Chances are, President Trump and Rudy Giuliani never saw Gordon Sondland as a stand-up guy.
That might explain why he was given such a prominent place in the administration’s dealings with Ukraine, despite that not being an obvious role for someone in the position of Ambassador to the European Union who had no diplomatic experience and got that post only because of the $1 million donation he made to Mr. Trump’s inauguration committee.
The President and his personal lawyer no doubt figured Mr. Sondland, a hotel operator, would be happy to just go along with their program and not ask too many questions.
And for much of this year, even as veteran diplomats and then-National Security Adviser John Bolton became shocked and revulsed by what Mr. Bolton referred to as “a drug deal,” Ambassador Sondland went along with the withholding of $391 million in military aid to Ukraine that became tied to its new President announcing that he would launch an investigation into Vice President Joe Biden and his son. He didn’t understand why the two should be linked, but wasn’t going to be the one to openly question Mr. Trump about it.
Unlike the man who likes to put his name on hotels, Mr. Sondland seemed more from “the customer is always right” school of inn-keeping.
Not Willing to Take the Rap
But then he found his original account of events to the House Intelligence Committee being contradicted by the testimony of seasoned, old-school diplomats in ways that cast even deeper suspicion on what Mr. Trump had been up to than the indiscreet remarks of the President’s Acting Chief of Staff, Mick Mulvaney, who not so coincidentally as Budget Director had been in a position to hold up the $391 million Congress had authorized for Ukraine.
And having seen more than a few people get themselves indicted for actions taken in service to Mr. Trump, Mr. Sondland began having second thoughts. To paraphrase the old Phil Ochs ditty about someone reluctant to take a bullet for a President’s dubious war, “Draft Dodger Rag,” he came to the conclusion that “Someone’s gotta take the rap for this/And that someone isn’t me.”
And so on Nov. 20, after amending his earlier testimony to reflect how his memory had been jogged by the testimony of diplomats who got their postings without paying for them, Mr. Sondland made a second appearance before the House Intelligence Committee and testified that he and other aides had pressured Mr. Zelensky and his advisers to announce an investigation of the Bidens if they wanted the military aid “because the President directed us to do so.”
He was part of a group that included U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Special Envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker, he said in his opening remarks, that took orders from the President’s personal lawyer. “We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine…As I previously testified, if I had known of all of Mr. Giuliani’s dealings or of his associations with individuals now under criminal indictment, I would not have acquiesced to his participation.”
Mr. Sondland would go on to say that he had spoken with Vice President Pence about his concern that military aid was being withheld from Ukraine until it committed to announcing investigations of the Bidens and other matters related to the 2016 presidential campaign, and had kept Secretary of State Mike Pompeo abreast of what was transpiring.
“Everyone was in the loop,” he told the House hearing. “It was no secret. Not once do I recall encountering an objection.”
There was only one significant point on which he contradicted veteran diplomats who had testified previously to their frustration that while they were working the regular channels in dealings with the Ukrainian government through two different regimes this year, Mr. Giuliani was the ringleader of an “irregular,” back-channel foreign policy toward that nation. “The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false,” Ambassador Sondland said. Besides having detailed what was going on to “the relevant decision-makers at the National Security Council and State Department,” he explained in his opening statement, “Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the President of the United States, and we knew that these investigations were important to the President.”
‘Just Had to Announce’
This wasn’t completely accurate, however, as became clear when Mr. Sondland was questioned first by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff and then by the House Democrats’ Counsel, Daniel Goldman.
Congressman Schiff said of the quid pro quo Mr. Trump was seeking from Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky before releasing the military aid, “He had to get those two investigations if that official act was going to take place, correct?”
Ambassador Sondland replied that Mr. Zelensky “had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.”
When Mr. Goldman subsequently asked whether it was his understand “that in order to get that White House meeting that you wanted President Zelensky to have and that President Zelensky desperately wanted to have, that Ukraine would have to initiate these two investigations, is that right?”
Eager to be perfectly clear, Mr. Sondland replied, “Well, they would have to announce that they were going to do it.”
Mr. Goldman responded that this distinction mattered “because Giuliani and President Trump didn’t actually care if they did them, right?”
The Ambassador said, “I never heard, Mr. Goldman, anyone say that the investigations had to start or had to be completed. The only thing I heard from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise was that they had to be announced in some form.”
“Announced publicly?” the House Counsel asked.
“Announced publicly,” Mr. Sondland replied.
The point being made was that the ex-Mayor and his patron weren’t looking for full-blown probes, most likely because they already knew that Vice President Biden hadn’t done anything improper in Ukraine in 2016, notwithstanding the appearance of impropriety in his son Hunter having served on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company for up to $50,000 a month during that period. And so the primary value to be derived from a public announcement was the political weapon it would provide Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign, particularly if Mr. Biden emerged with the Democratic presidential nomination.
Didn’t Care About Ukraine
These were the most-damaging revelations Mr. Sondland provided about Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani, but not the only ones. He also confirmed an account given less than a week earlier to House investigators by David Holmes, a top official at the American Embassy in Ukraine that on July 26, the day after the President’s infamous “do us a favor” phone call with Mr. Zelensky, he had overheard Mr. Trump by phone ask Mr. Sondland, “So, he’s going to do the investigation?”
He said the President had been talking so loud that the Ambassador held the cellphone away from his ear, allowing others at his table to hear the question. When the conversation concluded, Mr. Holmes told investigators, he had asked Mr. Sondland what Mr. Trump’s feelings were regarding Ukraine. The reply, he said, was that the President did not care about Ukraine but rather “big stuff that benefits the President,” including the “Biden investigation.”
In his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Mr. Sondland did not dispute any portion of the account from Mr. Holmes, and acknowledged, “It is true that the President speaks loudly at times.” He had not found that phone call remarkable in any way, he said, explaining, “Actually, I would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations.”
Mr. Trump and his defenders on the House panel had difficulty discrediting Mr. Sondland’s testimony. Unlike the career diplomats who had indicated a certain moral outrage about the way that diplomacy in Ukraine had been perverted by the President and his operatives, it was hard to dismiss as a “Never Trumper” someone who had purchased his diplomatic post rather than working his way up the ranks (unfortunately for Mr. Trump and his acolytes, several of those veteran diplomats began their service under two Republican Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, making it hard to credibly label them closet Democrats).
The main problem with Mr. Sondland, it could be argued, was that Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani seem to have assumed that because he purchased his job, they owned him and could speak to him about confidential matters without worrying that values like duty to country rather than to an individual could turn him into a threat to their scheming—even if it took a possible perjury charge to bring out his Inner Patriot.
Honesty Not Their Policy
Testimony by veteran diplomats both before and after Ambassador Sondland providing a treasure trove of damning accounts of the conduct of both men made clear they had no compunction about stepping on those whose honesty was a potential impediment to the dirty business they pursued.
Marie Yovanovitch, who had been the Ambassador to Ukraine from 2016 until she was run out of the job by Mr. Giuliani in tandem with two business partners of his who have since been indicted by the same U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan that he used to run, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, came across as someone who had been an exemplar of public service in describing her 30-plus years in the diplomatic ranks. Yet the transcript summary of the President’s call with President Zelensky—which Mr. Trump claimed exonerated him of any impropriety—quoted him calling her “bad news” and adding, “she’s going to go through some things.”
The remark was less-ominous than John Gotti once saying about an underling that he was ready to “sever his bleeping head,” but had a similarly menacing quality, prompting her to tell the House committee, “It sounded like a threat.”
Both the President and Mr. Giuliani—who had displayed a similar kind of imperiousness as Mayor when career civil servants let their integrity interfere with his machinations and those of his political allies—made clear their contempt for those who devoted their lives to government service and believed in working through knotty problems with patience rather than bulldozing their way to solutions.
Mr. Trump has dismissed those from the Foreign Service whose testimony hurt his case as “deep-state bureaucrats.” Donald Trump Jr. showed he was a chip off the old blockhead by denouncing Ms. Yovanovitch, her successor as Ambassador William Taylor, and Deputy Secretary of State George Kent in a tweet stating, “American hired @realDonaldTrump to fire people like the first three witnesses we’ve seen. Career government bureaucrats and nothing more.”
Scoundrels Sliming Soldier
And Mr. Giuliani was part of the legion of Trump supporters who seized on the fact that Lieut. Colonel Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, was born in Ukraine to repeat a Republican talking point that he had allegedly been advising the government in that country and might have a dual loyalty.
Mr. Vindman became the target of such vitriol after he testified that the White House transcript of the July 25 call omitted damaging remarks he had heard Mr. Trump make, prompting him to seek unsuccessfully to have them added. The remarks by Mr. Giuliani—who like Mr. Trump used either supporters in high places or subterfuges to avoid being drafted during the Vietnam era—in questioning Colonel Vindman’s loyalty to the U.S. skated past the fact that while serving in Iraq, he was wounded by a roadside bomb and received a Purple Heart.
But Mr. Trump has made clear going back to the 2016 presidential campaign, as Mr. Giuliani has over his entire political career, that their idea of loyalty revolves around them, rather than anything as quaint as duty to a city or country and the ideals that they symbolize.
This is what has allowed the President to cast aside the conclusion of the entire American intelligence community that Russia interfered with the 2016 election to his advantage and insist that on the other side of the ledger, Vladimir Putin denied that was the case and did so in a really “strong” manner. This has also served him politically: his attempts to make the case that it was Ukraine rather than Russia that was behind the hacking into the Democratic National Committee and the disclosure of politically damaging e-mails was a specious attempt to shift blame away from his campaign and its dealings with Russian operatives—including the June 2016 meeting in Trump Tower with a lawyer who had close ties to the Kremlin—in addition to serving Mr. Putin’s interests.
And the President’s attempt to nourish an us-against-them mentality that suffuses his immigration policy, domestic policy and indulgence of white nationalists, no matter the costs, could also be seen in his intervening on behalf of a SEAL commando in a showdown that culminated in the forced resignation of Secretary of the Navy Richard Spencer.
Undercut Navy Discipline
Chief Petty Officer Edward Gallagher in 2017 was accused by members of a SEAL platoon he led of fatally stabbing a wounded ISIS captive and of firing a sniper rifle at civilians, wounding two of them. He was acquitted in a military trial of murder and obstruction of justice charges—which were lodged after he allegedly threatened to kill any SEALs who testified against him—but convicted of posing for inappropriate photos with the dead teenage captive. Military jurors in his court-martial concluded that he should be demoted one rank.
Mr. Gallagher acknowledged during sentencing that he gave “a black eye” to both the Navy and the Marine Corps with his conduct. But Mr. Trump reversed his demotion and recently announced that he would prevent the Navy from ejecting him from the SEALs, prompting Mr. Gallagher to write on Instagram, “I truly believe that we are blessed as a Nation to have a Commander-in-Chief that stands up for our warfighters.”
Mr. Spencer objected to the President’s getting involved in the case and publicly disagreed with his acting on behalf of Mr. Gallagher. On Nov. 24, he submitted his resignation, indicating he believed Mr. Trump had compromised the Navy’s disciplinary system.
He stated in his resignation letter, “The lives of our sailors, Marines and civilian teammates quite literally depend on the professional execution of our many missions, and they also depend on the ongoing faith and support of the people we serve and the allies we serve alongside.”
‘Rule of Law Defines Us’
Mr. Spencer continued, “The rule of law is what sets us apart from our adversaries. Good order and discipline is what has enabled our victory against foreign tyranny time and again…The Constitution, and the Uniform Code of Military Justice, are the shields that set us apart, and the beacons that protect us all…I have strived to ensure our proceedings are fair, transparent and consistent, from the newest recruit to the Flag and General Officer level.
“Unfortunately, it has become apparent that in this respect, I no longer share the same understanding with the Commander in Chief who appointed me, in regards to the key principle of good order and discipline. I cannot in good conscience obey an order that I believe violated the sacred oath I took in the presence of my family, my flag and my faith to support and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
The White House launched a counter-offensive, with Defense Secretary Mark Esper claiming he demanded Mr. Spencer’s resignation because he lost confidence in him, reportedly because the Navy Secretary had tried to cut a secret deal with the White House concerning Mr. Gallagher’s future without telling him. Sources told the Washington Post, however, that Mr. Esper took that step because Mr. Trump made clear he wanted Mr. Spencer gone.
The President’s decision to get so involved in the Gallagher case at the expense of undermining military discipline has a simple, if stupefying, explanation: it had become a cause célèbre of Fox News. And the most-prominent advocate for Mr. Gallagher had been Bernie Kerik, Mr. Giuliani’s former Correction and Police Commissioner and then business partner, before his criminal activities led to his being sentenced to four years in Federal prison more than a decade ago.
Their Kind of Guy
Mr. Kerik, like the man who elevated him from Third Grade Detective and campaign bodyguard to two of the city’s top law-enforcement positions, often acted like the laws he enforced didn’t apply to him. When he was finally convicted of, among other things, lying during an interview with President Bush for a job as U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security and accepting $165,000 in home-renovation work paid for by two mob-connected businessmen whom he helped in their bid to get a license to run a city waste-transfer station, Mr. Giuliani—who by then had distanced himself from his old friend—said that while he had many good qualities, when it came to ethics, Mr. Kerik was “really challenged.”
In the world currently inhabited by his former boss and President Trump, that makes him one of the boys.
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