Trump admin blocks key ambassador from testifying to Congress

Gordon Sondland is hardly a household name, but he's a critically important figure in the scandal that's likely to lead to Donald Trump's impeachment -- and as of this morning, his significance is suddenly even more acute.

If Sondland's name sounds familiar, it's probably because of last week's story about the text messages, which showed Sondland, a Republican megadonor whom the president made the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, as directly involved in the scheme to pressure Ukraine to assist with Trump's re-election campaign.

Not surprisingly, Congress has been eager to hear from the ambassador, who was due to arrive on Capitol Hill today for a deposition. As NBC News reported this morning, the Trump administration had other ideas.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, has been directed by the State Department not to appear Tuesday for a scheduled interview with House committees leading the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. [...]"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," Robert Luskin, Sondland's attorney, said in a statement. "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," Luskin continued, adding that Sondland "is profoundly disappointed that he will not be able to testify today."

It's worth noting for context that the ambassador is a current employee of the U.S. State Department. According to Sondland's lawyer, he wants to answer questions, but he also can't defy the agency's directive.

The fact that the Trump administration is blocking a key witness from answering questions may not seem especially surprising, but note the timing: the ambassador left Europe, traveled to D.C., and was all set to answer questions today. It wasn't until the morning of Sondland's appearance that the administration balked.

Obstructing the impeachment inquiry likely makes impeachment more likely, which naturally raises the question of what it was Team Trump figured out in the 11th hour.

For his part, Donald Trump went further than I'd expected in taking personal responsibility for today's developments.

"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," the president wrote on Twitter, suggesting he was directly involved in the decision to block the ambassador from answering questions.

Of course, by this reasoning, if Trump doesn't recognize the legitimacy of the process, then the White House isn't prepared to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry at all.

That will only reinforce impressions of a cover-up. For now, it appears the president and his team don't care.

Postscript: Let's also not forget that the Wall Street Journal reported late last week that, according to Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), it was Sondland who had "described to him a quid pro quo involving a commitment by Kyiv to probe matters related to U.S. elections and the status of nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine that the president had ordered to be held up in July."

The far-right senator, apparently confused, later tried to walk back his comments -- I think Johnson thought he was helping the White House and reversed course when he realized he was making matters worse -- but this further reinforces Sondland's importance as a key player in the larger drama.