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Impeachment: Gordon Sondland, donor-turned-diplomat, a central player in Ukraine controversy


Oct. 08, 2019

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Saturday dismissed questions about US President Donald Trump's attempts to push Ukraine and China to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden as a "silly gotcha game." (Oct. 5)
WASHINGTON – Gordon Sondland, President Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, was a controversial appointee even before the Ukraine scandal broke.
He came to the post as a GOP donor with no diplomatic experience and raised eyebrows with a brash style that did not sit well in Brussels, where he is stationed.
Now, Sondland is in the House Democrats’ hot seat – scheduled to testify behind closed doors on Tuesday.
Here's what you need to know about Sondland, his role in the Ukraine pressure campaign, and Tuesday's testimony on Capitol Hill.
Who is Gordon Sondland? A big donor turned Trump diplomat
A wealthy former hotel magnate from Oregon, Sondland was tapped for the EU ambassador position after donating $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee. He made the contributions through four separate limited liability corporations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign donations.
During his confirmation hearing, Sondland's supporters touted his background as a first-generation American whose parents had fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s. His parents eventually made their way to Seattle, where Sondland was born in 1957.
Before Trump tapped him for the EU ambassadorship, Sondland was a successful real-estate investor and hotel owner. Until last year, Sondland's principal involvement in politics seemed to be as a generous GOP donor. Since 2007, he has given more than $280,000 to the Republican National Committee and the Senate GOP's campaign arm.
Once installed in Brussels, Sondland quickly made waves as "a hard charging euroskeptic," said Thomas Wright , a senior fellow and Europe expert at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning Washington think tank.
In December 2018, he blasted the EU as "out of touch" and accused the bloc's leaders of dragging their feet on trade negotiations in an interview with Politico .
"My joke today is if I ask someone at the EU what time it is, the answer is 'no'," he told the news outlet.
A 'Trump spy'? Texts show Sondland a key player in Ukraine talks
In recent days, Sondland has emerged as a central player in the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and probe a conspiracy theory about Ukraine's alleged role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Text messages released last week show that he and Kurt Volker, Trump's former special envoy to Ukraine, orchestrated a months-long effort to push Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to make a public promise that he would order probes into both of those matters.
"Heard from the White House," Volker wrote in a text to a top Zelensky adviser on July 25, just before Trump and Zelensky were scheduled to speak by phone in a call that helped spark the impeachment inquiry.
"Assuming President Z (Zelensky) convinces trump he will investigate/"get to the bottom of what happened" in 2016, we will nail down a date for visit to Washington. Good luck!," Volker told his Ukrainian counterpart.
After the Trump-Zelensky call, an unnamed whistleblower filed a complaint accusing Trump of using the power of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election. Biden is a leading 2020 candidate for the Democratic nomination.
Even before the whistleblower complaint, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, raised concerns about the apparent link between Trump's demands for a politically motivated investigation and granting Zelensky a meeting at the White House. Taylor also pressed Volker and Sondland on whether Trump was withholding nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid until Zelensky delivered on his demands.
"Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Taylor asked in a Sept. 1 text message to Volker and Sondland.
"Call me," Sondland texted back.
Taylor responded: "As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."
Sondland pushed back, saying Trump had been "crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind ... I suggest we stop the back and forth by text." He told Taylor to call "S," presumably referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, if he wanted to discuss the matter further.
Democrats have said the texts prove a quid-pro-quo – Trump wanted investigations into Biden and the 2016 election before he would meet with Zelensky. Trump's supporters say there was no such condition and the call was perfectly appropriate.
Critics say it's not clear why Sondland was involved in these Ukraine conversations at all, since the eastern European country is not under his purview.
"The EU ambassador has nothing to do with US-Ukrainian relations," said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. McFaul said he was puzzled when he first saw Sondland's name listed as a member of the U.S. delegation attending Zelensky's inauguration in May.
His role in Ukraine policy is "highly unusual," McFaul said, adding that he suspects Sondland was acting as sort of a "Trump spy," inserted into the sensitive, geopolitical negotiations to protect the president's political interests.
"It seems to me he’s there as a kind of Trump spy as these professional diplomats do the deal," McFaul said. "Why else is he there ... other than he is a Trump loyalist?
'He has a lot of questions to answer'
Sondland did not respond to a message seeking comment. And a State Department spokeswoman also did not respond to an email asking about Sondland's testimony.
Wright said the big question is whether Sondland cooperates with the House Democrats’ inquiry or resists.
If he cooperates, Democrats will want to know why he was involved in the Ukraine discussions and who asked him to take on that role, Wright said. And Democrats will also want to know what he, Volker and Taylor talked about offline, since the text messages make references to phone calls among them.
“He has a lot of questions to answer, for sure,” Wright said.
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