Even before Gordon Sondland’s work in Ukraine set off alarm bells, senior U.S. officials were raising concerns about his communications with officials from Romania—including his efforts to get White House access for a politician with a history of pushing back against anti-corruption reforms.
That’s according to two individuals with knowledge of the situation who say that Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union who is now a major figure in the House impeachment inquiry, often hosted meetings with Romanian officials without consulting the National Security Council. His increasingly close relationship with one of those officials, former deputy prime minister Ana Birchall, generated significant concerns within the NSC, according to those same sources.
Birchall graduated from Yale Law School and has long had ties to the U.S. Her husband, Martyn Birchall, is an investment banker whose held positions at international financial firms in New York, London and Hong Kong. In Romania, Birchall has a history of opposing anti-corruption measures in her country and for years supported Liviu Dragnea, a Romanian politician who was recently convicted of corruption, according to two senior U.S. officials. Dragnea served as the head of Romania’s Social Democratic Party (PSD)—a party known to publicly fight back against western pressure for corruption crackdowns—before being indicted for procuring fake jobs at a child protection agency for two members of his party. He was also barred from becoming prime minister because of a 2016 conviction of vote-rigging.
Sondland attempted to help Birchall clinch a meeting and a photo opportunity with then-National Security Advisor John Bolton this past winter, but then Birchall showed up at the White House for it without a scheduled meeting, according to three individuals with knowledge of the encounter. One of the sources told The Daily Beast that Sondland had assured Birchall a meeting at the NSC was set up—and that the State Department arranged an official meeting for Birchall in February after her first failed attempt.
NSC officials alerted their superiors after the incident, raising concerns not only about Sondland’s disregard for the interagency process but also his dispatching of a Romanian official with a checkered political past to the White House without proper sign-off. Birchall’s relationship with Sondland underscores yet another backchannel effort by the EU ambassador to carry out foreign diplomacy that circumvented key national security officials.
In her closed-door impeachment testimony, Fiona Hill, the former top Russia advisor to President Trump, alluded to Romanian officials “appearing at the gates of the White House” and calling the cell phones of NSC officials. “I’d find endless messages from irate … officials who’d been told that they were supposed to meet with me by Ambassador Sondland,” she said. (The country name was redacted from the deposition transcript but two sources said Hill was referring to Romania.)
While U.S. officials in Europe normally closely engage with the member country that holds the EU presidency, administration officials like Sondland pulled Birchall into the Trump circle even after Romania’s term ended and following her appointment as justice minister.
The National Security Council and the State Department did not respond to requests for comment. Through his lawyer, Sondland directed The Daily Beast to Birchall, who denied that she arrived at the White House without a scheduled meeting.
“The allegation … is false and demeaning,” she said. “The feedback I got all the time was and is that I am a trusted, respected and reliable partner.”
But Romanian and U.S. officials who spoke to The Daily Beast say Birchall is not known for her reliability. For years, the officials said, Birchall supported Dragnea and propped up the PSD party line that the justice system in Romania had gone too far in fighting corruption. That view was also held by President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani who in 2018 worked with former FBI director Louis Freeh to pressure the Romanian president to crack down on the country’s anti-corruption prosecutors, saying reform efforts needed to be scaled back.
After her appointment as justice minister in February, Birchall began to distance herself from the corruption reform pushback campaign and instead began speaking out against Dragnea.
That switch concerned U.S. officials who were wary of supporting Birchall’s new call to strengthen the rule of law in Romania because of her past ties to Dragnea. Her connection to the now-convicted politician was often a topic of conversation among Romanian experts in the National Security Council and elsewhere within the Trump administration, officials said.
But Birchall’s sudden change of heart didn’t worry all U.S. officials. During her switch from deputy prime minister to justice minister, Sondland championed Birchall’s work in Romania and hosted her for several high-level meetings with U.S. officials. She is pictured alongside Sondland and other senior U.S. officials in Europe, including in Ukraine. She attended Sondland’s infamous July 4 celebration in Brussels where Jay Leno performed, as well as April sit-down dinner in the city with senior Trump administration officials, including Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. She’s also pictured in Ukraine during President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration, which Sondland and Perry also attended.
Birchall met with Attorney General Bill Barr in June in Bucharest following her appointment as justice minister. “We hope that, with her leadership, and that of other Romanian officials, Romania will reverse recent amendments that threaten to undermine the ability to fight corruption, and we are confident that Romania will take steps to ensure an efficient, transparent and impartial judiciary,” Barr said during his visit.
The U.S. has longed pushed Romania to adopt anti-corruption efforts to strengthen the rule of law. In 2018, the State Department issued a report saying Romania was experiencing “endemic official corruption” and that officials there did not do enough to prosecute corruption cases. This year U.S. agencies proposed sending $1.5 million dollars in aid to Romania, but none of that money was allocated before the Sept. 30 deadline. In addition, the U.S. did not send $21 million to Romania to help maintain the a U.S. military base there and instead allocated those funds to building a wall on the southern border. It’s unclear why the U.S. did not send the $1.5 million.
Barr later invited Birchall to Washington to continue the conversation about justice and corruption reform during attempts by her party to oust her from her position in the Ministry of Justice. Barr went to bat for Birchall, calling her a “vital and trusted partner in the fight against corruption.”
“Her leadership comes at a vital time for Romania, where controversies have raised questions about Romania’s commitment to rule of law values and have diminished public trust and caused increasing concern in the international community,” Barr said. “Under Birchall’s leadership, Romania can once again be a model in the region for progress on anti-corruption issues.”
Birchall was eventually ousted as justice minister this fall when her colleagues from the PSD said she implemented changes within the ministry without sign-off from the party.