In his new book, “The Envoy: Mastering the Art of Diplomacy with Trump and the World” (Bombardier Books), Gordon Sondland talks about his time in the Trump administration from 2018 to 2020.
The longtime businessman and hotelier-turned-European Union ambassador has seen the inner workings of international relations and even testified in November 2019 in the impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump, saying Trump ordered him to work with lawyer Rudy Giuliani on Ukrainian foreign policy. (Sondland was later fired by Trump on Feb. 7, 2020, just two days after the president was acquitted by the Senate.)
The Post sat down with him to discuss modern diplomacy, centrist Republicans, and what readers can expect from his first book:
What kind of insights into international relations can readers expect to get from your book?
The status quo does not work. Diplomacy can be a life-changing activity, or the only goal may be to go through the process and not really have a result. You have a meeting, you sit at a fancy table, there are flags, everyone is well dressed, you discuss your talking points, you stand up, everyone shakes hands and smiles and you wear a toast – then you get in the car and drive off and say, “What have we achieved?”
In the book, I mention sales and marketing. It’s marketing. We are not involved in enough sales. Sales are arm twisting, cajoling and even threatening – not in a militaristic way, but you use your influence to get the best for your country in some cases. But we don’t do it because it’s uncomfortable, people get grumpy with us. While there are some incredibly smart, accomplished, and efficient people in the career ranks of the State Department, unfortunately there are too many people who are there for the journey, not the destination. It’s not about getting everything done.
How has Trump changed the world of diplomacy?
Whether you like President Trump or not, he has fundamentally changed the way diplomacy is conducted at the presidential level. He cut a lot of the process. He would pick up the phone all the time and call a foreign leader and just say, “What are you doing? What’s going on? What can we work on together? What can I do for you? And, more importantly, what are you going to do for us? It really upset the bureaucracy because they had no role in it — “The president called who? Say what? Why weren’t we involved? Why didn’t we do a briefing on this? He broke every standard, and now I think you’re going to see presidents on both sides of the aisle take a page out of that playbook.
What were your secrets to getting along with Trump and getting things done within his administration?
First of all, I was honored to serve, and I would have served any president who asked me to. I didn’t know President Trump well [before serving]. My body language with him was respectful — because after all, he was the President of the United States — but I wasn’t intimidated. He didn’t treat me like the helper [but] as a valued volunteer. I told him exactly what was happening. If he got mad at me – and he did several times – I wouldn’t mind. I was like, “Listen, you’re the boss. If that’s what you want to do, fine. I’m just telling you it’s wrong and it won’t work. But, again, it’s your call, not mine. It always shocked me how many rich and truly successful volunteers – even military men with four stars on their shoulders – would cringe when he walked into a room. I didn’t understand him, because they were tough men and women who knew their stuff and didn’t need their work.
Why did you feel compelled to cooperate at the impeachment hearing, and what were the fallout from that decision?
When I spoke to President Trump at the White House and said the committee wanted me to speak to them, he said, “Go ahead. Just tell the truth. He didn’t say to call lawyers or not to go. He said, “Tell the truth.” I was not there to help President Trump or to hurt President Trump. I was just there to give the facts as best I could recall them, backed up with emails, memos, and calendar entries. And these don’t lie. What happened, happened. What has been said has been said. Whether it helped or hurt the President, I only had to repeat exactly what I sincerely knew because I was under oath.
As a self-proclaimed “Republican who is a sensible centrist,” what’s next for you and people like you?
I’m starting to see a real divide, and the conventional wisdom of the Republican Party is that if you don’t have a no-prisoners attitude with Democrats, all the things Republicans don’t like about Democrats quickly get out of hand republican. I think you can have very strong conservative politics and principles and still deploy them in a way that is respectful and includes the best that Democrats have to offer. I’m really a free market person, I’m really for strong defense, I’m really for pulling you up by the boots and small government – but I don’t think you have to be a hole in in order to advance these policies. I think a lot of Republicans think they have no choice, but I don’t believe that.
New York Post