Sondland's impeachment testimony proves Trump foreign policy is run by corrupt clowns

Wendy R. Sherman, Opinion contributor

Ambassador Gordon David Sondland is an ebullient man — a hotelier who, like President Donald Trump, has a showman’s spirit. 

Like Trump, Sondland is a marketer, whether building his hotel brand or successfully hawking his home state, Oregon, as a site for movies and television. What he is not is a seasoned diplomat ready to represent the United States to the European Union. And he is certainly not the policymaker or implementer of U.S. policy with regard to Ukraine. He is a fixer, a kibitzer, someone who wants to fly close to the sun and be in the presence of power. And he might not even understand that he has now been badly burned.

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, during a break in his testimony to the House Intelligence Committee in Washington, D.C., in November 2019.

In his testimony Wednesday, Sondland not only confirmed his inadequacy as a diplomat — he also acknowledged he never took notes, he repeatedly could not recall critical conversations — but, at the same time, he unequivocally linked the president of the United States, Donald J. Trump, to an attempt to bribe the president of Ukraine for his own political and personal purpose. Neither Sondland, nor Trump, nor the many officials Sondland implicated — Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney — have acted in the pursuit of the national security of the United States.

Sondland summed it all up: “Everyone was in the loop" and "We followed the president's orders."

We are left with an image of a bunch of corrupt clowns who are downright dangerous to our democracy.

Getting in over his head

In 2016, Gordon Sondland initially supported Donald Trump’s presidential campaign but canceled a fundraiser and withdrew his support after Trump’s attacks on Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the Gold Star parents of a fallen soldier. 

Sondland then made the mistake of his life when, in early 2017, he donated $1 million to the Trump inaugural committee. Apparently, he was desperate to play the role of an international wheeler dealer. Now that ambition is costing him whatever is left of his reputation, while revealing the corrupt presidency in which he played a key role.

Testimony goes beyond just quid pro quo: Gordon Sondland’s impeachment testimony on Trump and Ukraine adds up to bribery

Presidents, from the beginning of our history, have rewarded donors and supporters with plum ambassadorships. Most presidents have tried to keep the percentage of political appointees in their administration to about 30%. Trump stands high above this at nearly 45% — especially noteworthy given many embassies under this administration have no ambassadors at all.

Countries often want someone famous, notable and, most important, can call the president directly. Not every rich person is incapable. Some are sophisticated and practiced diplomats in their fields or politicians who have prior knowledge of a country. Those who are savvy are also smart enough to know they will need to lean on their professional diplomatic colleagues to succeed. There have been many political ambassadors who have been a good match — think Robert Strauss to the Soviet Union or Felix Rohatyn to France — but there have also been many more who are in over their heads, untethered to diplomatic professionals capable of steering the way.

Helping Trump undermine the country

Sondland, however, is a standout in his incompetence. Assigned to the EU, he has alienated the EU and its member states, acting as if he were ambassador to all of Europe, undermining the authority of colleagues whose job it is to carry out U.S. policy in each EU country. His freewheeling adoption of a Ukraine portfolio is not only outside of any normal channel, it also added further confusion to implementation of policy.

Where's the smoking gun?: I was a reporter during Watergate. Democrats, don't celebrate impeachment hearings yet.

Just compare his performance with that of acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, George Kent and David Holmes. These professionals are seasoned diplomats. Their testimony showed that they took notes, had virtually total recall of events, put country before party, have committed years to learning their craft, and acted based on what was in U.S. national security interest. They respected the presidency and, above all else, the Constitution to which they had sworn an oath.

As devastating to our interests as Sondland has been, and as much as he must be held accountable under the law, the ultimate incompetent diplomat is the president, since he is a real estate developer and reality TV host, not a diplomat at all. Under the Constitution, the president gets to define our national security and foreign policy, but what he ordered those below him to do had nothing to do with our nation’s interests.

The Ukrainian “drug deal” was all about Donald Trump’s reelection and his personal political agenda. In that, the president, supported by Sondland and all those Sondland implicated in his testimony, has not just abused his power. He undermined his oath of office and insulted all of us who treasure the Constitution.

Wendy R. Sherman, a professor and the director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School, was undersecretary of State for political affairs from 2011-15 and led U.S. negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal. She is the author of “Not for the  Faint of Heart: Lessons in Courage, Power and Persistence."  Follow her on Twitter: @WendyRSherman

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump impeachment: Sondland testimony exposes dangerous foreign policy