RALEIGH — Gordon Sondland, who represented the United States in Europe for two years as the ambassador to the European Union, knew in his mid-20s that representing his country abroad was something he wanted to do.
“Those that had an ability to serve as a U.S. ambassador under either a Democrat or a Republican president, every single person, man and woman, described their experience as the most interesting thing they’ve ever done in their life. And, you know, these are people who have done other very interesting things,” said Sondland in an interview with North State Journal ahead of the release of his book “The Envoy.”
“For them to say that really sort of struck a chord with me. And I decided I’d like to do this as well.”
A successful businessman despite being a self-described college dropout after attending the University of Washington, Sondland said he went to work in the trenches of the Republican Party to work his way into an ambassadorship.
In any presidential administration, successful fundraisers known as “bundlers” earn spots abroad in roles not served by career diplomats. It was one of these roles in which Sondland would attain when his chance came in 2017 during the transition period of Donald J. Trump — who was elected president in November 2016.
A supporter of Jeb Bush early in the 2016 campaign, Sondland describes talking with Trump and his team — vividly recounting in the book first meeting Trump in the 1980s and coming full circle nearly 30 years later.
Sondland described seeking out Trump after reading about a problem he had with the Plaza Hotel — Sondland himself had started in the hotel business with his company and said he wanted to compare notes about similar issues they were having. But at that meeting, which took place at the 1988 Republican National Convention, Sondland said Trump was “a total d*ck” at the time “and he totally blew me off.”
Their second meeting was during the ’16 campaign and arranged by Steve Mnuchin, who would become Trump’s Treasury secretary. Sondland recalled the first meeting in a conversation with Trump. The former president “couldn’t have been nicer” that time, which he brought up the next night.
“And I said, ‘So the next night you were really nice to me.’ And he (Trump) said, ‘Well, of course I was nice to you the next night you were with important people.’ So he says, ‘Are you over it?’ And I said, ‘Well, I’m here, aren’t I?’ And he goes, ‘That’s a good point,’” Sondland said about how he reconnected with the man who would ultimately send him to Brussels.
Sondland describes receiving the chance to serve as an ambassador as akin to being struck by lightning. Little did know at the time he would be at the center of an even rarer event: a presidential impeachment trial.
Each of the numerous individuals confirmed as ambassadors attends “ambassador school” with government officials and they receive a notebook. The complexity of each assignment determines the length of the notebook, Sondland says, comparing for instance a small Caribbean Island to the one he received for the EU — the size of an old-school Yellow Pages telephone book.
“There was no question in my mind that that was an extremely consequential post. The EU truly is one of the consequential posts in U.S. diplomacy. It’s the foreign leaders of all 27 EU countries,” Sondland said. “My job (at the time) is to keep the United States and the EU as lashed up as possible on not just trade and business, but intelligence, commerce, agriculture, military mobility, the list goes on. The meaty part of the job is working directly with the president and the secretary in order to move our agenda with our largest trading partner and our strongest ally forward.”
Sondland also had a front-row seat in Europe to what was happening in Ukraine. He said in the interview that Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is “truly becoming one of the consequential military leaders of my generation with no previous experience because the guy is really brave.”
He described the Ukrainian president as someone who needed to prove himself. One of Sondland’s first discussions in Brussels was about why Ukraine couldn’t attract more Western capital and how it related to long-running corruption issues in the country. Sondland recalled holding events and embracing Zelenskyy, introducing him at the time to the European leaders he has relied on since the February invasion.
Sondland briefly became a household name and trending topic on Twitter for his testimony during the 2019 impeachment trial of Trump. Compelled to testify in front of the entire nation, Sondland recounts in his book how he felt: He wanted to answer questions and get back to work, but also criticized those who would “lie, cheat, steal” and use impeachment to spin narratives.
“From a personal standpoint, it’s hard on you, it’s hard on your family because the notoriety isn’t like you just won the Olympic gold medal,” Sondland deadpanned.
“I was going to tell the truth to the best of my recollection exactly what happened and dispute what people are alleged that happened, that actually did not happen and let the chips fall where they may. I would say with a straight face that was not the agenda of quite a few of the other witnesses. I wanted to go back to Brussels and my job.”
It was a job that Sondland would not have after Trump was acquitted.
As he says in the book, Sondland was given the option to resign or be fired. Feeling he hadn’t done anything wrong, he said wouldn’t resign and was subsequently fired from his post.
“I would do the same thing all over again given all of the same circumstances,” Sondland said.
He adds in the book that what separates him from many others is that he figured out how to manage Trump to get results — and he could take the good, bad and ugly because it comes with the full package. But Sondland strongly disagreed with Trump’s handling of the Jan. 6 riot and said he wouldn’t support a 2024 campaign because Trump couldn’t effectively govern.
On a lighter note, Sondland is a fan of Duke University, where both of his children graduated college in the past few years. He also is longtime friends with U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who introduced Sondland during his Senate confirmation and helped shepherd him through the arduous process.
He also said the CBS show “Madam Secretary” shared similarities with the real State Department — except the offices, furniture wardrobes and cars are a lot nicer on TV than they are in reality.
“The Envoy” was released on Oct. 25 and can be purchased on Amazon and in bookstores.