Gordon Sondland, EU Ambassador, And His Role In The Impeachment Inquiry Based on interviews with people who know Sondland, what emerges is a portrait of a man who was fixated on getting an ambassadorship in Europe — and was willing to do what it took to keep it.

Gordon Sondland, The Ambassador Whose Texts Put Him At The Center Of Ukraine Scandal

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We're going to introduce you now to one of the people at the center of the House impeachment inquiry. Gordon Sondland is testifying before House investigators. He is the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Up to now, the country has known him for a single text message. In that message to another diplomat, he defended President Trump's involvement in Ukraine. He said there was no quid pro quo in the president's requests from Ukrainian officials.

In prepared testimony, Sondland says more. He says that text message just conveyed what President Trump told him. He says he didn't know the president wanted a probe of a political rival, Joe Biden.

So who is Gordon Sondland? On this dramatic day, Rachel Martin takes a long look.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Gordon Sondland has an important job. He is the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. Here's a bit of a video he made with his family introducing him after he was named.

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GORDON SONDLAND: My family is the most important thing to me. We spend a lot of time together. We travel together.

KATHERINE DURANT: I grew up here in Portland, Ore., and I'm very excited about the opportunity to spend more time in the EU and specifically in Brussels.

MARTIN: They did this introductory video because the U.S. ambassador to the EU is not really a position that makes someone a household name. No, what has elevated Gordon Sondland into the public consciousness is something that wasn't part of his original job, an assignment that put him on the ground in Ukraine. And it's the reason he's testifying today. The day after that now-infamous call between President Trump and President Zelenskiy, Gordon Sondland spoke with Ukrainian TV.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You're the U.S. ambassador to the EU, but you've been spending a great deal of time in Kyiv. Why is that?

SONDLAND: Well, President Trump has not only honored me with the job of being the U.S. ambassador to the EU, but he's also given me other special assignments.

MARTIN: Details are emerging about those special assignments. This week, we learned from testimony that acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney pushed out the diplomats who had been in charge of Ukraine policy. And he put three other people at the helm instead who apparently gave themselves a nickname. Here's Sondland again on Ukrainian TV.

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SONDLAND: We have what are called the three amigos. And the three amigos are Secretary Perry; again, Ambassador Volker and myself. And we've been tasked with sort of overseeing the Ukraine-U.S. relationship between our contacts at the highest levels of the U.S. government and now the highest levels of the Ukrainian government.

MARTIN: In that same interview, Sondland said he spoke to President Trump just a few minutes before he placed that call to Zelenskiy, although in his testimony today, Sondland minimizes that conversation. He says it was short and not substantive. His now-famous text messages came a month and a half later. That's when he denied that there was any quid pro quo in President Trump's conversation with Zelenskiy. He was sure in his denial, he says, because he clarified the issue personally with President Trump.

The phrase quid pro quo has now become a kind of shorthand to describe this entire debacle, but it's a phrase Gordon Sondland uses himself to explain his own negotiating philosophy. Here he is describing, at a business breakfast in Portland back in 2016, how he used to facilitate phone calls between the former Democratic governor of Oregon and President George W. Bush.

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SONDLAND: We would make these requests. And they were done quietly. They were done with rifle precision. And there was always a quid pro quo: the governor would help the president with something, and the president would help the governor with something. And it was very transactional.

MARTIN: Transactional was a word I heard a lot when asking friends and former colleagues about Gordon Sondland, so was pragmatic. As a hotel developer tight in GOP circles working in liberal Portland, Ore., Sondland had to figure out how to work with a lot of people he didn't agree with.

DAVID NIERENBERG: I collect books and wine bottles. And Gordon, among other things, collects relationships.

MARTIN: This is David Nierenberg. He got to know Sondland when they both worked as fundraisers for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign back in 2012. He and others said that, back then, it was pretty clear Sondland wanted to hitch his wagon to a candidate who could make him an ambassador, preferably to a German-speaking country. Sondland's Jewish parents fled Germany during World War II. They ended up in Washington state and opened a dry cleaning business. It's a story Sondland has recently started telling a lot.

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SONDLAND: But I'm the first in my family that was born in the U.S. My parents were both European immigrants. I started...

They had to escape Nazi Germany. That was the beginning of the uprising of Hitler.

Yeah, my mother was able to escape. My father was smuggled out of Germany before things got bad.

Soon Gunther, Frieda and my sister Lucy found fortunate permanent refuge in Seattle, Wash....

MARTIN: David Nierenberg told me Sondland saw an ambassadorship as a way to square the circle of his family's legacy - as some kind of symbolic justice.

NIERENBERG: It's not uncommon among the people I know who come through this experience to want to have relationships to powerful people in government because - let's face it - almost anyone who either personally survived or whose parents or grandparents survived the Holocaust did so because of the intervention of someone who helped them.

MARTIN: And you think that explains Gordon Sondland's support of President Trump.

NIERENBERG: I think it may. I think it may.

MARTIN: It was a process, though. Sondland supported Trump, and then he didn't support him. And then Trump became the nominee, and Sondland went all in and made a million-dollar donation to Trump's inaugural committee. He still had his eyes on the prize, a European ambassador post. And jobs like that are often doled out to top donors. But Sondland made the donation quietly through four separate entities.

Len Bergstein spent a decade working as a consultant for Sondland. He helped him push back against a big convention center hotel in Portland. He also observed him as he made political alliances around the state. Bergstein says Sondland is not an ideologue. He is a political pragmatist, and he would ally himself with whomever could help him achieve his dream posting in Europe.

LEN BERGSTEIN: Here was a chance. He'd tried to kind of ride the Romney horse into that position. He tried to be involved in the Jeb Bush campaign. And here was his - kind of like his ticket to the ball here. And I think with Trump, he saw a chance to do it.

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SONDLAND: Good afternoon. It's an honor to appear before you as the president's nominee to serve as the United States' ambassador to the European Union.

MARTIN: Fast-forward 15 months and 26 days. And now, today, Ambassador Gordon Sondland has been subpoenaed to testify before Congress. I asked Len Bergstein if he understands who Sondland is at his core.

Would you describe him as someone who has a strong moral compass or a clearly defined code of ethics?

BERGSTEIN: You know, I've been thinking about that. And I'm not sure I'm able to kind of answer that. I didn't - he certainly never asked me to go over any lines. He was someone who not - wasn't looking to kind of bend the rules necessarily but was trying to bend the narrative, trying to make sure that if he could tell his story in his way, he would win.

MARTIN: Bergstein then told me his own story about working with Sondland. It goes back to that convention center hotel project they were trying to hold up for so many years. When it finally did get resolved, Bergstein says Sondland got some property out of the deal. But it wasn't enough for him. Sondland wanted city leaders to draft a statement saying that he was a, quote, "pillar of the community." And they did.

BERGSTEIN: When I think back to that process, the closing of a very contentious battle in Portland, Gordon was first and foremost interested in his own reputation. Thursday is going to be, I think, that pillar-of-the-community kind of moment that I think Gordon is looking for where he can kind of, like, define himself in the narrative so that in fact he doesn't get played as a bit-part villain being manipulated by some others.

NIERENBERG: I have a sense of profound sadness for Gordon and for his family that he finds himself in this situation.

MARTIN: David Nierenberg tells me he was in touch with Sondland on email just a couple weeks ago.

NIERENBERG: I said to him, in so many words, please remember that Richard Nixon did not lose the presidency because of the break-in at the DNC. Richard Nixon lost the presidency because of two years of lying about it and trying to cover it up. And so my advice to Gordon was, if there's anything about which you feel, with 20/20 hindsight, uncomfortable, then by all means be truthful about it, be apologetic about it and make things right because you've got decades of life ahead of you. And the response I got was basically, thank you for your email. You've always given me good advice.

MARTIN: And Steve, today we're going to see if Sondland takes that advice.

INSKEEP: Yeah. His story does seem to have changed, though, from that simple no quid pro quo that he put in that text message, Rachel.

MARTIN: Right. So what is different now, according to his prepared remarks, is that he's saying, if there was a quid pro quo of some kind, he didn't know anything about it. He says he wasn't on the phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy. And in all the readouts that he got of that call, these summaries that people send out - the White House sends out - he didn't see any reference to Joe or Hunter Biden in any of that. So he felt perfectly fine defending the president in those text messages. He says that tackling Ukrainian corruption, it's always been part of his portfolio, and that Burisma, the energy company that is where Hunter Biden has served on the board...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...He says that's a natural part of his portfolio. But again, he maintains that he never even knew that Hunter Biden sat on that board, which would mean he hadn't seen news reports about it and that he hadn't heard Rudy Giuliani talking about it incessantly as early as last spring.

INSKEEP: Trying to explain why, when he said no quid pro quo, he was, in his version, just repeating the president's words, not stating his own actual knowledge.

MARTIN: Exactly.

INSKEEP: But you mentioned Rudy Giuliani. Does he talk about Rudy Giuliani in his prepared remarks?

MARTIN: Well, he does. And it's clear when you read it that he is trying to distance himself from the president's personal lawyer. He says at one point that President Trump did ask him to talk directly to Giuliani about concerns about Ukrainian corruption in general. And Sondland says that in that conversation, Giuliani actually brought up the 2016 election specifically, including the DNC server, which, as you know, is at the center of a widely disputed conspiracy theory. Giuliani also brought up Burisma and noted these as two issues he wanted Ukraine to investigate. Sondland says he didn't want to work with Giuliani but President Trump gave him no other choice.

Steve, there's one thing that's important to note here. There's an inconsistency in Sondland's prepared remarks. He says that "in late July 2019, Ambassadors Volker and Taylor and I" - quoting now - "exchanged emails in which we all agreed Zelenskiy should have no involvement in presidential elections." He maintains he didn't know anything about it, so that's a question that lawmakers are going to want to put to him today.

INSKEEP: OK. Thanks for your reporting, Rachel Martin. Really appreciate it.

MARTIN: You're welcome.

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