Gordon Sondland, hotelier turned diplomat, wasn't always a Trump supporter
Posted October 8, 2019 11:01 a.m. EDT
CNN — Gordon Sondland, the US Ambassador to the European Union, finds himself in the center of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry after the State Department blocked him from appearing before three congressional committees on Tuesday.
Sondland was set to testify behind closed doors before the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump and Ukraine. Lawmakers were eager to press him about text messages he exchanged related to Trump's July phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and the freezing of foreign aid to Ukraine that cut to the heart of the Democrats' impeachment probe.
Sondland has been a player in Republican politics for a number of years but wasn't always a Trump supporter.
Sondland was previously the founder and CEO of the Provenance Hotels chain, which boasts 19 hotels across the country.
Sondland was confirmed to the ambassador role on June 29, 2018.
A frequent donor to the GOP
During the 2016 election, Sondland donated to Jeb Bush's presidential campaign and to the former Florida governor's Super PAC, FEC filings show. After Trump locked up the nomination, Sondland, a frequent donor to the Republican National Committee, joined Trump and the RNC's joint finance operation.
However, after Trump attacked a Gold Star family, Sondland sought to distance himself from Trump after The Seattle Times obtained an invitation to a August fundraiser for Trump that showed Sondland listed as an event sponsor.
A spokeswoman for Sondland said at the time that he would not be hosting or attending any Seattle or Portland fundraisers for the Trump campaign, Willamette Week reported.
"Mr. Trump's statements have made it clear that his positions do not align with" his personal beliefs and values, Provenance Hotels spokeswoman Kate Buska told the Portland newspaper.
"Historically, Mr. Sondland has been supportive of the Republican party's nominees for President," she added. "However, in light of Mr. Trump's treatment of the Khan family and the fact his constantly evolving positions diverge from their personal beliefs and values on so many levels, neither Mr. Sondland or Mr. Wali can support his candidacy."
After the election, Sondland donated $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee through four limited liability companies, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Although the bulk of his donations have been to GOP candidates, he gave over $5,000 to Democratic Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden's reelection campaign in 2015, according to FEC filings.
Wyden had vouched for Sondland during his confirmation hearing in 2018, saying he knew the hotelier for a quarter century by way of Oregon's "really small Jewish community."
He also touted Sondland's contributions to the Oregon community, including a $1 million endowment to the Portland Art Museum, where he served as its chairman from 2009 to 2011, to allow free admission for children.
Limited prior work in government
Sondland is a first generation American of refugee parents, who fled Nazi Germany and eventually settled in Seattle, Washington.
Before he took on the diplomat role, Sondland's work in government had been limited. He was appointed by George W. Bush to serve on the Commission for White House Fellowships.
He had worked on the transition team for Oregon Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who was governor from 2003 to 2011. Sondland also worked as a principal Republican liaison for Oregon and the White House. He also chaired the governor's Office of Film and Television.
While he is ambassador to the European Union, he has stated that he has a specific interest in Ukraine.
"President Trump has not only honored me with the job of being the US ambassador to the EU, but he's also given me other special assignments, including Ukraine," he told a Ukraine media outlet in July.
Sondland was set to be on the hot seat Tuesday as House investigators pressed him about text messages he exchanged related to Trump's July phone call with Zelensky and the freezing of foreign aid to Ukraine.
In text messages released last week by the former US special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, Sondland told a US diplomat concerned over the withhold of funding in exchange for an investigation that he is mistaken about Trump's intentions.
But on Tuesday morning, the State Department ordered Sondland not to appear before Congress.
"He is a sitting ambassador and employee of State and is required to follow their direction," Sondland's attorney Robert Luskin said.