A former National Security Council aide feared Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the E.U. and one of Mr. Trump’s go-to diplomats for Ukraine, was a national security threat because of his extreme inexperience — likening him to someone driving in an unfamiliar place with no guardrails and no GPS. Tomorrow, Mr. Sondland will finally be interviewed by impeachment investigators. I asked my colleague Michael Crowley, who covers White House foreign policy, about him.
Michael, what makes Mr. Sondland, a wealthy hotel owner and longtime political donor, such an odd fit as a diplomat?
Many people thought Mr. Sondland was unqualified even for the job he was supposed to be doing as ambassador to the E.U. His predecessor in that job had decades of diplomatic experience and had several advanced degrees. The E.U. has 28 member states and has just a very complicated, important relationship with the U.S. that involves economics, diplomacy and security issues.
So then how did he end up as Mr. Trump’s quasi-fixer in Ukraine?
You often see donors who at least appear to have bought their way into ambassadorships who then kind of keep their heads down, enjoy the job, revel in the title and the glamour. Mr. Sondland comes in like a mini Trump. He’s disrupting. He’s offending. Rather than many diplomats kind of buttering up their host countries, he comes in saying, “The E.U. is out of touch. It’s ripping the U.S. off. The party’s over.” He didn’t show much interest in diplomatic protocols. I spoke to one person for the story who said he is one of the Trumpiest of Trump’s ambassadors.
Just in the past decade, he’s moved from backing Mitt Romney to supporting Jeb Bush to working for Donald Trump. Why?
He loves the game of politics. There’s not much evidence that he tried to earn his way into foreign policy through any of that kind of hard grunt work. It looked like he was trying to catch the best train out of town, and he finally found it in Mr. Trump. And if he wanted a bigger and better job, he was going to have to make Mr. Trump happy. When it comes to Ukraine, we’re getting a clearer and clearer picture of what it meant to do that.
Biden’s impeachment response in the debate
In last night’s Democratic presidential debate, Joe Biden defended his son Hunter’s work for a Ukrainian energy company before quickly pivoting to Mr. Trump’s efforts to get Ukraine to investigate his family. I asked my colleague Lisa Lerer, who writes our On Politics newsletter, how well that tactic worked.
Lisa, was there a sense by those watching the debate that Mr. Biden’s response was an effective one?
It shifts the focus off the Biden family and onto the president, and it allows him to reiterate the argument that he’s the most electable. He can say, “Look, the president had to go seek foreign help because he was worried about my candidacy.” That is a key piece of his appeal. And his approach kind of shames any of his opponents from making an issue of this, because, if they do, they’re playing into what Mr. Trump might want.
How do you think it worked out?
I think he caught a break on this one. So much of the debate was focused on Elizabeth Warren, and how she was handling attacks against her as a front-runner. You could have had a scenario where Mr. Biden’s response to the question about his son was the focus of the coverage and debate, and it didn’t happen. And he has his rivals, in part, to thank for that.
What else we’re reading
The federal investigation of Rudy Giuliani has a counterintelligence component related to his business ties, CNN reported.
Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine who wrote in a text message that it was “crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign,” is expected to testify on Tuesday, according to NBC News.
My colleague Annie Karni reminds us of Mr. Giuliani’s decision in 2016 to withdraw from contention for secretary of state. “I thought I could play a better role being on the outside and continuing to be his close friend and adviser,” he said at the time.
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