claims are protected by executive privilege.
Notably, some of those assertions have been shut down. On Friday, President Joe Biden rejected Trump’s effort to withhold documents relating to the insurrection.
Still, Trump has also directed former officials in his administration not to comply with subpoenas or cooperate with the committee.
That demand came after the panel issued subpoenas ordering depositions from Bannon and three other former officials: Chief of Staff Mark Meadows, Deputy Chief of Staff Dan Scavino, and Pentagon Chief of Staff Kash Patel.
After Trump issued his demand, Bannon’s lawyer announced that he would not obey the subpoena until the panel reached an agreement with Trump or a court ruled on the executive privilege matter.
Many legal experts have questioned whether Bannon, who left the White House in 2017, can claim executive privilege for something that happened when he was not working for the executive.
Panel Intensifies Compliance Efforts
The Thursday decision from the committee is significant because it will likely set up a legal battle and test how much authority the committee can and will exercise in requiring compliance.
It also sets an important precedent for those who have been subpoenaed. While Bannon is the first former official to openly defy the committee, there have been reports that others plan to do the same.
The panel previously said Patel and Meadows were “engaging” with investigators, but on Thursday, several outlets reported that the two — who were supposed to appear before the body on Thursday and Friday respectively — are now expected to be given an extension or continuance.
Sources told reporters that Scavino, who was also asked to testify Friday, has had his deposition postponed because service of his subpoena was delayed.
As far as what happens next for Bannon, the committee will vote to adopt the contempt report next week. Once that is complete, the matter will go before the House for a full vote.
Assuming the Democratic-held House approves the contempt charge, it will then get referred to the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia to bring the matter before a grand jury.
See what others are saying: (CNN) (The Washington Post) (Bloomberg)
Senate Votes To Extend Debt Ceiling Until December
The move adds another deadline to Dec. 3, which is also when the federal government is set to shut down unless Congress approves new spending.
Debt Ceiling Raised Temporarily
The Senate voted on Thursday to extend the debt ceiling until December, temporarily averting a fiscal catastrophe.
The move, which followed weeks of stalemate due to Republican objections, came after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) partially backed down from his blockade and offered a short-term proposal.
After much whipping of votes, 11 Republicans joined Democrats to break the legislative filibuster and move to final approval of the measure. The bill ultimately passed in a vote of 50-48 without any Republican support.
The legislation will now head to the House, where Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said members would be called back from their current recess for a vote on Tuesday.
The White House said President Joe Biden would sign the measure, but urged Congress to pass a longer extension.
“We cannot allow partisan politics to hold our economy hostage, and we can’t allow the routine process of paying our bills to turn into a confidence-shaking political showdown every two years or every two months,’’ White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said in a statement.
Under the current bill, the nation’s borrowing limit will be increased by $480 billion, which the Treasury Department said will cover federal borrowing until around Dec. 3.
The agency had previously warned that it would run out of money by Oct. 18 if Congress failed to act. Such a move would have a chilling impact on the economy, forcing the U.S. to default on its debts and potentially plunging the country into a recession.
Major Hurdles Remain
While the legislation extending the ceiling will certainly offer temporary relief, it sets up another perilous deadline for the first Friday in December, when government funding is also set to expire if Congress does not approve another spending bill.
Regardless of the new deadline, many of the same hurdles lawmakers faced the first time around remain.
Democrats are still struggling to hammer out the final details of Biden’s $3.5 trillion spending agenda, which Republicans have strongly opposed.
Notably, Democratic leaders previously said they could pass the bill through budget reconciliation, which would allow them to approve the measure with 50 votes and no Republican support.
Such a move would require all 50 Senators, but intraparty disputes remain over objections brought by Joe Manchin (D-W.V.) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-Az.), who have been stalling the process for months.
Although disagreements over reconciliation are ongoing among Democrats, McConnell has insisted the party use the obscure procedural process to raise the debt limit. Democrats, however, have balked at the idea, arguing that tying the debt ceiling to reconciliation would set a dangerous precedent.
Despite Republican efforts to connect the limit to Biden’s economic agenda, raising the ceiling is not the same as adopting new spending. Rather, the limit is increased to pay off spending that has already been authorized by previous sessions of Congress and past administrations.
In fact, much of the current debt stems from policies passed by Republicans during the Trump administration, including the 2017 tax overhaul.
As a result, while Democrats have signaled they may make concessions to Manchin and Sinema, they strongly believe that Republicans must join them to increase the debt ceiling to fund projects their party supported.
It is currently unclear when or how the ongoing stalemate will be resolved, or how either party will overcome their fervent objections.