Ed is exactly right about Trump’s strategy in holding Sondland back, I think. He’s going to boycott the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry on grounds of procedural unfairness — namely, there hasn’t been a formal House vote to open the inquiry, which would have given Republican members more power over the proceedings, and there’s been way too much secrecy already in how Schiff is questioning witnesses. For cripes sake, he’s reportedly considering how to interview the whistleblower while obscuring his/her identity so that Republicans on the Intel Committee won’t find out who it is and leak the information. The White House believes, or at least wants the public to believe, that the only winning move in this wargame is not to play. The system is rigged! They won’t help Schiff run his “kangaroo court.”
But it’s noteworthy that Byron York’s Republican sources in the House are nonetheless “baffled” by Trump’s decision.
Republicans were looking forward to Sondland testimony. Also had the high ground with demands for transparency. Thought he was going to testify until an hour ago.https://t.co/GZ8feBCtAC
— Byron York (@ByronYork) October 8, 2019
Also, WH was going to write letter laying out case for non-cooperation with Pelosi’s no-vote-I-say-so impeachment inquiry. Haven’t done so. Might or might not work with courts, anyway. In any event, Republicans baffled.https://t.co/GZ8feBCtAC
— Byron York (@ByronYork) October 8, 2019
The problem right now with Trump’s approach of signaling scorn for the Democrats’ sham process is that the public doesn’t agree that it’s a sham and even seems to be growing more convinced of its necessity if you believe WaPo’s data this morning. Every poll I’ve seen over the last two weeks has found at least plurality support for House Dems opening an impeachment inquiry into Trump’s conduct towards Ukraine. Trump is hoping, I guess, that a new round of “witch hunt” attacks on the process will bring some wayward Republican voters back over onto his side. (The most alarming number in the WaPo poll was support for the inquiry rising to 29 percent even among *Republicans.*) But blocking Sondland could have the opposite effect by convincing fencesitters that Trump really does have something to hide and has now resorted to outright obstruction of the investigation in a desperate attempt to protect himself. Schiff even utters the O-word at the end of the clip below.
Sondland is no minor witness, remember. Potentially he’s the key to the whole mystery of whether Trump really did intend a quid pro quo with Ukraine involving military aid and the Bidens. Read this post for background. Sondland reportedly told Ron Johnson flat out in August that a quid pro quo was in the works, and Johnson would be a difficult witness for Republicans to discredit for obvious partisan reasons. Sondland also reportedly worked on a Trump-pleasing draft statement for Ukraine that would have committed the government to investigating “corruption,” including the Biden/Burisma matter, although the statement was never actually issued. And Sondland was the guy responsible for that strange text exchange with Bill Taylor in September in which Taylor complained about what looked to him to be a quid pro quo. Sondland went quiet for several hours after that text and reportedly spoke to Trump directly in the interim before texting back to Taylor that of course our president would never attempt to trade military aid for something of value to him like a Biden probe.
There are a lot of questions for him. The impeachment case may rest on him. If Trump won’t let him testify, how can Democrats not proceed with obstruction?
Maybe Trump’s strategy, as Ed speculated, is simply to drag this out. Yes, House Democrats would probably win a court fight to compel Sondland’s testimony but they want to wrap up impeachment ASAP, not sit around paralyzed for months while the courts mull it over. The longer it takes, the closer we get to the election, the easier it is for Republicans in Congress to say that it’s too late to impeach and we should just let voters decide the matter in November. Realizing that, Democrats may decide not to even bother with forcing Sondland to testify and proceed instead to impeach Trump for obstruction. What happens then, I assume, is that Senate Republicans acquit on grounds that Trump has some sort of insuperable executive privilege that lets him withhold evidence from Congress whenever he likes. They’re gonna acquit him no matter what; it’s a matter of finding the reason. The question is how the public reacts to all of that. With more Americans already in favor of conducting an impeachment inquiry than opposed, which side “wins” the PR war if Trump starts blocking people from testifying, gets impeached, and then is acquitted half-heartedly on grounds that he has a moral right to obstruct unfair investigations?
If today’s WaPo poll means anything, it means Democrats are increasingly unlikely to suffer a major backlash from impeachment. The higher support for investigating Trump and Ukraine goes, the more eager voters will be potentially to side with the Dem narrative that Trump’s refusal to cooperate is obstruction of a legitimate probe, not a righteous refusal to participate in a sham Star Chamber proceeding.
The question today is whether Pelosi wants to play hardball over Sondland or not. Democrats could impeach him for refusing to testify, I assume, but that would risk making the impeachment process seem more petty than it already is and Sondland certainly wouldn’t be convicted by the Senate anyway. He’s willing to testify, after all. It’s Trump who’s holding him back. What Dems could do instead is subpoena him and then move to hold him in contempt and request an expedited disposition in court if/when Sondland challenges them. If the courts comply and rule in their favor, that’s a big win for them. If the courts decide to take their time with the matter, Pelosi might just drop the court battle and move to impeach Trump for obstruction instead.
Here’s Schiff speaking after Sondland failed to show, followed by Jim Jordan.
.@RepAdamSchiff on White House Blocking Sondland Testimony & Documents “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.” pic.twitter.com/Tguxdk9mDG
— CSPAN (@cspan) October 8, 2019
Rep. @Jim_Jordan on White House Blocking Sondland Testimony & Documents: “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.” pic.twitter.com/R5mkW5Emkt
— CSPAN (@cspan) October 8, 2019
Update: Here we go.
JUST IN: House cmtes. say they will be “issuing subpoena to Ambassador Sondland for both his testimony and documents” after the US State Dept. blocked his congressional testimony today, and “we consider this interference to be obstruction of the impeachment inquiry.”
— NBC News (@NBCNews) October 8, 2019
That doesn’t mean Democrats will necessarily move to hold him in contempt if he doesn’t show again — although presumably they will. Rather, it makes their case to the public a little more forceful. Sondland is no longer defying an “invitation” to testify. He’s defying legal process.