The hotel operator turned Trump administration diplomat, whose testimony confirmed former president Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing sham investigations into Joe Biden, says the man whose presidential run he was ordered to sabotage has done a bang-up job responding to the Russian invasion.
In an interview ahead of the release of his new book, The Envoy, Ambassador Gordon Sondland said Mr Biden has done “the impossible” by rallying Nato and the European Union to deliver military and economic support to Kyiv at levels that have helped Ukraine’s forces repel Russian invaders in ways never imagined before Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops over the border in February.
“If you look at what happened post-invasion, I have to say he's done a credible job of rallying the EU, because getting the EU to work with unanimity — it’s impossible,” said Mr Sondland, who spoke with The Independent by phone late last week.
After Russia’s invasion escalated this year (Russia initially invaded Ukrainian territory in Crimea in 2014) Mr Biden’s diplomatic efforts led to what has been a sea change in the geopolitical climate of post-Cold War Europe.
Germany, which since reunification in the early 1990s has kept to a policy of pacificism and non-interventionism with almost religious zeal, both out of a desire to focus on building its own economy and due to tradition forged after German aggression led to two devastating world wars in the first half of the 20th Century, announced it would embark on a military build-up not seen since the 1930s and direct significant funding towards rebuilding its defence-industrial base.
Equally as important, even normally pro-Russia members of the 27-member bloc such as Hungary and Turkey got on board with plans from Brussels to begin delivering unprecedented military assistance to Kyiv.
Mr Sondland said the accomplishments of Mr Biden and his team since the latest phase of Russia’s invasion began are even more impressive given the EU’s policy of requiring unanimity in such decisions.
“It's like, you know, trying to try to win the lottery or solve a Rubik's Cube, and whether it's their own self-interest, or whether it was the Biden administration's diplomacy, quiet diplomacy … the fact of the matter is they've produced,” he said.
For those who remember the Washington state native from his star turn during Mr Trump’s first impeachment, it might be surprising to hear a Trump-appointed GOP donor turned diplomat singing the praises of Mr Biden’s work in unifying the West against Russia’s war on Ukraine.
He was a key witness in the 2019 House intelligence committee hearings which led to Mr Trump becoming just the third US president to face an impeachment trial before the Senate, much to the dismay of Republicans who’d spent months arguing that Democrats’ allegations that Mr Trump tied military aid to Ukraine and a White House invitation for Mr Zelensky to the Ukrainian leader announcing sham investigations into Mr Biden was a hoax.
As stunned GOP intelligence committee members looked on, the ambassador confirmed what Democrats had been saying for some time.
“Was there a quid pro quo?” Mr Sondland asked in his opening statement. “The answer is yes”.
He revealed that State Department and Trump White House officials had known exactly what the then-president was doing – and why he was doing it.
This didn’t endear him very much to Mr Trump or his allies in the administration, and within a few months he found himself back in Washington, being fired by a top aide to then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Looking back at his stint interacting with Mr Zelensky and his aides at the outset of his administration, Mr Sondland told The Independent he was not surprised by the way the Ukrainian leader has handled himself over the months since Russia began trying to erase his country from the map.
“As soon as I met him, my colleagues who joined me at the inauguration agreed that this is an interesting guy. He's pretty tough, he's funny, he's charming, and that's what we came back to Washington to tell the president — this is a guy, not only that you can do business with, but that you should do business with,” he recalled.
Mr Sondland said those who characterised Mr Zelensky as “just an actor” when he first won the presidency gave him a “bad rap”.
“He's been tested and has vindicated any doubts any doubts that anyone would have had about his pure toughness,” he said. “The guy's got a big set of balls, there's no way around that”.
The former EU ambassador also defended his decision to testify against Mr Trump during his impeachment, even though it upset his fellow Republicans. He said it was his duty to honour a duly-issued congressional subpoena, even as part of an inquiry that was widely condemned by his own party.
“I wasn't there to lie for the President. I wasn't there to hurt the president … I tried as best I could, based on the exact questions that were asked … to answer them as truthfully as possible, and get the hell out of there,” he said.
Mr Sondland also said the price Mr Trump wanted to extract from Mr Zelensky — the announcement in exchange for the military aid Congress had already authorised and appropriated — was something he “vehemently disagreed” with at the time he heard about it, which he explained was at the same time everyone else did, in public reporting.
“I wasn't consulted ahead of time. I had no internal discussion with anyone about it. I would have if I had heard about it, I would have said absolutely not. That's too big of a price to pay for a f***ing Oval Office meeting,” he said.
Pressed on whether Republican threats to do the same thing – withhold military aid in exchange for concessions from the Biden administration – would be acceptable, Mr Sondland said doing so wouldn’t be his choice, but opined further that such proposals were the product of a longstanding isolationist streak in the GOP he hopes is not ascendant if his party takes the House in November’s midterms.
“I'm very disappointed that Kevin McCarthy appears to be among those people. I thought that maybe he'd have a little more common sense, and maybe as he progresses, if he is fortunate enough to become Speaker, he will think this through more carefully,” he said.
“I believe that the mainstream of the Republican Party is fully supportive of our efforts in Ukraine because frankly … this is an existential crisis for Europe and for our interests,” he said. “I think members of the right wing of my party, the ultra-right wing, are wrong”.
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