Gordon Sondland: Trump’s man in Brussels in eye of the storm


Ambassador Sondland (C) arriving at Capitol, 17 Oct 19

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Ambassador Sondland (C) has now revised his 17 October testimony to the impeachment inquiry

It has been a torrid introduction to diplomacy for the wealthy hotelier appointed US ambassador to the EU by Donald Trump.

Gordon Sondland is now at the centre of the impeachment inquiry, which seeks to establish whether President Trump tried to pressure Ukraine into discrediting potential 2020 election rival Joe Biden.

Mr Sondland made headlines after suddenly changing his testimony to Congress and suggesting that a potentially impeachable offence had been committed by President Trump.

He had been a little-known figure until that 5 November testimony. So how is he viewed in Brussels?

Speaking anonymously, one EU Council diplomat said he had “a way about him that can rub people the wrong way” and another said he was “not everyone’s cup of tea”.

Questions are being asked about Mr Sondland’s admission that he was given a “special assignment” in Ukraine by President Trump, despite the fact that Ukraine is not in the EU.

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Mr Sondland offered a glimpse into his personal life in a “getting to know you” video, posted on YouTube by the US embassy in Brussels a year ago.

He sits on the sofa with his wife of 25 years and chats about his family, his European immigrant roots, his love for flying as a trained pilot, and his extensive art collection. The video is a cosy, open portrait of a wealthy family looking forward to a life in Europe.

He is the 20th US ambassador to the EU, in his first foreign posting, which is also his political debut.

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US Mission to EU

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In a US embassy video, Mr Sondland introduces his wife Katy Durant (R) and their two children

His background has echoes of the president who chose him: a multi-millionaire hotelier and businessman who set his sights on politics.

He had originally backed a Trump rival in the 2016 presidential race – Jeb Bush. Back then, Mr Sondland said Donald Trump was out of touch with his personal beliefs “on so many levels”.

But, when Donald Trump was elected, Mr Sondland donated $1m (£781,000) to his inaugural committee. Soon after that he was made ambassador to Brussels.

Ukraine ‘special assignment’

His political patch extended to Ukraine, and he split much of his time between Brussels and Kyiv.

Earlier this year he told a Ukrainian reporter: “We are what are called the three amigos and the three amigos are [Energy] Secretary [Rick] Perry, Ambassador [Kurt] Volker and myself, and we’ve been tasked with sort of overseeing the US-Ukraine relationship, between our contacts at the highest levels of the US government and the highest levels of the Ukrainian government.”

This role has since been called into question by the previous US Ambassador to the EU, Anthony Gardner, who described it as “extremely unusual”, since it had little to do directly with the European Union.

Mr Sondland called it a “special assignment”. And that Ukraine role has put him in the spotlight as a key witness in the impeachment investigation.

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President Zelensky had talks with President Trump in New York in September

On 5 November Mr Sondland abruptly changed his testimony to Congress, saying he now recalled telling a top adviser to Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky that nearly $400m in military aid to Kyiv would not be released unless the Ukraine government announced an investigation – that President Trump wanted – into the business dealings of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.

Hunter Biden sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy firm.

It was essentially a quid pro quo arrangement with Ukraine that Mr Sondland had previously denied.

The testimony adds credibility to the central accusation that President Trump abused his power in office by pressuring the Ukrainian government to take action that would help his 2020 presidential campaign. President Trump denies this.

Abrasive or just plain-speaking?

For Gordon Sondland, his sudden declaration has caused incredulity, and endless comic material on US prime-time TV networks.

On the CBS Late Show, comedian Stephen Colbert commented: “Why did Sondland decide to revise his statement to Congress? According to him, incriminating testimony from other witnesses ‘refreshed my recollection about certain conversations’ .. huh, you know that testimony I just heard? It really refreshed the old noodle.”

Mr Sondland’s reputation in Brussels is mixed, according to ambassadors and senior EU officials I spoke to. Impressions range from outward dislike of his style to open admiration.

They agreed to speak frankly, on condition of anonymity.

One senior EU Council diplomat said “he talks in high tones – he’s got a manner and a way about him that can rub people the wrong way.

“He’s certainly an expert in alienation. Most other ambassadors in this job know the way it ticks, have other ambassadors’ mobile numbers, and are plugged into the way things work. He hasn’t come from this world of diplomacy, doesn’t know it and seems not to want to know it either. And we haven’t seen that much of him here in Brussels.”

Another said they would “try to be diplomatic” – before making clear that they much preferred the previous ambassador. “This one’s not, well not everyone’s cup of tea, as you say. Maybe a Lapsang Souchong…. it can leave a bitter taste.”

‘Very professional’

On the subject of tea, it’s anecdotally reported that Ambassador Sondland uses a silent buzzer device during diplomatic meetings in Brussels to signal to his staff that he wants a cup of tea.

One ambassadorial adviser who has spent decades in Brussels had kinder words. “He’s aggressive, he’s combative, some people might say highfalutin. But he seems very open and you get where he’s coming from. I know where he stands and respect that.”

The official on-the-record view offers a different take. Mina Andreeva is chief spokeswoman for the EU Commission, and said: “We have always experienced him as a very professional counterpart, who has been helpful in continuing our transatlantic relations.”

Diplomacy at its most diplomatic.

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Ambassador Sondland and his team in Brussels were contacted for comment this week, but were unavailable. Reluctance to engage with reporters appears to be out of step with the ambassador’s previous efforts to reach out to journalists.

The chief Europe correspondent for Politico, Matthew Karnitschnig, tells a story which suggests that up until recently, Ambassador Sondland went out of his way to make a name for himself.

“Not too long ago, we did a profile of the US ambassador to Germany. As soon as that story ran, all of a sudden our phone at Politico was ringing and it was none other than Ambassador Sondland, wondering why we weren’t paying more attention to him. So I think it’s quite interesting. This drive to get Trump’s attention may have gone a little too far here in engaging with Ukraine and trying to do Trump’s bidding.”

The impeachment hearings into Donald Trump go public this week.


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