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Ambassador Sondland's Relationship With Trump Draws Scrutiny

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It is one thing to read a transcript of testimony from the impeachment inquiry. It's quite another to see witnesses in real time spelling out their concerns with a plan to get a foreign power to investigate one of President Trump's political rivals. Among the key witnesses in public testimony this week will be U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland. Another witness testified Friday he heard Sondland talking on the phone with President Trump about getting Ukraine to do the investigations into Democrats that the president was pushing.

Richard Morningstar used to serve in Gordon Sondland's job as U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and he joins us now. Ambassador, thanks so much for being with us.

RICHARD MORNINGSTAR: Happy to be with you.

MARTIN: So as I mentioned, Gordon Sondland will testify Wednesday morning. As someone who served in this exact post, can you talk about whether or not it is normal for Ukraine to be part of that portfolio?

MORNINGSTAR: Well, I'd have to say it's not normal. There's nothing inherently wrong with it if a person had had the experience to work on some of these issues. Apparently, Ambassador Sondland had not and - excuse me - had not had that experience and was working for purposes that were inappropriate, the - towards the personal benefit and political benefit of President Trump. Ironically, when I was ambassador to the EU many years ago - more years than I'd like to remember - I had previously done, and even afterwards have done, a lot of work in Ukraine. And Vice President Gore asked me to go to Kyiv and to talk to them about some of their energy issues while I was ambassador to the EU. But I had had that experience. It was minor, my participation, and obviously for very legitimate purposes.

MARTIN: You mentioned your experience, not just in the EU but with Ukraine. And more broadly, a lot of your work has been in the former Soviet Union. You served as ambassador to Azerbaijan. You understand the complexities of these former Soviet republics. Ukraine, in particular, has been so dependent on the United States as a bulwark against Russian influence. I wonder, do you think all of this has caused long-term damage to the U.S.-Ukraine relationship?

MORNINGSTAR: I hope not. But what I am concerned about is that Ukraine is being used as a political football. And that should not be the case. We've had a bipartisan policy ever since Ukraine became independent to support their independence, to support reform and certainly since Crimea and the invasion of the eastern Donbas to support Ukraine and its conflict with Russia. That needs to continue. And we can't let it be interfered with because of this, because of what's been going on, because it's in our national interest and it's in Ukraine's national - and Ukraine's interest.

MARTIN: Is Russia trying to leverage this moment for its own interests?

MORNINGSTAR: Sure.

MARTIN: How?

MORNINGSTAR: I mean, Russia is - clearly wants to - would love to return to the borders of the Soviet Union, would love to have a huge influence over Ukraine. There's a very delicate moment that is going to take place shortly in that the gas transit agreement between Russia and Ukraine expires at the end of the year. And negotiations are going on now as to the continuation of that. Russia would like to avoid transit through Ukraine and go through other pipelines such as the Nord Stream pipeline, which has been in the news lately. And it's going to be important that a new agreement be reached where transit can continue through Ukraine. Russia would love for what's happening now with respect to the U.S. and Ukraine to cause us to be - to not to get too involved, not too supportive with respect to those negotiations - and if there were to be an agreement that were to take place to Russia's advantage, which could deprive Ukraine of significant gas transit fees, which are very important to its economy.

MARTIN: What about the U.S. relationship with the EU? I mean, especially now that the current ambassador in that job has been implicated in the political scandal, at least as being involved in these conversations, has all this made that particular geopolitical relationship more complicated?

MORNINGSTAR: It's not helpful. It's really - it's very important that the United States and the EU work together on any number of issues, including Ukraine, including reform issues in Ukraine, including the energy issues in Ukraine. And if we have an ambassador in Brussels who gives the appearance of not caring about necessarily about what's in the interest of all the parties but more concerned with the political benefits of the current president of the United States, that's just one more issue that makes it more difficult possibly to work with the EU.

MARTIN: In closing, let me ask you - on Friday, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch gave public testimony, and she talked about being pushed out of her job, the damage that that has done to morale in the foreign service. How did you watch what she said? I mean, do you agree with her?

MORNINGSTAR: I thought her testimony was very gripping. I've known her for many years. She is truly a wonderful person. And to see how she was treated and how she was smeared by the president, by Giuliani and others and basically put out of the way - it's why she was recalled from Kyiv - it really is a terrible thing. And I think it does have an impact on dedicated foreign service officers who want to serve the national interest, who want to follow U.S. policy. And, yes, it's very difficult.

MARTIN: Richard Morningstar, former ambassador to the European Union and founding chairman of the Global Energy Center at the Atlantic Council, we appreciate your time.

MORNINGSTAR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.