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Meet Trump’s man at the EU

Welcome to Europe’s future, in which Britain holds a referendum in 2041 to rejoin the European Union

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland appears before the House Intelligence Committee during an impeachment hearing in 2019. Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Gordon Sondland is, and will forever be, the Quid Pro Quo Guy. A former hotelier, Sondland eventually became ambassador to the EU under Donald Trump. He was the man who, as the president faced his first impeachment hearings, used the phrase to confirm that Ukrainian president Volodymyr 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.    

The impeachment failed, Sondland was sacked and an insurrection, second impeachment and a war have since taken place. But the Quid Pro Quo Guy wants a second hearing, in the form of The Envoy: Mastering the Art of Diplomacy with Trump and the World, a book that is part memoir, part guide to diplomacy.

New European readers are unlikely to feel an immediate warmth to Sondland, a firm Republican who still supports Trump’s policy agenda if not – as we shall see – the man himself. His appointment as EU ambassador was eased by a $1m donation to Trump’s inauguration fund. But, as you might expect from a former ambassador, he’s engaging company and his book is as good a primer as any of America’s hard-nosed attitude to the EU.

The EU, Sondland tells me via Zoom from New York, is “a force for good”. But he worries that the US is “really squandering a tremendous advantage that we have in our alliance with the EU”. 

“The thing that we have going for us is the mass and size and heft of the combined US-EU alliance,” says the 65-year-old. “And whenever there’s daylight in that alliance, whenever there’s a fissure between us on any issue, we completely squander the leverage that we have in terms of bringing China, Russia, Iran, North Korea or any other societies with whom we take exception to their values, we really squander that benefit.

“And what I mean by that is we squabble over all kinds of things that, in the greater scheme of things, don’t mean very much. I mean, to argue over, you know, our hygiene practices with food and our safety practices with seatbelts and who gets to keep which data for how long, you know, it’s ridiculous. 

“Because if we really want to push back on China and push back on Russia and prevent Iran from ultimately acquiring a nuclear weapon that can threaten Europe and us and others, we have to work together, and this unanimity required in the EU to do anything big, there needs to be some kind of structural change to the charter of the EU to allow for a qualified voting majority on a lot more issues so that the EU and the United States can work together as an 800 million person bloc instead of constantly squabbling about these things.”

He tells a probably well-worn anecdote about a lunch meeting he held for members of the European Round Table of Industrialists, an advocacy group of around 50 industrial leaders.

“I said ‘how many of you have a place in the United States that you use?’,” he says. “And every single one of them had a home, an apartment, a condo, something in New York, Los Angeles, Florida, wherever. So I said, ‘I don’t understand, when you come to the US it must be a logistical nightmare because you have to have your car shipped over, your food has to be brought in, refrigerated. I don’t know, do you bring a doctor over, because the US doctors aren’t quite qualified to treat you?’. And they all started laughing. And they said, ‘Ambassador, come on, let’s cut the bullshit. This is protectionism on the EU’s part and nothing more. We don’t really believe that the US safety standards and drugs standards and so on are inferior to ours. We just want it our way’. And it was a rare moment of candour.”

New European readers may feel more comfortable with the epilogue to his book, which paints two potential pictures of the world in the 2040s, a dystopia dominated by China and a more liberal democratic future. In the latter, the UK holds a referendum on rejoining the EU in 2041.

“You know, never say never,” he says. “But I go back to my earlier point – if the UK were part of the EU and the EU had some structural changes within their charter to allow them to be more nimble and to allow bigger things to happen without one single member being able to veto everything, I think the combined power of the US and the new EU, assuming the UK were to rejoin again, plus other members that are in the accession pipeline, I think is the only hope for really checking some of our most virulent adversaries.”

Sondland was born to a Jewish family in Mercer Island, Washington. His mother, Frieda, had fled Germany before the Second World War to Uruguay, where after the war she reunited with his father, Gunther, who had served in the French Foreign Legion. Gordon went on to make his fortune in hotels: his company, Provenance Hotels, owns and manages hotels throughout the US. And although he has been a Republican since his early 20s, he was a member of the transition team for Oregon Democratic governor Ted Kulongoski.

The portrayal of Trump in his book is a familiar one – largely uninterested in foreign matters and ignoring Sondland’s briefing ahead of a meeting with the president of Romania because he was preoccupied choosing the walk-on music for his next rally. But the story of his first meeting with Trump is telling. Greeted by Sondland at a conference in New Orleans in 1988, Trump blanked him, only to greet him effusively later in the day when Sondland was talking to two senior Republican figures. Sondland brought this up when they next met and Trump was the presumptive Republican presidential nominee.

“I said he was a dick, because he was,” Sondland tells me. “And I told him he was a dick. And he said ‘why was I a dick?’. And I explained the whole thing to him and I thought his answer was priceless. He said ‘well, the reason I was nice to you the second time is because you were with very important people’. Now people would usually think something like that but they wouldn’t actually say it but, you know, that’s Trump and that’s very refreshing to me.”

Why, I ask, was Sondland so keen from the off to engineer a meeting between Trump and Zelensky, the leader of a nation not even in the bloc to which he acted as ambassador?

“My mission was very simple,” he says. “It was US policy, long-standing US policy, with which President Trump at the time did not disagree, that the US and EU – again, this is one of those issues that there should be no daylight between us – should support Ukraine wholeheartedly and make it very, very clear to those who would do Ukraine harm, namely the Russians, that we would brook no interference in Ukraine.

“Once Zelensky was elected and we met him at his inauguration and spent probably half the day with him after the ceremonies were over, I decided, just knowing Trump, that if Trump met Zelensky and they had one of their Oval Office meetings – Trump liked to give tours of the White House personally, he liked to play host – I said, this will go over really well, not just with Zelensky, who will really like it, but Trump would really like Zelensky. And good things would happen for Ukraine once the two of them met. And that was our only objective – to get the two leaders together personally, not over Zoom, not over video conference, but personally.”

He was an early admirer of Zelensky, who in some quarters was dismissed as a lightweight who (not unlike Trump) owed his electoral success to being a TV star.

“It’s the same with Reagan,” says the Washington state native. “Everyone said the guy’s an actor, how’s he gonna run the United States of America? Yeah, he was the governor of California, but big deal. And, you know, to be fair I think most people viewed Zelensky in a similar light. He’s a smart business guy, he sold his media company for a lot of money, he had a successful show on TV, but he’s an actor, what does he know about these weighty matters? What transpired and what the war brought tests you like nothing will ever test anyone. They guy’s got balls, there’s no other way to put it.”

We turn, via a lengthy diversion into the legalities behind his appearance at the impeachment proceedings, to the events themself that turned Sondland into the Quid Pro Quo Guy. His view remains that in international diplomacy, as in life itself, every action is a quid pro quo: everything is done for something in return (the book offers a Jerry Seinfeld quote in evidence).

“I had one last night,” Sondland tells me. “I went to a restaurant, they gave me food, I gave them my American Express card. That was my quid pro quo. It’s a meaningless phrase. It means something for something.”

“When we went to see the president after the inauguration we were very excited about Zelensky and said ‘this is a guy you should get to know, bring him in, have a meeting, I think you’ll like him, he’s a different Ukrainian from the ones you’ve dealt with in the past’” he says. “Trump for whatever reason was in a bad mood, he didn’t want to hear it, we were all kind of pushing him and he got kind of pissed off. And he said ‘look, if you want to deal with Ukraine, talk to Rudy Giuliani, he’s been doing a lot of stuff with Ukraine, talk to him’.

“And we all pushed back. We said, what do you mean, Rudy Giuliani? He’s not in the government, he’s your lawyer. He said ‘you talk to Rudy’. So reluctantly one of the team called Rudy, who knew him best, and Rudy’s initial ask, on behalf of the president, so he said – we never know whether it came from the president or from Rudy – ‘what the president wants is very simple. When Zelensky was campaigning for president, one of the things he was going around saying was there was a bunch of investigations into corruption’. And it was just corruption writ large, it wasn’t about any specific corruption. ‘The president wants those investigations that were shut down under [former president Petro] Poroshenko restarted. And in return for Zelensky making some kind of public announcement that he would restart those investigations, the president will invite him to come and meet in Washington at the Oval [Office]’.”

“That was it. There was nothing more. And we didn’t think there was anything wrong with that. It was something he campaigned on, corruption is something everyone wants to eradicate, OK, fine. So what do you want? ‘Well, we don’t care, it can be a press conference, it can be a press release, he can give a TV interview, whatever he wants to do. The president wants him on the record that he’s gonna restart corruption investigations’. That was it. And then he will get an invitation.”

“So as we were working on what, to us, seemed a very straightforward, simple ask, all of a sudden more things started to come through Rudy Giuliani. Now it has to be about Burisma [the company Hunter Biden was involved in]. And now it has to be about this. And then, all of a sudden, the military aid weeks later was held up. And none of us knew what the genesis of all of this was. Until now, obviously. So the quid pro quo that I was focused on in my mind was a fairly straightforward ask. ‘Do what you said you were going to do in your campaign for president and I’ll invite you to the Oval Office’, which to me seemed quite innocuous at the time.”

On February 7, 2020, two days after Trump’s acquittal, Sondland was recalled from his post, effective immediately, and has since been engaged with a legal battle with the State Department, who he accuses of reneging on a promise to pay his $1.8m legal fees.

But what of Trump himself? Does Sondland expect him to stand for the presidency again in 2024?

“I think he likely will, I don’t think he should,” he says. “I viewed Trump as a package. There were a lot of things about Trump from the beginning, when he came down that escalator in Trump Tower and announced his candidacy, there were some really good things and there were some really awful things. But on balance, in totality, given where he was headed and the policies that he tried to institute and in fact did institute, many of which were now reversed by President Biden unfortunately, I could live with the Trump package, the good, the bad and the ugly.

“Until January 6. That was my red line. On January 6 he failed to do the two most important things that any president can do. He failed to do the symbolism that everyone looks to America for, which is the way we turn over power – I like to call it the way we turn over the keys to the next leader by attending the inauguration, by, you know, riding in the car with the successor and all the things we do that the press loves to cover. Those are very important signs to the world, especially fledgling democracies, and autocracies that want to become democracies.

“And then, once the votes are counted, we don’t use guns, we use paper and we transfer power. And then, if we don’t like the person, we beat them the next time in the next election, if we’re eligible to run again. Which is exactly what Trump should have done. But he didn’t. And for that reason I can’t support him.”

And with that, I thank him for his time and include a link to his book at the bottom of the interview. Because, you know, quid pro quo.

The Envoy: Mastering the Art of Diplomacy with Trump and the World is published by Bombardier Books

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