the national interest

Gordon Sondland’s Ukraine Alibi: I Was the Dumbest Diplomat Ever

Gordon Sondland, ambassador to the European Union. Photo: Daniel Mihailescu /AFP/Getty Images

Gordon Sondland, the Republican fundraiser turned ambassador to the European Union turned functionary for President Trump’s extortion scheme in Ukraine (a non-E.U. country outside his formal purview) testifies in the House today. Sondland’s political ambitions and lack of experience made him the vehicle Trump selected to corrupt American Ukraine policy.

Sondland is no longer able to deny that he knew of and helped enforce an explicit quid pro quo with Ukraine — according to both Fiona Hill and John Bolton, when Bolton told Ukrainian officials in July that Trump would not meet with Ukrainian president Zelensky, Sondland contradicted him to say that Trump would hold the meeting if Ukraine investigated Burisma, the Ukrainian firm that had employed Joe Biden’s son. Sondland’s quid pro quo was explicit, according to reporting by the New York Times and NBC and the testimony of Hill.

But Sondland has an excuse for all this. His excuse is that he didn’t know what Burisma was. Sondland is testifying that he was aware of the policy trading a meeting for the investigation of Burisma, but had no idea this had anything to do with Biden. In his testimony, Sondland claims he “did not understand, until much later, that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son,” and that such an investigation “would be wrong.” So as far as Sondland knew, Burisma was just some random Ukrainian company, and Trump was obsessed with having it investigated for some reason that Sondland didn’t understand or bother to look into.

To grasp how utterly absurd this excuse is, consider a few facts. On May 1, the New York Times ran a lengthy front-page story about Biden and Ukraine, describing and detailing Trump’s agenda of ginning up charges against his likely opponent. The word Burisma appears 36 times in that story. The Times also ran follow-ups on May 9 and May 11, the first of which also appeared on the front page. Generally speaking, professional diplomats tend to be aware of front-page New York Times stories about the president’s deep, personal interest in the country they are negotiating with.

But maybe Sondland doesn’t read the Times. Maybe he’s one of those Republicans who ignores the mainstream news completely and relies on conservative alternatives. Well, the thing is, right-wing news also went crazy with the Biden-Burisma story. Our news explainer by Adam K. Raymond in May casually noted “right-wing blogs that have covered the story with a Benghazi-like zeal.”

If Sondland had boycotted all the mainstream news coverage making clear why Trump was obsessed with investigating Burisma, he definitely caught the right-wing media’s even more thorough coverage, all of which made the connection with the Bidens extremely clear. There is no way Sondland believed Trump was taking a personal interest in withholding diplomatic recognition of an important ally out of some idiosyncratic obsession with tighter regulatory scrutiny of one particular energy company. If Sondland is trying to maintain that he was handling American policy toward Ukraine over a period of months, during which he failed even to peruse a single headline pertaining to the president’s obsessive interest in that very country, then he should be charged with criminal stupidity.

This post has been updated.

Sondland’s Ukraine Alibi: I Was the Dumbest Diplomat Ever