Meet the latest actor in the whirlwind Ukraine inquiry: hotelier turned ambassador Gordon Sondland
DANIEL MIHAILESCU/AFP/Getty Images
- A trove of text messages released by Democrat House committee chairs on Thursday night shines new light on Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, in relation to an impeachment probe of President Donald Trump.
- Sondland has spent significant time as ambassador looking to advance the president's interests regarding Ukraine, even though the country isn't in the European Union.
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A trove of text messages released on Thursday night by the US House Intelligence, Oversight and Reform, and Foreign Affairs Committees cast a spotlight on Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union, in relation to an impeachment probe of President Donald Trump.
The messages are between Sondland, Bill Taylor, Chargé d'Affaires at the US Embassy in Ukraine, Kurt Volker, former US special envoy to Ukraine, and aids to the Ukrainian president. They were obtained by lawmakers after Volker appeared on Capitol Hill on Thursday for closed-door hearings as part of the impeachment inquiry.
The weeks-long impeachment saga follows a bombshell whistleblower complaint which centers on how Trump, during a July 25 call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, repeatedly pressed Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden.
Shortly before speaking to Zelensky, Trump withheld around $400 million in US military assistance to Ukraine - raising questions among Democrats about whether the president was breaching his authority by using foreign policy for personal gain.
The text messages released on Thursday by the Democrat House committee chairs show how officials believed that Trump would only meet with Zelensky if the Ukrainian president publicly launched the investigation into Biden, who was not explicitly mentioned in the messages.
In a September 9 exchange, Taylor told Sondland that "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign," adding that Trump halting military aid to Ukraine "had shaken their faith in us," and was a "nightmare scenario."
"The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quo's of any kind," Sondland responded. "The president is trying to evaluate whether Ukraine is truly going to adopt the transparency and reforms that president Zelinsky promised during his campaign I suggest we stop the back and forth by text."
How Sondland went from being a hotelier to Trump's inner circle
Sondland, the son of Jewish parents who escaped Nazi Germany, wasn't always in the political realm; in fact, he gained prominence in the hotel business while living in the Pacific Northwest, building up his reputation as a self-made, multimillionaire hotel magnate. Originally a real estate broker in Seattle, he decided to purchase a bankrupt hotel in 1985 and, according to the Portland Business Journal in 2016, "never looked back."
He founded Provenance Hotels in the Pacific Northwest, with his chain of boutique hotels popping up across the country, according to the Washington Post. His political experience prior to the Trump administration included a gig chairing the Oregon Governor's Office of Film & Television, as well as working on the transition team for former Democratic governor Ted Kulongoski.
Sondland, a long-time establishment Republican, according to POLITICO, has donated heavily to the GOP over the years. He served in fundraising roles for former President George W. Bush, former Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and John McCain, and the Republican National Committee.
He was initially a Jeb Bush supporter leading up to 2016, before getting behind Trump. He later disavowed the president in the summer of 2016 over his "nationalist and anti-immigrant statements," Provenance Hotels spokeswoman Kate Buska told the Wilamette Week at the time. Specifically, Sondland found issue with how Trump criticized Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of a Muslim American soldier who was killed while serving in the US Army.
But, Sondland's disdain toward Trump didn't last long: he donated $1 million to Trump's inauguration committee in 2017 and a year later was nominated by the president to be US ambassador to the European Union.
Sondland is being scrutinized for his role in advancing Trump's interests in Ukraine
As seen through the text messages released on Thursday, Sondland spent time as ambassador specifically looking to advance the president's interests regarding Ukraine. However, Ukraine isn't in the European Union.
On July 21, four days before Trump's call with Zelensky, Taylor texted Sondland that the Ukrainian president was "sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely an instrument in Washington domestic, reelection politics."
"Absolutely, but we need to get the conversation started and the relationship built, irrespective of the pretext," Sondland responded. "I am worried about the alternative."
In the weeks after the call, Volker and Sondland went so far as discussing a draft statement for Zelensky regarding Ukraine's commitment to investigate Biden for Trump. In an August 13 text message, which appears to be in relation to the draft statement, Volker texted Sondland:
"Special attention should be paid to the problem of interference in the political processes of the United States especially with the alleged involvement of some Ukrainian politicians. I want to declare that this is unacceptable. We intend to initiate and complete a transparent and unbiased investigation of all available facts and episodes, including those involving Burisma and the 2016 US elections, which in turn will prevent the recurrence of this problem in the future."
At the time, the investigation never came to fruition and, in August - following news that Trump had witheld military aid to Ukraine - the president canceled a scheduled meeting with Zelensky in Poland. When Taylor asked Sondland in a Sept. 1 message "are we now saying that security assistance and WH meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Sondland told Taylor to call him.
But, as became clear on Friday, the Ukrainian investigation wasn't quashed. Following a secretive summer of state department officials working behind the scenes, Ukrainian prosecutors announced Friday they had reopened their investigation into Burisma, the energy company where Hunter Biden served on the board.
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