The U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, is testifying on Thursday in the House impeachment inquiry. Sondland put himself in the line of a number of people who seemed dismayed at the fact that President Trump was outsourcing U.S. foreign policy to his lawyer.
Besides being erratic (to put it kindly) and consumed with conspiracy theories, Giuliani was also pursuing not the interests of the United States but two other goals: getting dirt to smear Joe Biden in order to help Trump get reelected, and finding ways to make money for himself.
For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Sondland was given responsibility for Ukraine along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Kurt Volker, the latter being the only one of the “three amigos” whose job actually gave him reason to set policy on Ukraine. But to one degree or another, everyone seemed to answer to Giuliani.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Rick Perry called Giuliani at Trump’s instruction in order to arrange a meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Michael McKinley, who recently resigned as senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, has testified that “I was disturbed by the implication that foreign governments were being approached to procure negative information on political opponents."
That was Giuliani’s project. McKinley’s frustration culminated with the removal of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was pushed out at Giuliani’s behest. “I did play a role in that,” Giuliani told The Post.
In Sondland’s opening statement, he describes dealing with Giuliani as something he found distasteful but had no choice but to do, since it came at the president’s direct order:
In these short conversations, Mr. Giuliani emphasized that the President wanted a public statement from President Zelensky committing Ukraine to look into anticorruption issues. Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 election (including the DNC server) and Burisma as two anticorruption investigatory topics of importance for the President. [...]
Please know that I would not have recommended that Mr. Giuliani or any private citizen be involved in these foreign policy matters. However, given the President’s explicit direction, as well as the importance we attached to arranging a White House meeting between Presidents Trump and Zelensky, we agreed to do as President Trump directed.
Burisma is the company on whose board Hunter Biden sat, and we know full well that any discussion of “corruption” coming from Trump and Giuliani was not about fighting corruption per se — you’d have trouble finding two people who care less about actual corruption — but about using anti-corruption investigations as a tool to discredit Biden.
I spoke about this bizarre situation with Heather Hurlburt, a foreign policy expert at New America who served in the White House and the State Department under Bill Clinton. She noted that friends and relatives of presidents will occasionally show up at an embassy and offer their extremely unwanted assistance with one matter or another.
“But to have that presented as, ‘No, this person is actually in charge of policy and you, the Senate-confirmed person in the role, will stand aside in favor of the president’s friend/lawyer’ is totally unheard of," Hurlburt told me.
Even having Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, managing Ukraine policy is unprecedented.
“It is not normal for any ambassador to get that far out of their lane,” Hurlburt said. “The E.U. portfolio does not include managing relations with Ukraine. And no normal secretary of state would allow or encourage that because it would just make your building unmanageable.”
It isn’t that there aren’t sometimes cases where authority is moved around or temporarily given to one figure over another. But when it happens, Hurlburt told me, “it’s all done through a process that’s public, it’s announced, everybody knows who you’re supposed to be dealing with, and the power relations of it are deliberately made explicit throughout the bureaucracy."
This is kind of the opposite of that, where we set up a different group of people who get to decide what happens in Ukraine and we don’t want that to be apparent to anyone," Hurlburt continued.
There were many parts of Sondland’s testimony that were almost laughably self-serving (here’s a rundown). But even if you’re skeptical of him when he says he was uncomfortable with Giuliani’s involvement, that involvement is not in question. Indeed, we keep learning about more areas where he exerted influence on Trump and more (accused) criminals he was involved with.
The picture that is becoming clear is one in which Trump not only upended the ordinary way American foreign policy is conducted, he did so in order to advance his own political purposes, by essentially handing over key decisions and coordination to Giuliani, someone with no accountability and the worst possible motives.
Again and again, Trump told people — Sondland, Perry, Zelensky — that they had to talk to Giuliani. Whatever each one of those conversations entailed, you can bet it wasn’t about the interests of the United States.