President Donald Trump’s greatest foreign policy achievement was the Abraham Accords advancing peace in the Middle East, says Gordon Sondland, who served as ambassador to the European Union under Trump.
“I think the strategy behind the Abraham Accords was you can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result,” Sondland says.
The Abraham Accords is the formal term for agreements to normalize relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including the United Arab Emirates and Morocco and later Sudan and Morocco. It is viewed as a historic victory for peace in the Middle East.
In his new book “The Envoy: Mastering the Art of Diplomacy with Trump and the World,” Sondland discusses Trump’s biggest diplomatic moves and what it was like working with the president behind closed doors.
Sondland joins this episode of “The Daily Signal Podcast” to talk about his book and his relationship with the former president.
Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:
Virginia Allen: We are joined today by Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the former ambassador to the European Union under President Donald Trump. Ambassador, welcome to the show.
Gordon Sondland: Good morning. Thanks for having me.
Allen: Your new book “The Envoy: Mastering the Art of Diplomacy with Trump and the World” is out now. The book is a memoir. You share quite a bit about your early life and your career. One thing that you talk about is you say that you came from humble beginnings. What do you mean by that?
Sondland: Well, thanks for the question because it’s something that I’m most proud of. My parents were Holocaust survivors. They were separated by necessity during the war for seven years. In fact, my mother left to escape to Uruguay and never looked back. My father met his daughter for the first time when she was 7.
They immigrated to the United States. They were very poor. I grew up in what I would call a lower-middle-class background but in a very wealthy area. It was sort of an irony because the area in which we settled had a lot of wealth and then also not a lot of wealth. It made me very restless, envious, and motivated to make my own success.
Allen: Well, and that’s what you did. I was fascinated by the fact that you actually have some similarities to Trump and that you both got involved during your early career in the hotel business. What led you into that line of work?
Sondland: Well, I was in the commercial real estate business, and then one thing led to another, and all of a sudden a hotel came up for sale. I knew nothing about hotels, but I sold the hotel, essentially, to myself. I put a partnership together, found a group of investors, and that sort of launched beyond my career of running what became a private real estate fund, which now has other types of properties in it. In “The Envoy,” I go through this.
Allen: It’s so fascinating to see this career trajectory that you went on. How did you first meet Trump and get to know him?
Sondland: As I mentioned in the book, I met him for the first time just fortuitously in New Orleans in 1988 when George H. W. Bush was accepting the nomination for president in New Orleans. I had just bought a hotel with my group and he had just bought the Plaza. He was having real trouble with Westin, who was running the Plaza for him at the time. We were having trouble with Westin, they were running our hotel.
I went to compare notes with him to see if there was anything we could do to work on together and deal with Westin sort of as a block. He blew me off completely. He was very dismissive. He didn’t want to talk. Then, the very next night I was sitting in the lounge at the hotel with three other people and he walked in, came over, sat down because he knew the other people, and he couldn’t have been nicer.
I reminded him of that when we reengaged again in 2016. I said, “You were a real ‘fill in the blank’ to me.” And I said, “The next night, you were great.” And he said, “Well, of course I was nice to you the next night. You were with important people.”
Allen: At least he’s honest, right?
Allen: Then, how did you come to gain that position of being ambassador to the EU under Trump? How did that unfold?
Sondland: Well, one of the things “The Envoy” does is it walks people through what really happens when someone gets an ambassadorship. The media likes to paint it as a very sort of smarmy, simplistic process where big donors write checks and get an ambassadorship. While that probably happens once in a while, it’s not the norm.
The norm is that people join a party—the Democratic, Republican Party—they work for years for multiple candidates, not just federal candidates, but state candidates, local candidates. They become known to the party establishment. They contribute. They drive candidates around. They host fundraisers. They bundle.
Over a period of time, sometimes it can take decades, in my case it did, you become known to the party establishment so that when a president is elected of your party, the group that advises that president knows who you are, knows the work you’d done. Obviously, you have to do something for that candidate as well.
Then there’s a selection process and it’s not necessarily connected to how much money. In my case, I gave $1 million to the inaugural committee, and I had raised a lot of money for the Trump campaign prior to that. But that $1 million check bought me a ticket to the inauguration, albeit a very, very nice ticket for my family and my friends.
There were 50 or 60 others who purchased tickets at that level as well. I believe only myself and one other person received an ambassadorship. If the price of an ambassadorship was $1 million, there were probably 55 other people that were very disappointed.
Allen: Talk a little bit about what it was like then stepping into that role. Specifically, what it was like working under President Trump, what he was like behind closed doors.
Sondland: Well, I’ll tell you, being a United States ambassador to any post under any president is the experience of a lifetime.
One of the things that really motivated me to do this job was, through the course of my life, I had met several people whose backgrounds, careers I admired that were also fortunate to serve presidents of both parties. They told me, to a person, that serving as a U.S. ambassador was the most interesting thing and the most fulfilling thing they’d ever done in their life. These are people who lived fairly successful lives. For people to say that, it really made me want the job even more.
Once you step into the job, you really have no appreciation for how consequential it is and how much you can actually do as the highest-ranking federal official in that place. Whether you’re in a country or in an organization, you are the federal government. All of the agencies, whether it’s the Defense Department, the Agriculture Department, the Commerce Department, go down the list of Cabinet agencies, they all report to you, not to Washington.
You’re the highest-ranking federal official. You’re basically the stand-in representative for the president of the United States. It allows you to take your president’s agenda, again, whoever he or she may be, and move it forward. If you know which levers to pull, you really can get a lot done and you can get a lot done very quickly.
Allen: If you think back on all those experiences and the work of working to get things done, are there any interactions that you had with the president that really stand out in your mind, stories that you enjoy telling friends?
Sondland: Well, one of the stories that’s in “The Envoy,” and there are many, which is illustrative of Trump’s personality, we were standing in a room at the White House waiting for a foreign leader to arrive. This particular foreign leader was someone who was known to me and I was working on the file for various reasons. It was one of the EU members. The room was filled with staff that were standing against the wall, if you can picture it.
The president and I were standing in the middle of the room waiting for the motorcade to pull up and we were making small talk. He reached in his pocket, pulled out a box of Tic Tacs, and shook the Tic Tacs into his hand and scarfed them down. Put the box back in his pocket and looked at me.
I looked at him and I said, “WTF!” And he said, “What?” And I said, “Aren’t you going to share your Tic Tacs?” And he said, “Oh, oh, OK.” It never even occurred to him. He reached back in his pocket, pulled out the Tic Tacs, and put some in my hand. It was one of those where it’s all about him. I say that affectionately, because it’s always all about him.
Allen: Oh, that is too funny. Oh, man, thank you for sharing that.
I do want to talk a little bit, just largely, about the topic of a foreign policy. Because during your time as EU ambassador, I know you were a part of a lot of important conversations and decisions regarding American foreign policy. I want to get into some of the specifics in a moment, but first, just kind of big picture, how would you describe Trump’s approach to foreign policy and did you agree with that approach?
Sondland: His approach was very, not only counterintuitive, but unconventional. He was a contrarian in every sense of that word.
He did not view foreign policy as this sort of, “We all love each other. Let’s embrace. Let’s hug and kiss and talk about how much we share values.” He understood that that’s the case. He understood who an ally was and who an opponent was. He was much more transactional than probably any president leading up to his presidency.
He would really cut to the chase with our closest allies and say, “Look, we love you. We know you love us. But there’s some things in our relationship that need to be adjusted. This is the adjustment I’m looking for.”
They weren’t used to being spoken to in that way because everyone wanted to kick the can down the road. Trump’s strategy was not to kick the can down the road. It was to pick up the can and hold it in front of the other side and say, “What are we going to do about this can?”
That was very off-putting to some, initially. But over time, I began to notice that they appreciated his candor. He didn’t waste people’s time. He said what he meant. He meant what he said. In many ways, it made my job easier.
Allen: What did that look like in relationship to the EU and what role were you playing in making sure that the priorities that Trump had in America’s relationship with the EU, that those were being prioritized?
Sondland: Well, the argument I make in “The Envoy,” and this is part of Trump’s foreign policy, is that we squander an enormous advantage that we have in dealing with the EU.
When we pick an issue or an area where we in the EU can come to complete agreement on that specific issue and have no daylight between us, the power of our combined block of 800 million people and the power of our joint economic might and military might is unstoppable.
It makes the Russians, the Chinese, the Iranians, the North Koreans very, very nervous when they see that the U.S. and the EU are completely aligned on any specific issue, especially if that issue is directed toward them.
Instead of leveraging that benefit, we sometimes squabble over things that are absolutely ridiculous.
The agriculture people argue about whose meat is better and which tomatoes have GMOs. The safety people are arguing over seat belts in cars, whether the German seat belts are better than the American seat belts. Data retention and data privacy, which are important.
But the amount of time and bandwidth that those consume, along with many, many, many other issues that don’t even come close to rising to the level of importance as picking big issues and working together. Trump has pointed that out.
What you can now see with the Biden administration is when they do work together with the EU without daylight, which today, and hopefully it’ll continue on Ukraine, it creates a very, very powerful momentum.
Allen: If you were in the position right now of being ambassador to the EU, how would you be advising [President Joe] Biden on America’s involvement with the war in Ukraine? How would you be encouraging the leaders in the EU to be engaging with Ukraine?
Sondland: What I would be doing is I would be spending a great deal of time with the individual EU countries, along with the bilateral ambassador that’s based there, our ambassador, to persuade, especially those that are lukewarm on support for Ukraine, to shore up that support, and if necessary, to figure out what the United States can do for those countries to shore up that support.
Because when we speak, when President Biden and [European Commission President Ursula] von der Leyen speak relating to Ukraine, it’s important that they speak with one voice and no equivocation. I hope that my successor, who is a very capable person, is doing that and has been allowed to do that.
As far as the Biden administration is concerned, this is one area where I depart from some of my more conservative Republican friends. I consider myself a conservative Republican. I always have been and always will be. But there’s some isolationist talk going on right now in the Republican Party, which I think is very, very dangerous.
Ukraine is just a bellwether for the rest of Europe, and we need to stop the incursion at Ukraine before it goes further. Then, push it back and eradicate Russians from Ukraine that don’t belong there.
Allen: Of course, when we talk about Ukraine, when we talk about Russia right now, we can’t leave Iran out of that conversation. In 2018 when Trump pulled America out of the Iran deal, you supported that decision. Why? Are there any lessons that you think the Biden administration should take from Trump and his administration regarding foreign policy toward Iran?
Sondland: Yes. One of the arguments in “The Envoy” is pivot and be flexible.
I know that there were members of the Biden administration with good intentions that were the authors, the fathers, the mothers, whatever you want to call them, of the JCPOA, which is the Iran agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it’s known.
It is a failed agreement. It’s a failed agreement because of Iran’s conduct. Because it had some provisions missing that should have been in it, and I’m sure they could not get those provisions at the time. But that’s all water under the bridge.
President Trump’s strategy with Iran was very simple. Starve their cash flow because with little money, they have a very hard time conducting all of the malign activities that they conduct all over the world. It will also enrage their populace and hopefully bring them to the table. With money, they can do a lot. With less money, they can do very little. That was Trump’s strategy.
Of course, the Europeans kept trying to circumvent our sanctions by developing sort of a bartering system. When we found out about that, I went on a little bit of a rampage to the extent that I could around Europe.
I spoke with foreign leaders, I spoke with CEOs of companies, and I basically delivered a message that, “Look, you can do business with the United States and you can do business with Iran, but you can’t do business with both, so pick one.” That got their attention because in each case, they clearly did 10 times, 100 times, 1,000 times more business with us than they did with Iran.
Allen: Sure. What do you think was Trump’s greatest foreign policy success?
Sondland: I think his greatest foreign policy success was the Abraham Accords, which is not well reported in the media. If it is reported in the media, the slant is always that it’s an anti-Palestinian pact, which it’s not.
I think the strategy behind the Abraham Accords was, you can’t keep doing the same thing and expect a different result. For the better part of four decades, the Israelis have tried to make peace with the Palestinians in all different forms. I think Trump began to believe that the Palestinians were not in the peace business, that they were in the grievance business.
I think he was able to convince the other moderate Arab countries that was the case, and that it was time to put an offer on the table to the Palestinians, to paraphrase “The Godfather,” “An offer they couldn’t refuse.” Lo and behold, they refused it. Once the moderate Arab countries saw that the Palestinians really were not going to take yes for an answer, they were then prepared to move forward in their dealings with Israel.
Even though the Arab accords are just very new, the ink is barely dry on them, a couple of years, they’re already showing incredible signs of both business, cultural, and political partnerships between many Arab countries in Israel.
Allen: In your book “The Envoy,” you of course talk about your relationship quite a lot with President Trump, and you talk about the fact that you did choose to testify during the impeachment trial. Share, if you would, what does your relationship with Trump look like now? Have you-all spoken since then? Because the result of you choosing to testify was you did lose your position, Trump did fire you. Any hard feelings?
Sondland: No. I mean, the last conversation I had with Trump at the White House was I told him, “I have to go testify. They’ve asked me to come in. They sent a subpoena.” And he said, “Go ahead, tell the truth.” He didn’t say, “Don’t go.” He didn’t say, “Talk to the lawyers, make sure you say this or that.” And I said, “Well, look, I wouldn’t say this or that anyway. I’m going to tell the truth.”
What wound up happening was I received a subpoena. My legal team said, “You have absolutely no basis to ignore the subpoena, unless the White House decides to go to court and try and get a court to prevent you from testifying.” The White House did no such thing, nor were they willing to. I had to honor the subpoena.
I was not there to help President Trump. I wasn’t there to hurt President Trump. I just wanted to get out of there and go back to work. Some of what I said was probably helpful. Some of what I said was probably not helpful. But again, it was the truth and I’m not going to change that.
Allen: You packed so much into this book, “The Envoy.” What do you hope readers take from it?
Sondland: I hope the readers take a few things. No. 1, Trump is a very complicated person and you have to look at him as a package. You don’t get to cherry-pick, “Well, I like him except for X, Y, and Z. I wish he wouldn’t do this. I wish he wouldn’t do that.” You have to either say, “I’m in,” or, “I’m out.” The good, the bad, and the ugly.
I explain why I got out had I not been fired. Jan. 6 for me was a big red line, and I go through that analysis. Up until Jan. 6, while I didn’t support every single thing he said or did, or every policy, I was generally supportive of his administration as a whole.
The other thing I want people to take from the book is that in America, anything is possible. The son of a Holocaust survivor and college dropout can become the United States ambassador to the EU and run a fairly successful business.
Then, I also talk about the big stuff. I use the phrase “small change” a lot and that we focus on small change when there are huge opportunities ahead, and I talk about that as well.
I sort of refer to “The Envoy” as a little bit of a b—– beach read. It’s not a textbook on the EU. It’s not a textbook on foreign policy. It’s sort of a fun, quick read that you can literally sit at the beach and now, in the winter, sit by the fire and devour it in a fairly short period of time.
Allen: “The Envoy: Mastering the Art of Diplomacy with Trump and the World” is out now. Ambassador Gordon Sondland, thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate you joining.
Sondland: Thank you so much for having me.
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