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How The U.S. Ambassador To The E.U. Is Wrapped Up In The Ukraine Controversy


And now here to talk about how that U.S. ambassador to the EU is wrapped up in the Ukraine affair is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez here in the studio.

Hi, Franco.


SHAPIRO: Tell us more about who Gordon Sondland is and how he ended up being the ambassador to the European Union.

ORDOÑEZ: Well, Gordon Sondland is a prominent Republican donor who made his money managing hotels, largely in Seattle and Portland, Ore. It appears he hasn't held a full-time position in government before being named as ambassador to the European Union, which was last year. He's what's known as a political appointee.

Interestingly, during the campaign, he tried to distance himself from Trump in 2016, actually backing out of a Seattle fundraiser when Trump criticized the parents of a Muslim American soldier. Sondland himself is the son of Jewish parents who escaped persecution from Germany. But any hard feelings that he had about President Trump or then-candidate Trump didn't last very long because Sondland later donated a million dollars to the president-elect's inaugural fund.

SHAPIRO: So explain how the ambassador to the European Union, which includes a lot of countries but not Ukraine, ends up being central to the White House's negotiations with Ukraine.

ORDOÑEZ: Right. My sources from the administration tell me they also find it very odd that Sondland, the ambassador to the EU, is even dealing with the Ukraine. It's not traditional that the EU ambassador gets this involved with the Ukraine. There are already lots of different U.S. actors with interest in Ukraine. There's Kurt Volker. He's the special envoy who was trying to help end the conflict with Russia. There's Energy Secretary Rick Perry, who was engaged with energy talks with Ukraine.

But Sondland, he seems to have developed, you know, a special rapport with Trump. And he boasted, actually, about the role that he would have when he spoke with Ukrainian TV earlier this year.


GORDON SONDLAND: We have what are called the three amigos. And the three amigos are Secretary Perry, again, Ambassador Volker and myself. And we've been tasked with sort of overseeing the Ukraine-U.S. relationship.

ORDOÑEZ: And mind you that all this is happening even as Trump and his officials are in the process of ousting the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine, who Trump recently called bad news.

SHAPIRO: What kind of reputation has Sondland built during his brief time as a diplomat?

ORDOÑEZ: You know, in some ways, Sondland is kind of like Trump. He's a businessman. He made his name in the hotel industry. People I spoke to said he has kind of a similar brash personality - a wheeler, a dealer, someone with a lot of confidence. He's kind of a larger-than-life character. When he hosted an Independence Day celebration in Brussels, he actually brought in Jay Leno as entertainment.

The criticism is that Sondland is part of this new model of foreign diplomacy in the Trump era. Like Trump's ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell, another outspoken political appointee, Sondland is kind of unconstrained by traditional protocol and has been openly critical of allies such as the EU, who Sondland has referred to as being out of touch.

SHAPIRO: So he has been called to testify before this House committee tomorrow. What are members of Congress going to be asking him?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, they're going to ask him about his texts with Volker, about talks of scheduling a visit by the Ukraine president to the White House. He'll be asked about his own texts about Trump wanting a, quote, unquote, "deliverable." That will certainly get a lot of scrutiny because they appear to be tied to a commitment by Ukraine to investigate the Biden family.

Sondland will also be asked about other texts from other diplomats who raised questions about whether U.S. assistance was based on the condition of investigating the Biden family. Sondland has been defensive on these texts. And at one point, he tried to take the conversation off the texts and tried to get them to be just phone calls. So that'll be very much the focus of the questioning, and we'll see what comes out of that.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAIA'S "AFTERWARD @ THE BAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.

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