U.S. ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland took the stand in a public hearing Wednesday, following a closed-door deposition before the House Intelligence Committee in mid-October.
His appearance at the impeachment inquiry hearing may help resolve the question of whether top Ukrainian officials were asked to investigate President Donald Trump’s Democratic rival Joe Biden and his son in exchange for military aid and a White House invitation. Depending on what he says, Sondland will likely have a lot of journalists telling him afterward, “Call me.”
Ahead of his testimony Washington was rife with speculation as to whether, and to what extent, Sondland will prioritize his loyalty to the president who fulfilled his longtime dream of becoming an ambassador, or reveal key information that could lead Democrats further down the road to impeachment.
Whether his testimony helps or harms Trump’s chances of being impeached will depend, to a large extent, on which version of Gordon Sondland shows up.
Over the years — and even over the past week — the wealthy Republican hotel magnate from Portland, Oregon, has zigzagged between two personas: A straight-shooting pillar of his community who embraces political bipartisanship and has shown a willingness to turn his back on Trump in defense of his principles; and a die-hard Trump loyalist, eager to do the president’s bidding in service of further advancing his political stature by proving he is a man who gets things done. The roots of Sondland’s ambition are discussed in a recent profile of him in The Oregonian, quoting his “fellow self-made Jewish entrepreneur” David Nierenberg as saying he fits the classic pattern of members of Jewish families who made it through the Holocaust and immigrated to the United States. “After the searing experience these people have been through, if they were fortunate enough to survive and make it to this country, they have a burning zeal to be successful,” Nierenberg explains.
Sondland’s dramatic origin story — as told by the man himself in an extensive on-stage interview with the Portland Business Journal in 2016 — began with his Holocaust survivor parents. The German teenage sweethearts were “madly in love,” marrying when Sondland’s mother was only 15, and she became pregnant a year later with Gordon’s elder sister. While she was pregnant, the couple “left Nazi Germany in a very precarious way,” he recounted. “My mother was able to get out of Nazi Germany because her father was Russian, and those with a Russian passport could leave. My father was not so fortunate and he had to be smuggled out of Germany by being tied to the bow of a vegetable freighter that was leaving for the North Sea. He almost lost one leg because it was so cold and he wound up in France.”
After joining the French Foreign Legion, Sondland Sr. fought the Nazis in North Africa before “being put in a concentration camp in North Africa,” where he was “rescued by the British and then joined the British Army.” Because his father spoke fluent German, Sondland said, he helped decode German transmissions. His mother, after travelling to Eastern Europe, found refuge in Uruguay. Six years later they reunited as U.S. immigrants in Seattle — where his father saw his daughter for the first time at age 6 (the married couple had stayed in touch through letters delivered by the Red Cross, according to an account in the Washington Post).
“I’m the first in my family who was born in the U.S.” Sondland says with pride, in the video he made introducing himself when he took the job as ambassador to the European Union, showcasing his family’s outdoorsy Northwest lifestyle and hobbies of piloting jet planes and collecting art.
The appointment was the realization of the ambition that Nierenberg said Sondland expressed to him in 2012 while he was involved in fundraising for Sen. Mitt Romney’s ultimately unsuccessful presidential bid. Sondland “shared with me his ambition to become an ambassador, ideally to a German-speaking nation,” which would “square the circle” of being the son of Holocaust survivors, Nierenberg told the Los Angeles Times.
Sondland has described himself as being “of the Jewish faith” and, as ambassador, expressed his support for Israel on Twitter several times, visiting the Jewish state last May.
However, there is no evidence of traditional observance or affiliation with a synagogue. The family’s philanthropic arm, the Gordon D. Sondland and Katherine J. Durant Foundation, lists numerous grants to art museums, cultural institutions, schools and hospitals — including several with Catholic and Protestant affiliations — but no Jewish or Israeli causes. One of Sondland's business partners, Steve "Rosy" Rosenberg, is an active member of the local Jewish community and donations have been made to Jewish institutions in the name of the Provenance Hotel chain.
The young Sondland grew up in a lower middle-class family on Mercer Island, admitting to “aspirational emotions” over his wealthy classmates who had the “newest cars and newest clothes” that “probably followed me the rest of my life.” It drove him to vow that “I’m going to get there one of these days,” he explained in the 2016 interview.
He was tremendously successful in realizing those aspirations, first in commercial real estate and ultimately by founding Provenance — the boutique hotel chain that now has 19 luxury sites.
But alongside his businesses, Sondland has also systematically cultivated a name for himself as a political donor and behind-the-scenes dealmaker. For decades, he has donated significant sums, primarily to his own Republican Party, while maintaining an image as a moderate Republican who “really enjoys working across the aisle with the other side when we have a common purpose.”
Also in that 2016 interview, he bemoaned increasingly polarized politics that are “less transactional,” in which Democrats and Republicans were less willing to help each other in exchange for a “quid pro quo” the way he said Oregon’s former Democratic governor had been able to work with President George W. Bush.
Sondland had fundraised and supported Bush, as he did subsequent Republican presidential candidates John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2008 and 2012.
In 2016, he was poised to do the same for Jeb Bush when Trump entered the race and captured the GOP nomination. At first, Sondland toed the party line and supported his party’s surprise nominee — until he had what appeared to be a crisis of conscience shortly after the 2016 party convention.
After Trump attacked the Gold Star family of Khizr and Ghazala Khan after they appeared at the Democratic National Convention, Sondland, together with his Muslim business partner Bashar Wali, announced in early August 2016 they were canceling their participation in a fundraiser for Trump later that month because “Mr. Trump’s statements have made it clear that his positions do not align with their personal beliefs and values.”
Sondland did so, his spokeswoman said at the time, as a first-generation American “whose parents were forced to flee Germany during the years leading up to World War II because they were persecuted for their faith.”
Following Trump’s election that November, however, Sondland’s desire for an ambassadorship seemingly overcame any prior misgivings. A $1 million donor to Trump’s inauguration committee, he started working hard to get into the president’s good graces. His efforts paid off when he was nominated to the prestigious post of U.S. ambassador to the EU in May 2018, where he began working toward promoting Trump’s “America First” agenda in Europe.
An in-depth Washington Post story quoted a former White House official as saying that after Sondland had “spent a year trying to prove that he wasn’t anti-Trump” in order to win his ambassadorship, the Ukraine mission gave him ... an opportunity to prove it. Trump knew that he wanted to prove his loyalty.”
On the eve of Sondland’s testimony, the question is whether that loyalty will remain intact when he is in front of a congressional committee. Multiple leaks ahead of his testimony indicate it may not be.
A key question will be whether Sondland stands behind the text messages he sent to fellow diplomat William Taylor, in which he denied any link between military aid to Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelensky’s agreement to investigate Hunter Biden, writing that Taylor was “incorrect about President Trump’s intentions. The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quo’s of any kind.”
Both the Wall Street Journal and Associated Press reported Wednesday that Sondland will say this reassurance “was based solely on what Trump told him in a phone call before he sent the text.”
Meanwhile, an NBC story said that Sondland will bolster the argument that Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani was running a private shadow foreign policy on Ukraine, but confirming that Trump told him that any meetings between Trump and the Ukrainian president would have to be approved by his personal lawyer.
In addition, he also is expected to support former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch by testifying that she was “great” — which does not support the explanation for her firing, which took place following pressure from Giuliani and Trump.
The Washington Post profile offers an indication of one of the reasons why Sondland may not stand staunchly behind the president’s version of events. In the article, his wife, Katherine Durant — who has taken the helm of the family business since Sondland took up his ambassadorship — admits that she “fears an economic backlash against the hotel company,” which has already suffered as a result of the part Sondland has played in the scandal. One Oregon Democratic congressman has called for a boycott of Sondland’s hotel chain, while the #BoycottProvenanceHotels hashtag has appeared on Twitter.
Over his life, Sondland has harnessed the drive he inherited as the child of Holocaust survivor immigrants and channeled it into success. His precise definition of success — and loyalty — will become clearer when he testifies on Thursday.
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