the national interest

Gordon Sondland Is an Equal-Opportunity Flunky

Gordon Sondland during an impeachment hearing on November 20. Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

When Gordon Sondland testified at the House impeachment hearings on November 20, having “refreshed” his memory and recalled several incriminating facts that had escaped him the first time around, the ambassador was at pains to explain that he had never supported the scheme in which he had participated.

“We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the president’s orders,” he said. “At all times, I was acting in good faith … We had no desire to set any conditions on the Ukrainians. Indeed, my own personal view — which I shared repeatedly with others — was that the White House [meeting] and security assistance should have proceeded without preconditions of any kind. We were working to overcome the problems, given the facts as they existed.”

Sondland’s definition of “acting on good faith” meant following orders, even orders he found morally troubling. Here, he was articulating an ethos that has played an outsize role in the Trump era: that of the functionary who approves of neither Trump’s goals nor his methods but accommodates them in the name of staving off chaos. This type’s sole objective is to “land the plane,” to use a metaphor employed by former deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein, perhaps the purest emblem of the bureaucratic tribe. (Pleading with Trump last year to let him oversee the Mueller investigation to its end, Rosenstein promised, “I give the investigation credibility. I can land the plane.”)

Plane landers tend to have conventionally conservative beliefs. Sondland is typical. Initially, he supported presumptive front-runner Jeb Bush in the primary, and, during the general election when Trump appeared doomed, he registered his opposition to Trump’s attack on the Gold Star parents Khizr and Ghazala Khan by refusing to take part in a fund-raiser. Trump’s victory seemed to alleviate Sondland’s ethical objections, though. He donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee and in return secured an ambassadorship to the E.U. While Ukraine lay outside his formal portfolio, his pliability made him an ideal vessel for Trump.

It’s not as though Sondland liked the idea of shaking down Ukraine for dirt on Joe Biden and his family. Plane landers in general would prefer not to break laws or inflict gratuitous suffering on civilians, though they sometimes find it necessary to do so, and while they are frequent targets of the president’s most unhinged diatribes, they uniformly refuse to respond in kind. Trump tweeted an image of Rosenstein (among many others) behind bars. He berated Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen in front of the Cabinet for roughly half an hour. He screamed at chief of staff John Kelly so loudly he could be heard through the closed doors of the Oval Office. However unhinged Trump’s behavior, it seems only to deepen the plane landers’ conviction that they must continue working from the inside.

Whether they intend to or not, the diligent, grimacing functionaries complement the core of true-believing fanatics Trump has also attracted. In their own ways, Stephen Miller, Rudy Giuliani, Michael Anton, and William Barr are examples of core Trumpists. Whether they respect Trump personally or not, their ethos can be emblematized with another aviation metaphor: the “Flight 93 election,” a phrase former national-security adviser Anton used in a widely read 2016 essay. The plane was the country, the hijackers were the Democrats, and conservatives faced the choice of launching a risky fight to the death by electing Trump or accepting certain destruction in the form of a Hillary Clinton presidency.

Barr, who was widely considered a pallid Establishmentarian when nominated for attorney general, is the most surprisingly genuine Trumpist in the administration. In a pair of recent speeches, one at Notre Dame and the other to the Federalist Society, Barr depicted Trump as a bulwark against a totalitarian opposition that is “engaged in the systematic shredding of norms and the undermining of the rule of law” and inspired by a “holy mission … to use the coercive power of the State to remake man and society in their own image, according to an abstract ideal of perfection.” And Giuliani, the mayor turned “cybersecurity consultant,” was drawn into the murky world of Russophilic conspiracy theories that cast Trump as the victim of an international cabal of Justice Department deep staters and Ukrainian reformers who were plotting to frame Russia for stealing the 2016 election and hand Hunter Biden a no-show job.

Sondland and his fellow plane landers insist that they never gave credence to the conspiracy theories Giuliani and Trump had pumped into each other’s brains and that when they failed to disabuse their boss, they decided to placate him. Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine brought in to bridge the gap between the State Department and Giuliani’s Ukrainian contacts, told the House he believed the charges against Joe Biden had “no credibility.” Still, failing to budge Giuliani or Trump, he “therefore faced a choice: do nothing and allow this situation to fester, or try to fix it. I tried to fix it.”

A more colorful account came via a July phone call between Sondland and Trump. Sondland held the phone away from his ear to accommodate the president’s famously high volume, allowing two of the staffers at his table to hear the conversation in which Trump demanded investigations. After the call, Sondland explained that Trump “doesn’t give a shit about Ukraine” and cares only about investigating Biden. And since Sondland did give a shit about Ukraine, he tried to fix it — by coaxing the Ukrainians to produce the investigations.

The testimony of figures like Volker and Sondland makes it easy to see how their complicity came to feel, to them, like something close to idealism. The value that was being sacrificed (the sanctity of American domestic politics) was distant, while the value being honored (Ukraine’s security) was near. The president’s paranoia was fixed; working around it was the only choice. What they seem loath to acknowledge, to others or even to themselves, is that their cooperation may have constrained Trump’s abuses of power but, more important, enabled them. Trump is an amateur who needs experts to help him consolidate control of a party and a government that initially resisted him. If nobody were there to land the planes for him, Trump’s presidency might have already crashed and burned. Instead, it is quite possibly on course to continue for another five years.

Yet the hearings have produced another category of bureaucrat, who neither relished Trump’s abnormal style nor worked around it. These are the conscientious objectors. Marie Yovanovitch, a veteran diplomat, was smeared by Giuliani and his Ukrainian allies for having pushed reform in the country. She asked Sondland what to do. His advice, according to Yovanovitch, was unsurprising for anybody familiar with his thought patterns: He urged her to tweet fulsome praise for Trump. Yovanovitch demurred, later explaining that such an act would have compromised the nonpartisanship that is drilled into her profession. Trump fired her shortly thereafter.

Diplomacy is a field in which Yovanovitch invested her life, while Sondland was a tourist on hiatus from a lucrative business to which he could return anytime. Still, despite having so much more to lose, Yovanovitch was willing to risk her post over principle, an option Sondland appears to have never considered.

Yovanovitch is not alone. The bureaucracy has produced a handful of other conscientious objectors who refused to carry out Trump’s corruption of institutions they had labored to sustain — like David Holmes, Fiona Hill, and Alexander Vindman. Impeachment has pushed out into the open a struggle that has been ongoing within the government at every level for three years, a divide along lines of character as much as ideology. Impeachment is a moral X-ray of the U.S. government. We are now seeing who facilitates Trump’s abuses of power and who will stand up to stop them.

*This article appears in the November 25, 2019, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Gordon Sondland Is an Equal-Opportunity Flunky