Impeachment: Gordon Sondland, donor-turned-diplomat, a central player in Ukraine controversy

Deirdre Shesgreen, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON – Gordon Sondland, President Trump’s ambassador to the European Union, was a controversial appointee even before the Ukraine scandal broke. 

He came to the post as a GOP donor with no diplomatic experience and raised eyebrows with a brash style that did not sit well in Brussels, where he is stationed.

Now, Sondland is in the House Democrats’ hot seat. He faces a congressional subpoena after the Trump administration blocked his scheduled testimony before the Democrats' impeachment panel. Sondland's lawyer says he wants to cooperate, but the State Department has directed him not to appear before the House committee.

"Early this morning, the U.S. Department of State directed Ambassador Gordon Sondland not to appear today for his scheduled transcribed interview before the U.S. House of Representatives Joint Committee," said Sondland's attorney, Robert Luskin.

Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the administration's decision would be considered "strong evidence" of obstruction.

More: Trump bars Gordon Sondland, key player in Ukraine controversy, from testifying in impeachment investigation

Trump defended the decision to prevent Sondland's testimony, saying the Democrats' inquiry is illegitimate. 

"I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and great American, to testify, but unfortunately he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court, where Republican’s rights have been taken away, and true facts are not allowed out for the public," Trump tweeted Tuesday morning.

Here's what you need to know about Sondland, his role in the Ukraine pressure campaign, and Tuesday's developments on Capitol Hill.

Who is Gordon Sondland? A big donor turned Trump diplomat 

A wealthy former hotel magnate from Oregon, Sondland was tapped for the EU ambassador position after donating $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee. He made the contributions through four separate limited liability corporations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign donations. 

Gordon Sondland, .U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, addresses the media during a press conference at the U.S. Embassy to Romania in Bucharest on Sept. 5, 2019.

During his confirmation hearing, Sondland's supporters touted his background as a first-generation American whose parents had fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s. His parents eventually made their way to Seattle, where Sondland was born in 1957.

Before Trump tapped him for the EU ambassadorship, Sondland was a successful real-estate investor and hotel owner. Until last year, Sondland's principal involvement in politics seemed to be as a generous GOP donor. Since 2007, he has given more than $280,000 to the Republican National Committee and the Senate GOP's campaign arm.  

Once installed in Brussels, Sondland quickly made waves as "a hard charging euroskeptic," said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow and Europe expert at the Brookings Institution, a left-leaning Washington think tank.  

In December 2018, he blasted the EU as "out of touch" and accused the bloc's leaders of dragging their feet on trade negotiations in an interview with Politico.

"My joke today is if I ask someone at the EU what time it is, the answer is 'no'," he told the news outlet.

A 'Trump spy'? Texts show Sondland a key player in Ukraine talks

In recent days, Sondland has emerged as a central player in the Trump administration’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian officials to open an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and probe a conspiracy theory about Ukraine's alleged role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Text messages released last week show that he and Kurt Volker, Trump's former special envoy to Ukraine, orchestrated a months-long effort to push Ukraine's newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to make a public promise that he would order probes into both of those matters. 

"Heard from the White House," Volker wrote in a text to a top Zelensky adviser on July 25, just before Trump and Zelensky were scheduled to speak by phone in a call that helped spark the impeachment inquiry. 

"Assuming President Z (Zelensky) convinces trump he will investigate/"get to the bottom of what happened" in 2016, we will nail down a date for visit to Washington. Good luck!," Volker told his Ukrainian counterpart. 

More: Read key text messages between diplomats on Trump, Ukraine president

After the Trump-Zelensky call, an unnamed whistleblower filed a complaint accusing Trump of using the power of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election. Biden is a leading 2020 candidate for the Democratic nomination.

Even before the whistleblower complaint, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, raised concerns about the apparent link between Trump's demands for a politically motivated investigation and granting Zelensky a meeting at the White House. Taylor also pressed Volker and Sondland on whether Trump was withholding nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid until Zelensky delivered on his demands.

"Are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Taylor asked in a Sept. 1 text message to Volker and Sondland.

"Call me," Sondland texted back.

Taylor responded: "As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign." 

Sondland pushed back, saying Trump had been "crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind ... I suggest we stop the back and forth by text." He told Taylor to call "S," presumably referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, if he wanted to discuss the matter further. 

More: A visual timeline of the text messages in the Trump-Ukraine affair

Schiff said on Tuesday that Sondland has additional emails or texts "on a private device" that the State Department is refusing to turn over. 

Schiff said it's "hard to overstate" the American diplomat's relevance to the impeachment inquiry, which is focused on allegations that Trump used the power of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election. 

"Ambassador Sondland’s testimony and documents are vital, and that is precisely why the Administration is now blocking his testimony and withholding his documents," Schiff and two other House chairmen said after Sondland was a no-show at Tuesday's deposition.   

“We will be issuing subpoena to Ambassador Sondland for both his testimony and documents,” they said. 

Democrats have said the texts between Sondland, Volker and others prove a quid-pro-quo – Trump wanted investigations into Biden and the 2016 election before he would meet with Zelensky. Trump's supporters say there was no such condition and the call was perfectly appropriate. 

Critics say it's not clear why Sondland was involved in these Ukraine conversations at all, since the eastern European country is not under his purview. 

"The EU ambassador has nothing to do with US-Ukrainian relations," said Michael McFaul, a former U.S. ambassador to Russia. McFaul said he was puzzled when he first saw Sondland's name listed as a member of the U.S. delegation attending Zelensky's inauguration in May.

His role in Ukraine policy is "highly unusual," McFaul said, adding that he suspects Sondland was acting as sort of a "Trump spy," inserted into the sensitive, geopolitical negotiations to protect the president's political interests. 

"It seems to me he’s there as a kind of Trump spy as these professional diplomats do the deal," McFaul said. "Why else is he there ... other than he is a Trump loyalist?  

'He has a lot of questions to answer'

A State Department spokeswoman also did not respond to an email asking about Sondland's testimony. But Luskin, the ambassador's attorney, said Sondland is eager to cooperate with the probe.

"Ambassador Sondland hopes that the issues raised by the State Department that preclude his testimony will be resolved promptly," Luskin said. "He stands ready to testify on short notice, whenever he is permitted to appear."

Wright said if he does testify, Democrats will want to know why he was involved in the Ukraine discussions and who asked him to take on that role, Wright said. And Democrats will also want to know what he, Volker and Taylor talked about offline, since the text messages make references to phone calls among them.

“He has a lot of questions to answer, for sure,” Wright said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Who is Gordon Sondland? Impeachment witness was key player on Ukraine