There are several ways to interpret the White House decision to bar Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, from testifying before a joint session of three congressional committees Tuesday morning. But the simplest explanation is the most likely one: The president is, once again, seeking to interfere with an investigation into his actions.
And a fresh poll suggests that more independents and Republicans are realizing that the man behind the screen is not the great and terrible wizard of Oz - "in my great and unmatched wisdom," Trump tweeted about himself Monday - but a two-bit charlatan who is not to be trusted with power, and who is fundamentally incapable of understanding how to be a president.
And who repeatedly has abused the power of his office when it suits him.
Trump sought Tuesday to, in essence, claim that House Democrats forced him to stonewall.
Sondland's role seems pivotal to the events in Ukraine. In one message, Sondland wrote that Trump "really wants the deliverable," an apparent reference to the president's demand that Ukraine open an investigation into the family of political rival Joe Biden.
Whether that demand came in tandem with a freeze on military aid to Ukraine and a request for a White House meeting by Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is a focus of the investigation, but the quid pro quo seems clear despite Sondland's message that Trump "has been crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind." Sondland followed that up - in a message that reads like he suddenly realized he was leaving an electronic trail for investigators - with "I suggest we stop the back and forth by text."
Sondland also turned over a personal device to the State Department that contained relevant messages, which the administration is refusing to turn over to the House investigators, House Intelligence Chair Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) told reporters Tuesday morning.
A basic question that needs answering is why Sondland, a hotelier with limited political experience and no foreign policy background, was involved in the Ukraine discussions in the first place. As ambassador to the EU - in the tradition of Washington, D.C., politics, an apparent reward for his role as a major party donor - Ukraine falls outside his assigned portfolio.
Still, there he was, doing the president's bidding. There could be a very defensible reason for his role, which Sondland ought to explain before Congress.
But in refusing to let Sondland testify, and in withholding evidence in the form of related text messages on a personal device, Trump and his protectors are using the power of the presidency to impede an investigation into whether the president sought help from a foreign government to target a rival, and thus interfere in a U.S. presidential election.
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That's a problem across the political spectrum, and the more Republicans and conservative-leaning independents who come to recognize that, the better.
The Washington Post-Schar School poll released Monday found that a majority of Americans supported the decision by House Democrats to open the impeachment inquiry. Support among Democrats has been strong for weeks, but the new poll - which amplifies recent smaller shifts in other polls - found that support for the impeachment overall grew to 58%, with 38% of those surveyed saying they thought the House was wrong to start the inquiry. That shift in public opinion happened before Trump dug in his heels by barring Sondland from testifying.
According to the poll, support was lower, just under 50%, for the House going a step further and voting on impeachment, suggesting that the recent revelations about Trump's conduct in Ukraine have led more people to demand more information. Notably, among Republicans - who have been tenacious in their support for Trump - about one-third now support the inquiry. And 57% of independents, crucial to the president's reelection, also support it.
Compared with a July poll by the Post and ABC News, those numbers are up 25 percentage points among Democrats and a more noteworthy increase (in this polarized era) of 21 points among Republicans and 20 points among independents.
The real fight will be for the hearts of those Republicans and conservative-leaning independents. At least 20 sitting Republican senators would be needed to convict if the House voted to impeach Trump, and many of those politicians would be vulnerable to blowback among Trump's base.
So it will be a test of their patriotism and loyalties if they are forced to choose between removing a cancer from the White House, to paraphrase one-time Nixon aide John Dean, and standing by a man destined to rank among the worst presidents in U.S. history.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Scott Martelle, who joined the Los Angeles Times editorial board in 2014, is a veteran journalist and author of six history books.
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