How Gordon Sondland Got to the Impeachment Hot Seat

U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland arrives at the U.S. Capitol.

Source Chip Somodevilla/Getty

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This Portland developer is a longtime Republican stalwart who now faces a difficult choice.

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When then-presidential hopeful Mitt Romney began organizing a transition team in 2012, just two of his roughly 150 national finance chairs (aka top money-rakers) stepped forward for an administration appointment. One of those was Gordon Sondland, whose Jewish parents had survived the Holocaust. 

Sondland had shared that he wanted to become an ambassador to a German-speaking nation, which would mean coming full circle. “Many [Holocaust survivors or descendants] felt they owed their survival, or their parents’ survival, to the intervention of someone at some critical point in time,” says David Nierenberg, also a top Romney fundraiser. This fuels a certain type of drive to succeed and form personal relationships that provide access to power in case their families need protection again, Nierenberg argues: “Gordon … kind of exemplified that sort of person.”

Today, Sondland finds himself caught in a slew of entanglements — whether or not they stem from an earnest quest to stay proximate to power. The current U.S. ambassador to the European Union, 62, is sitting in a hot seat. His scheduled public testimony Wednesday makes for a blockbuster moment in the impeachment proceedings, given his direct access to President Donald Trump on the question of linking aid to Ukraine to politically helpful investigations. But Sondland is also under fire for changing his story.

Sondland had a penchant for influence.

The Seattle native sits a long way from his humble beginnings: His parents fled the Nazis and first sought refuge in Uruguay, later moving to Washington state and opening a dry-cleaning business. Sondland studied at the University of Washington before dropping out, making a name for himself as a salesperson in commercial real estate. 

He was scrappy and rose quickly in the business, initially raising money from friends and family to purchase and renovate a bankrupt hotel in Seattle in 1985. Over the years, he built both wealth and recognition through the hotel industry — a résumé line he shares with President Trump. Sondland Hotels later came to manage hotels across the West Coast. He’s also a co-founder of the Portland-based merchant bank Aspen Capital and founded the chain Provenance Hotels. 

He became influential in Portland happenings along the way, including local politics and cultural affairs. Described by some as a moderate Republican, Sondland served on the transition team for Oregon’s Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski before being appointed to the Governor’s Office of Film and Television, helping bring entertainment business to the state. On city-level issues too, Sondland had a penchant for influence. In one land-use conflict over the construction of a convention center hotel in Portland, for example, Sondland ceded his initial position in exchange for a parcel of land and written public acknowledgment that he and other coalition members were “pillars of this Portland community,” The Oregonian reported.

President George W. Bush appointed Sondland to a commission to help select White House fellows. And he later became a bundler for Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. Nierenberg recalls Sondland as a driven, reliable fundraiser and colleague who always got the job done. “If he made a commitment to do something, he did it,” Nierenberg says. He’s been described as a pragmatist who frequently worked across the aisle, rather than a staunch ideologue.

Trump wasn’t Sondland’s first horse in the 2016 presidential race. He initially supported Jeb Bush, and later Marco Rubio once Bush had dropped out. Sondland was set to raise money for Trump in the general election but disavowed the GOP nominee following Trump’s attacks on the Pakistani-American family of a slain U.S. soldier after they spoke at the Democratic National Convention, according to the Willamette Week newspaper. He had a change of heart after Trump won. Sondland donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee.

Trump returned the favor in 2018, tapping Sondland to become E.U. ambassador. Even though Ukraine is not an E.U. member, Trump deputized him to work on Ukraine policy as one of what other State Department witnesses have called the “three amigos” — along with Energy Secretary Rick Perry and special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker. When he first appeared behind closed doors, Sondland told the House Intelligence Committee that there was no “quid pro quo” around Ukraine aid but reversed course in revised testimony. Then last week came new word of a July 26 cellphone call between Sondland and Trump loud enough to be overheard by a table of diplomats at a Kyiv restaurant. As recounted by diplomat David Holmes, Sondland memorably told Trump during the phone call that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky “loves your ass.” “So, he’s going to do the investigation?” Trump asked over the phone. Sondland replied, according to Holmes: “He’s gonna do it.”

What Sondland himself recalls of this lunchtime phone call, Congress is keen to know. In Nierenberg’s eyes, Sondland would serve himself by following the “rule of the hole” — that is, “when you’re in a hole, stop digging.”

Republicans, meanwhile, appear ready to bury Sondland. The president, who once commended Sondland’s character, has since tweeted that he barely knows him. To Democrats, he could be under scrutiny for perjury.

Unquestionably, he is central to the potential impeachment of a president. It might not be quite the way he imagined, but for a man who spent a career seeking proximity to power, Gordon Sondland has it.

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