It has nothing to do with executive privilege, separation of powers among co-equal branches of government or what President Trump calls “presidential harassment.”
No, the reason the Trump administration declined to make Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, available for congressional testimony on Tuesday was because he told the story of what happened on the president’s call with Ukrainian president Volodomyr Zeleny too much to Trump’s liking.
That was the gist of a story from Chris Cillizza of CNN under the headline “The Trump administration sure is acting guilty on Ukraine.”
The decision to stop Sondland from appearing, which was announced less than an hour before the hearing was set to begin, “seems directly at odds with President Trump’s repeated insistence that his phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky was ‘perfect’ and that he retained the ‘absolute right’ to ask foreign countries to investigate corruption,” Cillizza wrote.
“If Trump – and by extension, his State Department – are completely certain they were acting appropriately, why keep Sondland from testifying to that effect? If there is truly nothing to hide here and everything that Trump and his people did was ‘perfect,’ why not let Sondland tell that story?
“Could it be that Sondland, in several text messages with former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, who testified before the Intelligence Committee last week, seems to resist putting anything other than Trump talking points in writing when questioned about whether there was unstated quid pro quo to force Ukraine to open an investigation into Joe Biden and his son, Hunter?”
Cillizza pointed to a text exchange with Bill Taylor, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, in which Taylor asked: “Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?” and Sondland responded: “Call me.”
Cillizza avoids another exchange, in which Taylor says to Sondland: “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” and Sondland responds: “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.” He then again suggests they talk by phone rather than by text.
Democrats have released only snippets of the interview with Volker, a special envoy to Ukraine. Republicans have called for the entire transcript to be released and have charged Democrats’ released selective quotes taken out of context.
Cillizza ignores this fact when he writes: “Those are just a few of the important questions Sondland would have to answer in his testimony today. And again, if the administration believes – truly believes – it has nothing to hide, then why not let Sondland talk? If nothing was wrong and more transparency will show how ‘perfect’ Trump’s handling of the Zelensky call truly was, then why not shine as bright a light as possible on Sondland’s actions?”
Cillizza said he made the same argument when Trump refused to sit down for a face-to-face interview with special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump provided extensive answers on paper to all the questions Mueller’s team submitted to him.
Cillizza then hinted he had insight into White House strategy on the matter. “Why cancel Sondland’s appearance at the last minute, knowing it will look like a guilty dodge by a man, and a broader administration, that have insisted they have absolutely nothing to hide?” he wrote. “The obvious answer is that the administration has calculated that Sondland’s testimony – even behind closed doors – would have been more damaging than the flack they will take for barring him from appearing, at least for now.”
What Cillizza fails to mention is that if that’s the obvious answer, then the answer to the question of why Democrats won’t release the full transcript of Volker’s testimony is equally obvious and equally damning.