Gor­don Sond­land’s murky mis­sion

Gulf News - - Front Page - BY MICK O’REILLY For­eign Cor­re­spon­dent

Mil­lion­aire hote­lier and US am­bas­sador to EU finds him­self at cen­tre of im­peach­ment cri­sis in Washington

The story goes that Gor­don Sond­land was streak­ing over the US West Coast in his Lear­jet in 2016 when the bad news came. Jeb Bush’s cam­paign was on the phone — he was bow­ing out of the race for the White House.

The Port­land, Ore­gon hote­lier who had spent a for­tune do­nat­ing and rais­ing funds for the Repub­li­can party was sim­ply look­ing for a high­pro­file ap­point­ment and was hop­ing Bush would de­liver. But with Bush out of the race for the White House, he then turned to then can­di­date Don­ald Trump.

Fast for­ward more than three years, the hote­lier helped Trump oc­cupy the Oval Of­fice and Sond­land got an am­bas­sador­ship he so craved. He’s the US en­voy to the Euro­pean Union and based in Brussels. All is right in his world, or so it seems.

Ac­cord­ing to Sond­land, Pres­i­dent Trump had also given him “other spe­cial as­sign­ments, in­clud­ing Ukraine.” And that’s where things start to be­come, err … just plain murky.

It’s one thing to amass a for­tune, build­ing a string of ho­tels up and down the US, another to be the Amer­ica’s Am­bas­sador to the EU — but a com­pletely dif­fer­ent thing to be a cen­tral fig­ure in an con­gres­sional im­peach­ment in­quiry that may very well de­ter­mine the fu­ture of Po­tus.

For Sond­land, every­thing hinges on that phone call of July 25 when Trump asked Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Ze­len­skiy to open an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into for­mer US vice-pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and his son Hunter. The elder Bi­den is a lead­ing con­tender for the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion to run against Trump in the Novem­ber 2020 elec­tion, the younger was on the board of Ukrainian en­ergy com­pany Burisma that had been in­ves­ti­gated for cor­rup­tion. No wrong­do­ing has been es­tab­lished.

The call — Trump’s un­do­ing

Right now, Demo­cratic con­gres­sional law­mak­ers be­lieve that call is enough to meet the bench­mark to re­move Trump over a so-called “quid pro quo” — al­legedly with­hold­ing $400 mil­lion (Dh1.5 bil­lion) in US aid to Ukraine un­less it dug up dirt on the Bi­dens. The rea­son­ing goes that, af­ter all the shenani­gans over Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment or oth­er­wise in the 2016 race, now Ukraine was be­ing roped in for 2020 — déjà vu all over again.

And just what role did Sond­land play when it came to work­ing with Ru­dolph Guil­iani in coopt­ing or co­erc­ing Kiev, if any?

Heady ques­tions then for Sond­land, a man who likes to re­count his rags-to-riches story. In his telling, it be­gins with his teenage par­ents flee­ing Nazi Ger­many. His mother makes her way to Uruguay, while his fa­ther ends up fight­ing with the French For­eign Le­gion in North Africa. The two stay in touch through let­ters de­liv­ered by the Red Cross. They re­unite af­ter six years and make their way to Seat­tle, where they run a dryclean­ing busi­ness. Sond­land is raised on Mercer Is­land, now an ex­clu­sive area east of down­town but one that in the 1960s and 1970s was more of a melt­ing pot.

Early suc­cess in busi­ness

Sond­land found suc­cess in busi­ness at an early age. At 28, as a com­mer­cial real es­tate bro­ker, he was analysing whether his firm should be­come the list­ing agent for a ho­tel in bank­ruptcy. Re­view­ing the com­pany’s fi­nan­cials, he saw an op­por­tu­nity. He de­cided to look for in­vestors and buy it him­self in­stead. It was the start of what would be­come Prove­nance

Ho­tels, a bou­tique chain with more than a dozen prop­er­ties through­out the coun­try.

As the com­pany grew, Sond­land do­nated mil­lions of dol­lars to med­i­cal re­search, home­less pro­grammes and the arts, in­clud­ing en­dow­ing in per­pe­tu­ity free ad­mis­sion to the Port­land Art Mu­seum for any­one un­der 18.

But pol­i­tics was tak­ing root — a bag­man collecting and do­nat­ing funds for the GOP — and the oc­ca­sional Demo­crat too.

With Bush off the 2016 ticket, Trump was the next ob­vi­ous tar­get. An am­bas­sador­ship fol­lowed a year ago, only af­ter the pres­i­dent was sat­is­fied where Sond­land’s loy­alty lay.

In Septem­ber, when de­tails of the July call be­came pub­lic and an edited tran­script was re­leased by the White House it­self, Sond­land was adamant there was no quid pro quo. So too in mid-Oc­to­ber when he tes­ti­fied in closed ses­sions to con­gres­sional com­mit­tees prob­ing the pro­bity of the July 25 call.

But all that has changed since Mon­day. Sond­land did a volte-face on the quid pro quo: Yes, he told a Ukrainian of­fi­cial his coun­try would likely not get that $400 mil­lion in se­cu­rity aid un­less they pur­sued in­ves­ti­ga­tions de­manded by Pres­i­dent Trump. In a phrase that will long res­onate in the pan­theon of political plat­i­tudes, Sond­land said he memory was “re­freshed.”

“I now do re­call a con­ver­sa­tion on Septem­ber 1, 2019, in War­saw with An­driy Yer­mak”, a top ad­viser to the Ukrainian pres­i­dent. “I said that re­sump­tion of the US aid would likely not oc­cur un­til Ukraine pro­vided the pub­lic an­ticor­rup­tion state­ment that we had been dis­cussing for many weeks.”

If there’s a moral here for Sond­land, it’s to be care­ful what you wish for.

In Septem­ber, when de­tails of the July call be­came pub­lic and an edited tran­script was re­leased by the White House it­self, Sond­land was adamant there was no quid pro quo... All that has changed since Mon­day. Sond­land did a volte­face..

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