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The quid pro quos of Gordon D. Sondland

Long after his turn as a key witness at Donald Trump’s first impeachment, the former E.U. ambassador wants another kind of public hearing

Gordon Sondland, former U.S. ambassador to the European Union under President Donald Trump, at the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington April 28. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Gordon Sondland is a walking asterisk, a footnote that was once a headline, a man who made some history without really changing the course of it. As memoirs of the Donald Trump presidency have zipped to everyone’s tablets, Sondland has searched his name in their indexes. It usually falls somewhere between “Sergei Magnitsky Act” and “Soros, George.” Sondland hasn’t liked what he has read about himself, as the U.S. ambassador to the European Union from 2018 to 2020. No one’s gotten the Gordon Sondland part of the story exactly right, according to Gordon Sondland. Meanwhile, recent memoirists such as Fiona Hill and Alexander Vindman — White House advisers who also testified during Trump’s first impeachment hearings — have been lauded anew as heroes, sages, patriots. And Gordon Sondland …

“I was a doofus,” he says, paraphrasing the popular caricature.

Do you remember Gordon Sondland? His turn in the spotlight happened two impeachments and one insurrection ago, which felt like another lifetime until Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Suddenly, in retrospect, the bumbling and angling revealed during Trump’s first impeachment proceedings took on a sheen of portent. And Gordon Sondland — who courted and championed Volodymyr Zelensky long before the Ukrainian leader became a wartime legend — thinks that he looks, in retrospect, not at all like a doofus.

“Hindsight is an amazing thing,” says Sondland, 64, sitting in a booth at the steakhouse of the Four Seasons in Georgetown. His initials are embroidered on his shirt cuffs. Lunch is a gem lettuce Caesar salad with chilled shrimp.

Perspective: Gordon Sondland’s most dazzling accessory: Resting happy face (from 2019)

He was a hotelier ambassador hired by a hotelier president. He was the guy with the wristwatch that cost a small fortune, the “Who, me?” look on the hot seat, the vibe that fell somewhere between charming and smarmy. He was the guy who helped insert into the congressional record the name of rapper A$AP Rocky and the phrase “loves your ass” (which Sondland uttered on a phone call with Trump from a restaurant in Kyiv; the alleged admirer was Zelensky, then the new president of Ukraine). During Sondland’s 2019 testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, he publicly confirmed the quid pro quo: Zelensky wanted a meeting with Trump, and Trump wanted Zelensky to announce an investigation of an energy company associated with Joe Biden’s son Hunter. Trump deputized his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to handle the matter, and Giuliani made clear that such a meeting had a certain price.

U.S. ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland testified he sought to condition a White House meeting for Ukraine in exchange for investigations on Nov. 20, 2019. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

What unfurled was “a continuum of insidiousness,” as Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) called it, that included the preconditioning of an Oval Office visit for Zelensky and the withholding of military aid to Kyiv. Sondland says he was swept along on that continuum while focused solely on one goal: getting Trump and Zelensky together to spark a friendship and strengthen the alliance.

“I really regret that the Ukrainians were placed in that predicament,” Sondland testified in 2019, “but I do not regret doing what I could to try to break the logjam and to solve the problem.”

Sondland felt then that Ukraine was in a vulnerable place, he says over lunch, “and now we’re proven correct.”

But in hindsight, does he wish that he had tried to stop the quid pro quo?

“Well, you had to have been there,” Sondland says when asked this question for the first time.

When asked it a second time, seven minutes later, he says: “None of us are perfect.”

When asked it a third time, five days later, on the phone, he is more specific: “My own mistake was probably buying into the whole Giuliani narrative and allowing a nongovernmental actor to interfere in a very ambiguous way with U.S. foreign policy.”

Sondland, now a divorcé, recently relocated from his lifelong home in the Pacific Northwest to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (Why? “Taxes.”) Last month, his boutique hotel chain merged with a larger company, and he will sit on its board of directors. He’s still suing the U.S. government for not paying his nearly $1.8 million in legal fees related to the impeachment. His own memoir, due out in October, is going through a security review, although it contains no bombshells. Its working title is “The Envoy: Mastering the Art of Diplomacy with Trump and the World.”

Let’s pause here to allow 10,000 career diplomats to roll their eyes.

Sondland won his ambassadorship and a starring role in the impeachment through “my relentless nature, my sometimes unhealthy drive and ambition, and a big serving of both candor and humor,” he writes in a manuscript of the memoir, in which he compares himself to both Icarus and Mercutio. “It’s been a special formula of luck, pluck, and f---ing up that’s helped me achieve great success. It’s also created huge problems for me and those close to me.” After “telling the truth on the stand, Trump fired me, Democrats lauded my honesty, and Republicans couldn’t quite figure out what I really wanted — or what the hell just happened.”

What did happen? How should we make sense of Gordon Sondland’s cameo in this disorienting period of American politics?

Sondland, the college-dropout son of immigrants who fled Nazi Germany, thirsted for an ambassadorship for decades. He used his self-made wealth and connections to make inroads into politics. He volunteered. He networked. He fundraised. He chaired finance committees for campaigns. In 2008, he bet on John McCain. In 2012, he bet on Mitt Romney. In 2016, he bet on a third consecutive loser, Jeb Bush, then cut his losses with the Trump team.

Sondland is not embarrassed to say that his $1 million donation to Trump’s inaugural committee helped finally grant his wish. For both Democrats and Republicans, ambassadorships have long been part of a quid pro quo: status for dollars.

“I think he’s sort of the poster child of why donor-ambassadors aren’t a great idea,” says Max Bergmann, who worked in the State Department under President Barack Obama and is now director of the Europe program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s not like he’s a bad guy. He seemed like someone who was energetic, which can be rare in this sphere, and wanted to be involved in U.S. foreign policy. But he has no experience, no knowledge of how these things work,” and “then gets involved in what was a shakedown of a foreign country.”

Memoirs are not written under oath, but they do have the benefit of hindsight, and a composite sketch of Sondland has emerged. In her memoir, Fiona Hill groups Sondland with “clever sycophants” running a “domestic errand” for Trump. Sondland had “the air of someone who enjoyed his position of prominence,” writes Marie Yovanovitch, who, while enduring a smear campaign as ambassador to Ukraine, asked Sondland how to get Trump to publicly support her. (Sondland suggested tweeting praise of the president.) The memoir published by John Bolton, at one point Trump’s national security adviser, drips with disdain for Sondland and paints him as a dopey interloper engaged in a kind of political “drug deal.” Vindman, in his memoir, squarely accuses Sondland of pushing the “improper” quid pro quo.

“Everyone who writes these books, especially this group, think they’re hot s---, right? And they’re not,” Sondland says. “They’re human beings, right? They made mistakes. I made mistakes.” And Sondland thinks that admitting his mistakes makes him more credible.

His version of history, recorded with the help of a ghostwriter, is both boastful and self-deprecating. His motivations were rooted in both “a desire to make a difference” and “a desire to be noticed.” He disparages “the global diplomatic system” as anachronistic, prissy, overpopulated. (“There are just too many people.”) He calls Bolton “extremely insecure,” Hill “a whiner” and Vindman’s heroic reputation “far from the truth.”

When asked for comment, Vindman said via a spokesman: “There are much more important issues right now than someone trying to rehabilitate their reputation.”

In his manuscript, Sondland faults Vindman and others for not just saying to him, “I disagree with your tactics,” or, “You’re an idiot; back off.” Vindman writes in his own memoir that he “directly and passionately objected to the deal” in a July 2019 White House meeting that included Sondland and Zelensky’s national security adviser. “I knew, I told Sondland, that everyone wanted to get the relationship with Ukraine back on track,” Vindman writes, “but this was by no means the way to do it.”

Sondland is proud of the tariff war with Europe and that he warned of Russia’s energy dominance in Europe vis-a-vis Ukraine. (“If Europe allows new Russian gas arteries into the heart of the continent, it will find itself hosting a Trojan horse,” he wrote in a 2019 op-ed in the Financial Times.) His biggest goal in Brussels, he writes, was to fuse the United States and European Union into “an unstoppable Western bloc to counter malign forces and authoritarianism around the world.”

Never mind that Ukraine isn’t in the E.U., and that the E.U. isn’t NATO, and Trump didn’t seem to care about any of it, unless his political fortunes were affected. Sondland wanted to bring Zelensky inside the Trump tent, he says, but got caught up in a simmering controversy “like a frog in hot water.”

“I believe he genuinely thought what he was doing was going to help Ukraine, by removing a sticking point that blocked this military aid to Ukraine,” says Peter D. Feaver, a professor of political science at Duke University, to which Sondland’s family foundation donated $2 million last year.

“Since I have talked with him over the years about foreign policy, I find the account he gives of his motivations and what he was trying to accomplish quite plausible,” adds Feaver, who served on President George W. Bush’s National Security Council. “I can also empathize with how his efforts looked to the NSC staff, who would find it challenging to coordinate across all of these actors in the already chaotic environment of the Trump administration.”

The professor, who considers Sondland a friend, wants to host a public conversation between the former ambassador and Vindman. Last month, the pair of impeachment witnesses ran into each other at a D.C. fundraiser for Ukrainian refugees. It had the makings of an awkward scene a la “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” the HBO show in which Vindman guest-starred as himself last year, but the pair chatted amiably about the notion of a public conversation — perhaps on professional vs. political appointees in government.

Maybe that’s the Gordon Sondland part of the story: Elect a certain president, get a certain cast of characters. Or the story might be about the long game for relevance or the shortest route to a goal. It might be about barging through doors but never burning bridges. In August 2016, after Trump denigrated the gold-star family of Khizr Khan, Sondland withdrew his support for the Republican nominee only to return after his election with the $1 million donation. Sondland thinks Trump damaged the American brand by not conceding the 2020 election, but he also praises Trump’s policies and ethos. Sondland writes that he’ll “never forgive” Trump for what happened on Jan. 6 of last year, while not ruling out supporting him in 2024. Would he do the job of ambassador again? “In a heartbeat,” Sondland says.

Maybe the Gordon Sondland part of the story is what it always appeared to be.

“Yes, I’m the quid pro quo guy,” he writes in the memoir, “but you know what? Everything in life is some kind of a quid pro quo.”