In the middle of impeachment hearings Wednesday, as Ambassador Gordon Sondland implicated President Donald Trump in pressuring Ukraine to investigate his political rival, Sondland’s lawyer interrupted with an intriguing detail: The ambassador had a flight to catch.
“Ambassador Sondland had intended to fly back to Brussels to resume his duties at the end of the day, and so it would be a great convenience to us if we could have a shorter break now and resume with the members’ questions and try and wrap up in time that he might be able to make his flight,” he said about the Trump-appointed ambassador to the European Union.
That’s when my editor called.
“Pack a bag, Zack, you’re going to Brussels.”
There was only one direct flight from the Washington area to Brussels Wednesday evening: a 5:50pm United flight out of Dulles International Airport.
I was on it.
Sondland’s testimony was a historic moment, and if there was any more we could learn from him in the aftermath, we wanted to be there.
I arrived at the airport in time to watch the end of Sondland’s shocking testimony, during which he told House investigators that there was a quid pro quo for Ukraine to announce investigations into Trump’s political opponents that came from the President’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani at the “express direction of the President,” and that Trump’s inner circle knew what was going on, too.
“Everyone was in the loop,” Sondland said. “It was no secret.”
But as soon as House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, D-California, banged his gavel to adjourn the hearing, Sondland was off, leaving Capitol Hill as television pundits were just beginning to dissect the impact of what he had said.
It was going to be tight. Sondland left the Hill about an hour before our flight was set to board and had a 40 minute drive to the airport. He made it in time with a few minutes to spare, even answering a few questions from reporters waiting outside the airport terminal
This was the moment when Sondland was first confronted by the question everyone wanted to know: was he going to resign?
While the testimony he had delivered appeared to be damning not only to Trump, but also those at the highest levels of the administration, Sondland made it clear in that he has no intention of leaving his post.
“Absolutely not,” he responded to reporters, adding that he “told the truth,” during the hearing.
Upon his arrival at the airport, Sondland appeared relieved to be heading back to work in Brussels and leaving the chaos of Washington and the ongoing impeachment inquiry behind, at least for now, telling reporters he was looking forward to relaxing during the flight.
Cameras caught Sondland showing ticket agents photographs of his family – a small suggestion that he was happy to be entering familiar territory after hours of intense questioning by lawmakers.
“So if you’d let me get on the airplane in peace and quiet that would be very nice,” he told reporters before heading towards security.
Still, the weight of what he had endured in the hours prior, and perhaps the anticipation of what may come in the following days or weeks, was written on Sondland’s face as he made his way through security and toward gate C3, where the plane back to Brussels was set to leave within minutes of his arrival.
I caught up with Sondland in Terminal C as he approached the gate, flanked by two men who appeared to be security escorts.
The ambassador declined to answer my question about whether he was happy with the way Wednesday’s hearing went or if he believed he did the right thing by testifying and ducked into the United Airlines lounge next door to the gate.
I followed him inside and saw that cable news was now replaying clips of Sondland’s hearing, which appeared to be somewhat of a “through the looking glass” moment for him and for the 15 or so people sitting in the lounge, most of whom recognized him immediately.
One woman, who I later learned was a State Department official who was on our flight, approached Sondland and asked him if she could buy him a drink. He laughed and politely declined the offer.
Sondland exited the lounge minutes later and was hurried onto the aircraft, United flight 950, by his escorts who deplaned after helping him onboard – which I was able to witness since Sondland boarded ahead of the rest of the passengers.
By the time I got to my seat, which was in the same row as Sondland’s but on the other side of the plane, the ambassador was getting situated.
He was still wearing the dark blue suit that he donned during the hearing and was chatting with a passenger seated near him when he realized he put his luggage in the wrong overhead bin.
When the passenger he was speaking to pointed out his mistake, Sondland replied: “My whole day has been like this,” and they both laughed.
“Then I said ‘well done today’ and he shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said thank you,” the passenger, Karen Hyland, told CNN.
Before takeoff, Sondland walked up to the front of the aircraft where he was warmly greeted by members of the flight crew who smiled, shook his hand and addressed him as “Mr. Ambassador.”
Sondland exchanged pleasantries with the crew, and they handed him a drink in a glass. Then he settled in for the long 7-hour flight, ordering a sparkling water.
I approached Sondland one last time prior to take-off, and he immediately told me that he did not want to discuss the hearing before having the opportunity to discuss the events with his staff and press personnel back in Brussels . “I don’t want to get ahead of things,” he said.
Before moving back to my own seat, Sondland did tell me he was looking forward to getting back to work and would speak to the media when the time was right.
The lights dimmed, and that right time did not come over the course of our travels together. Within a couple of hours of take off for the overnight flight, Sondland was asleep.
Once in his seat, Sondland kept to himself and most passengers on the plane with him were none the wiser that one of the most consequential witnesses in the impeachment inquiry was on the plane with them.
He slept through dinner and awoke as the aircraft made its final approach into Brussels Thursday morning, just missing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who had been in town until late Wednesday for a NATO summit.
While there was little media fanfare at Brussels International Airport to greet Sondland upon his arrival – just me along with a team from Sky News – the EU ambassador appeared to exit the airport using an alternate route used by VIP guests and diplomats hoping to avoid swarms of reporters.
Sondland may be back in Brussels, thousands of miles from Washington and his morning testimony, but a cloud of uncertainty undoubtedly followed him across the Atlantic as he was transformed overnight into perhaps the most pivotal witness to testify in the impeachment inquiry into the man he currently works for.