So far, Ambassador Gordon Sondland has been my favorite witness. Not because he connects President Trump to the questionable (impeachable?) doings with Ukraine. Because he’s an example of a citizen completely over his head in the role he is playing. In contrast to the measured, “process” oriented Foreign Service Officers, National Security Council Staffers, and other career Ambassadors, who live in a world, pardon this, that is “foreign” to most of us. The language, the “process” (which is highly bureaucratic and we should admire them for being able to make anything work with it), the sifting and careful blending of “U.S. interests,” “U.S. foreign policy,” with domestic policy and politics, and regular upheaval (new administrations at least every eight years), these folks exist in a world that few of us can relate. They are also quick learners because their assignments change and sometimes change significantly.
We can relate to Ambassador Sondland, however. Not as a mega donor, fundraiser, rich guy, who almost slipped answering a question as he clarified that he donated $1 million to the President’s inauguration in hopes of … (I thought he was going to say receiving an ambassadorship in return) tickets (to the inauguration). He’s relatable as someone obviously over his head. All of us have felt over our head from time to time; most of us have egos strong enough to admit it. Ambassador Sondland all but did admit it (he is smart enough to realize in that setting, he better not do that).
This guy is an amateur. He should make us appreciate, that much more, the career folks who are measured, take copious notes of conversations, sincerely believe they are serving “higher interests,” have to keep secrets, and can never really be “off duty.”
In response to questions, late in his testimony, Ambassador Sondland was read a Fox News article (apparently the Congresswoman figured that he only would pay attention to Fox News) but Ambassador Sondland didn’t know anything about it. Well, what do you know, he’s like most Americans who don’t pay attention to the skullduggery of politics (on a daily basis). At times during Ambassador Sondland’s testimony I felt I knew more about what was going on than he!
What did Ambassador Sondland think being an ambassador would be like? I’ve met a couple of U.S. ambassadors, doing their ambassador thing. They were gracious, witty, likable, personable, and had some “gravitas.” Gordon Sondland seems like that. I think that he thought being an ambassador would be a couple of years doing meet and greets, setting up conversations between people, brokering “deals” between the U.S. and (in his case) the EU, making innocuous speeches before or after sumptuous lunches, speaking for the President, and representing the United States. National Security? What’s that? U.S. interests? Which ones?
He seemed unable to recall a lot of things. Was that evasiveness? Perhaps, but I don’t t think so. I think he doesn’t remember because so much of what he has been engaged in, he had no frame of reference, no understanding of the “language,” culture, and processes of Foreign Service and National Security. It’s like being among a group of people speaking a language you don’t understand, except from that year of it you took in high school. You could remember perhaps being there but nothing of substance. Oh, you could remember, “por favor,” “caliente,” and “uno dos tres,” but nothing else. This is the world Ambassador Sondland has been living, slowly picking it up, but at the same time, probably not that interested in it.
Before Ambassador Sondland testified and before he amended his original closed door testimony, I thought he was the “patsy,” the “useful dope” who could be blamed for misunderstanding (“Gordon, what the f*** hell were you thinking? That would be wrong, probably illegal.”) Ambassador Sondland is a skilled fundraiser (“we are among friends”) he is not a politician, wary, careful, distrustful of “them” (partisan), but I think he figured enough out to protect himself (can you blame him?) by telling what he does know (and remembers). I agree with Chris Wallace’s take on Ambassador Sondland that he is trying to ”protect himself more than anyone else.”
Yes, he is. No more so than if Rudy Giuliani, Secretary of State Pompeo, Energy Secretary Perry, Vice President Pence or President Trump would if they sat down and “swore to tell the truth” as Ambassador Sondland did. I think he figured things out, just enough, at the right time.
Thomas L. Steiger is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for Student Research and Creativity at Indiana State University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.