Kiev is a long way from Brussels and EU membership is a distant prospect for Ukraine. But that did not stop Gordon Sondland, the US envoy to the EU, from becoming a crucial intermediary between President Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky.
“I spike (sic) directly to Zelensky and gave him a full briefing. He’s got it,” Mr Sondland wrote to two other American diplomats in July in a text message released by US congressional investigators on Thursday.
Mr Sondland, a wealthy hotelier who donated $1m to Mr Trump’s inauguration before landing his Brussels posting in 2018, is now embroiled in the impeachment inquiry examining whether the president tried to coerce Mr Zelensky into opening a corruption investigation against his rival Joe Biden.
The texts released on Thursday lay bare the lengths to which Mr Sondland went to facilitate Mr Trump’s squeeze on Kiev and the concerns about the subjugation of US diplomatic interests to the president’s political concerns. They also show officials navigating a grey area where they seek to please the White House to serve a legitimate policy objective, such as salvaging a crucial relationship with a foreign power.
Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the EU
A wealthy hotelier from the Pacific Northwest, Mr Sondland did not have much political experience before being appointed ambassador to the EU in 2018. Mr Sondland began his career in real estate, eventually becoming chief executive of Provenance Hotels, a chain of boutique hotels. While he disavowed Mr Trump during his 2016 election campaign, he later donated $1m to the president’s inauguration fund.
William ‘Bill’ Taylor, US chargé d’affaires for Ukraine
A career diplomat and military veteran, Mr Taylor is currently America’s interim top diplomat in Kiev and previously served as US ambassador to the country between 2006 and 2009. Before his current role in Ukraine, he was executive vice-president of the US Institute for Peace, a federal institution, and oversaw Iraq reconstruction from 2004 to 2005.
Kurt Volker, former US special envoy for Ukraine
The former ambassador to Nato was at the centre of negotiations between Kiev and Moscow to end a five-year proxy separatist war in Ukraine’s far eastern regions. He was well respected in Kiev, not least for his sharp criticism of the Kremlin during the years that Mr Trump pursued a close relationship with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin.
In one exchange, Bill Taylor, the acting US ambassador in Kiev, expressed to Mr Sondland his misgivings about the withholding of US military aid, saying “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign”.
In a response that looked as if it had been presciently written for the public record, Mr Sondland said Mr Taylor was “incorrect about President Trump’s intentions”.
“The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quos of any kind . . . I suggest we stop the back and forth by text,” he continued.
It was the kind of loyal service to the White House that has given Mr Sondland a special status even among a new breed of Trump ambassadorial appointees who have adopted the president’s abrasive rhetoric and espoused his political views in apparent breach of protocol.
Richard Grenell, the US ambassador in Berlin, enraged his hosts last year when he said he wanted to “empower” conservative moments across Europe, a remark that sounded like he was taking sides in German domestic politics. Woody Johnson has abandoned political impartiality in London, becoming a cheerleader for Brexit in a country deeply divided on the matter.
Mr Sondland has likewise lambasted Europeans on matters ranging from their readiness to use Chinese technology in 5G mobile phone networks to the exclusion of US companies from EU defence projects.
He also flaunts his role as trusted consigliere to the president and his inner circle. At an embassy function in Brussels on Monday, he recalled a “family dinner” he enjoyed last week with incoming top EU officials at the New York home of Mr Trump’s daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner.
“We all sat in the kitchen together, rolled up our sleeves, and had a great discussion about our relationship, the areas where we agree, and the areas where we disagree,” Mr Sondland said of the occasion attended by Belgium’s prime minister Charles Michel, the European Council president-elect, and Josep Borrell, the Spanish nominee for EU foreign policy chief. “It’s these types of engagements that build the rapport needed for any healthy relationship.”
Why Mr Sondland’s services were required to build a rapport between Mr Trump and Ukraine’s new president is another matter.
“It is literally not his business,” said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “The answer seems to be he was out there as a Trump person making sure what Trump wanted got done.”
Mr Sondland was a key messenger who made it clear to the Ukrainian side that they had to appease Mr Trump’s demands for a fresh probe into Mr Biden, according to a person with first-hand knowledge of communication between US officials and Ukrainian counterparts desperate to secure a meeting for their leader at the White House. Mr Sondland did not respond to a request for comment.
To critics of the administration, Mr Sondland’s role is an illustration of Mr Trump’s disdain for formal diplomatic process and over-reliance on personalised contacts, forgoing inter-agency co-ordination in Washington and legal checks and balances.
“If you want to get something of value from the president, you have to show unstinting loyalty to the president and his interests,” said Jeremy Shapiro, a former state department official now at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank. “Sondland is really good at that. He is the perfect Trump envoy. He’s an attack dog for Trump’s interests. He doesn’t appear to have his own agenda. Everything he says is in service of the president’s agenda.”
An EU diplomat said: “[Sondland] asserts himself as a doyen of US ambassadors in central and eastern Europe and he’s close to Trump.” Kurt Volker, who resigned as special US envoy to Ukraine last week before handing over his text messages to investigators, found Mr Sondland “useful because he can get things done in the White House”, the diplomat added.
The text messages show that Mr Volker, a former ambassador to Nato and longtime advocate of close US-Ukrainian ties, did little to dissuade Mr Trump or his attorney Rudy Giuliani from applying pressure on Kiev to agree to a new investigation into Mr Biden’s role and alleged interference in the 2016 election. If anything, he reinforced the message to Mr Zelensky’s advisers and tried to persuade them to make a written commitment to launch a fresh probe.
It was Mr Taylor, the acting ambassador in Kiev, who noted in a text exchange last month the potential damage from coercing the Ukrainians. “The nightmare is they give the interview and don’t get the security assistance. The Russians love it. (And I quit).”
Additional reporting from Roman Olearchyk in Kiev and Tobias Buck in Berlin