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Text Messages Revealed in Trump Impeachment Investigation; Interview With Sen. Richard Durbin (D-IL). Aired 3-3:30p ET
Aired October 4, 2019 - 15:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: He argued against any of this information on the Bidens, saying that it probably was not credible.
But we also know that the administration had a negative view of Ukraine. And that's what he was working against.
In his opening statement yesterday, he said -- quote -- "In the course of that conversation, he referenced conversations with Mayor Giuliani. It was clear to me that, despite the positive news and recommendations being conveyed by this official delegation about the new president, President Trump had deeply rooted negative view on Ukraine about -- rooted in the past. He was clearly receiving other information from other sources, including Mayor Giuliani, that was more negative, causing him to retain this negative view," Brooke.
So that just gives you a sense of what Volker said he was working against when it came to Rudy Giuliani and the president of the United States directly -- Brooke.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: And, of course, also how he spoke so highly of Joe Biden, as we mentioned a second ago.
Lauren, you also have some new reporting about today's closed-door testimony by the intelligence community inspector general, Michael Atkinson. And this is the same guy who deemed the whistle-blower complaint credible and of urgent concern. So what has he told lawmakers?
FOX: Well, what he's telling lawmakers is that, essentially, he's walking them through the process of how he handled his complaint and how he went about corroborating it.
We have now learned from two sources that what was turned over last night were documents related to how the ICIG went about corroborating that complaint. So I think that that's one of the key takeaways from today.
But sources are also telling me this is mostly about process and that, so far, there aren't these big explosive moments in this hearing. But, of course, it's still ongoing. We will still keep you posted, Brooke, on exactly what comes out of this meeting.
BALDWIN: We know you will. Lauren Fox, thank you very much. Let's get you back to those text messages now and the people involved.
Former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker handed them over to Congress. Volker resigned from his job just one day after the release of that whistle-blower complaint.
There's also this man by the name of Gordon Sondland. He is the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. And before that, he donated a million dollars to President Trump's inaugural committee.
The third name, just again for context, in all these texts, is Bill Taylor. Bill Taylor is effectively running the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, since there is no permanent ambassador at this moment, but he has served in that role before.
So, you know the players. Let's bring in these two.
Elie Honig is a former federal prosecutor and a CNN legal analyst, and Samantha Vinograd is former senior adviser to the national security adviser under President Obama. And she is also a CNN national security analyst.
So, shall we?
Let's start with these text messages, and, Elie, just from a legal perspective, because the wording of these texts is very -- if Ukrainian President Zelensky does X, President Trump will do Y.
ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes.
BALDWIN: So let's roll through each one. You guys can throw them up on the screen and you can tell me what they show us.
HONIG: So this is the most fun part of being a prosecutor, by the way, when you get a great batch of evidence like this, and you get to go and reconstruct who's who and what are they really saying?
So this one -- people talk about a quid pro quo, which basically just means this for that, an exchange. And, here, they spell it out. The quid is investigate. And the quo is this visit to the White House. There are two different things offered at various times, the foreign aid and the visit to the White House.
And you know they're connected because of that word assuming. Assuming means, if they do this, assuming that they investigate, then they will get the reward, which is the trip to the White House. That is about as close to a quid pro quo as you will ever see in real life.
SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, and I want to remind people what White House visits are normally offered for.
The chief of staff and the national security adviser normally have policy requirements for inviting someone to the White House, not political or personal ones.
BALDWIN: Not used as leverage.
And so what this means, if this quid pro quo was offered to the Ukrainians or to the Chinese or anyone else, the wrong kind of leaders are probably showing up at the White House. You have to be willing to help President Trump aid and abet him in conducting a crime, soliciting foreign election interference, if you're going to walk through the White House store.
BALDWIN: Yes. OK, for the context on the White House visits.
Next -- what's the next text? Do we have another text? Here we go.
HONIG: So this is the cover story in action.
In the first slide, basically, they're talking about they understand there's a need. They got to get the story straight. Make sure I advise Z, the Ukrainian president, Zelensky, correctly as to what he should be saying.
And then what follows in the next text, the next slide is essentially a draft. Here's what the cover story is going to be. And we were just talking about it. It's this idea that Donald Trump, he's just a corruption buster, and he just wants to clean everything up.
And, of course, the reality is, there's only two cases he's ever had any interest in, which is Biden and Hillary Clinton.
And, I mean, at this point, soliciting Rudy Giuliani's advice on a public statement of any kind, he's essentially replaced the press secretary months after she started.
I drafted a lot of White House statements. You typically go to the experts, like our acting ambassador in Ukraine. You don't ask the president's personal lawyer for advice on a statement with a foreign leader. That's corruption until itself, because Rudy Giuliani obviously has a conflict of interest here.
And then I don't know if we have another text, or else I'm going to roll on to my next question. You guys show me.
Yes, we've got another one.
HONIG: This is the best one. We have to do this one.
BALDWIN: Oh, this is the "Call me."
HONIG: This is as close as you're going to get to a smoking gun. I mean, Bill Taylor has this moment of candor, where he just lays it
all out. "Are we saying that security assistance, the foreign aid and the White House meeting are conditioned on investigations?" conditioned, meaning you only get it if you do the investigations?
And the response is this, "Call me," which is like, of course, but we don't put it in writing on text.
BALDWIN: And, also, aren't these encrypted? They're on encrypted lines of communication. Right?
HONIG: Sure. Law enforcement has ways to de-encrypt things, which apparently happened here.
HONIG: But yet, look, whenever you see people involved in nefarious plan, someone is going to say, hey, let's take this offline. You see that elsewhere.
VINOGRAD: Eventually, although what was in the texts was worrisome unto itself.
VINOGRAD: But I have a bigger question. Why is our ambassador to the E.U. even working on this issue? Gordon Sondland is what we call a political appointee. He was appointed by President Trump.
His portfolio is the European union. Here we have him delving into anti-corruption issues in Ukraine and serving really as Rudy Giuliani's secretary.
BALDWIN: He's not in his lane.
VINOGRAD: He's not in his lane.
He's working on something ostensibly at the president's behest or Mick Mulvaney's behest, and clearly not doing his day job. And, again, what he already has in those text messages, the quid pro quo, the conversations with Giuliani, are damning onto themselves.
Bill Taylor is a career diplomat. And he's the only one -- we haven't put this text up -- that says he would quit if security assistance did not move forward. We have heard -- we have not heard that from any other official.
BALDWIN: Let's get to this. At the U.N., we heard Zelensky say that he felt no pressure on the call, right? That's when he was sitting next to Trump week before last.
And let me just read one of the texts. This is to your point from Bill Taylor, the acting -- rather, this is Bill Taylor, the acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, that President Zelensky is -- quote -- "sensitive about Ukraine being taken seriously, not merely as an instrument in Washington domestic reelection politics."
So, does that sound like pressure to you?
VINOGRAD: I think that Ukraine certainly wants to promote an image of independence. Ukraine, well before Zelensky, was an instrument of Russia. They want to show their independence. Zelensky is newly elected.
And Zelensky also wants to show that he's making progress on real issues, like, for example, ending the war in Eastern Ukraine, and establishing his administration is not malleable by foreign influence. That's what he's focused on.
He obviously doesn't want to upset President Trump. He knows that he's cut off security assistance to Ukraine previously. He's cut off foreign assistance to Central American countries. And he needs us, Brooke.
He's between a rock and a hard place when it comes to keeping President Trump happy, but not looking like a puppet of the president's political agenda.
BALDWIN: And you wanted to make a point in response.
HONIG: Yes, very similar to that, exactly what Sam was saying.
I have dealt with dozens of victims of extortion and bribery over the years, and almost never do they say, yes, I felt scared, yes, I was a victim.
They're often too scared to say that. And, as Sam said, this is not an equal bargaining relationship here. Ukraine desperately needs this money that we have. We have the upper hand. There's no way the president's going to say, my knees were knocking and my teeth were chattering, I was so scared.
That's not how things work in reality. The power dynamic and the words used really rule here.
BALDWIN: Elie and Sam, I like this team. Thank you guys very much.
HONIG: Thank you.
BALDWIN: The key witness in the middle of the scandal says he does not believe Joe Biden did anything wrong. And his testimony doesn't stop there.
We have the transcript -- part of the transcript that we will read for you.
Also, a former ambassador to Ukraine who once praised Joe Biden for his anti-corruption efforts weighs in on today's fast-moving developments and what he reads in all these text messages. And a closer look at how this is all being covered on conservative
outlets like FOX and how that may play into the silence from so many Republicans.
You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. We will be right back.
BALDWIN: He is the American diplomat caught in the middle of this Ukraine controversy.
Kurt Volker, U.S. special envoy for Ukraine, gave his text messages to Congress to make his case that he was trying to -- quote, unquote -- "fix the problem" of the Trump administration pressuring Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.
Volker's opening statement to the House was just released. And so I'm just going to read part of this for you, citing Kurt Volker, who testified before the House committees leading the impeachment inquiry.
This is what he said -- quote -- "I have known former Vice President Biden for 24 years. And the suggestion that he would be influenced in his duties as vice president by money for his son simply has no credibility to me. I know him as a man of integrity and dedication to our country."
So, John Herbst served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine during the Bush 43 administration. He is now with the Atlantic Council.
So, Mr. Ambassador, a pleasure, sir. Welcome.
JOHN HERBST, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.
BALDWIN: A bit more from Ambassador Volker, saying -- to his defense of Joe Biden, he also cautioned Ukrainians against -- quote -- "doing anything that could be seen as impacting U.S. elections."
And he explained his involvement in the texts this way, as trying to -- quote -- "fix the situation."
You know -- I don't know if you know positions exactly like this, but you can relate. What does that tell you?
HERBST: OK, I have been following Ukraine very closely for over five years.
And so I have been watching what Kurt's been doing very closely since he took that job in the summer of '17. I don't have any doubt that what he was trying to do was to remove an obstacle, an obstacle to America pursuing its own interests in Ukraine, one, by providing the military aid that Congress had voted, and, two, by arranging a summit meeting between Zelensky and Trump for further cooperation.
That's what motivated him.
BALDWIN: What would you have done, if you were in Volker's shoes, and you were getting pressured by the administration?
HERBST: Well, I don't think Volker was pressured by the administration.
I think he understood that America has a vital interest in stopping Moscow's aggression in Eastern Ukraine. And so to provide weapons and to improve the relationship between Washington and Kiev is essential for that.
And he understood that an obstacle to this was being placed by a very senior official in the United States, who was holding up sending the assistance until he got the agreement of the Ukrainian authorities to pursue an investigation, which where none investigation -- no investigation was needed.
BALDWIN: So then what about the text messages, the text messages between the two diplomats and a senior Ukrainian aide?
You can read them read the alarm from Ambassador Bill Taylor when he wrote: "I think it's crazy to withhold political assistance for the help with a campaign."
Sondland replies that he has the president's intentions wrong.
I mean, back to the point on pressure?
HERBST: OK. OK.
Yes, I understand what you're saying.
HERBST: I believe the texts, all by themselves, suggest what you're suggesting.
BALDWIN: Which is what?
HERBST: In other words, that this looks like an effort to have the Ukrainian government do the bidding of the president to look into Vice President Biden, which is completely unacceptable, that request, illegitimate.
But I don't think that's the whole of Kurt's activities.
BALDWIN: Let's go back to 2016, because you testified about the problem of corruption in Ukraine.
BALDWIN: How Joe Biden was this outspoken advocate for change. So let's watch a short clip. HERBST: That's correct.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
HERBST: The administration also understands the way reform will move in Ukraine. Vice President Biden has been a great advocate for reform in Ukraine.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BALDWIN: So what do you make of all these false stories that Joe Biden got the Ukrainian prosecutor fired to protect his son?
HERBST: Well, that's simply false.
And it's disgraceful that this was even being pursued, because anyone who knows Ukraine would know that that's false, completely. And I think that Kurt's testimony acknowledged that.
So I have no defense of this. And the only people who could defend it must be ignorant of what's going on in Ukraine, or what was going on in Ukraine.
BALDWIN: I mean, you know this because you lived it, but there was bipartisan support for Biden's anti-corruption actions back then.
HERBST: There was and is, correct.
BALDWIN: So, what do you make, though, Mr. Ambassador, of those same Republicans now silent in the wake of Trump's attacks on Biden?
HERBST: Well, I -- I'm an expert on foreign policy. I do obviously pay attention to our own politics.
I understand the reason for your question. And I think it would be good if people spoke out. But my understanding is...
BALDWIN: People being Republicans?
HERBST: Well, all those who are involved in our policy process.
I would simply add something, though, that's very important.
HERBST: My understanding is that Republicans, especially in the Senate, were in touch with the White House, saying, release that military assistance.
And it's also true that, when President Trump was toying with the notion of easing sanctions in 2017, Mitch McConnell came down very strong, and Republicans helped the Democrats pass the sanctions legislation in July of '17.
BALDWIN: We will check on that.
Ambassador Herbst, thank you so much for coming in and offering your expertise.
HERBST: Thank you.
BALDWIN: Thank you.
HERBST: My pleasure. Any time.
BALDWIN: Coming up next, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin joins me live here in New York, his take on those text messages and where this impeachment investigation goes from here.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
QUESTION: Have you asked foreign leaders for any corruption investigations that don't involve your political opponents?
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We would have to look.
But I'll tell you, what I asked for and what I always will ask for is anything having to do with corruption with respect to our country.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BALDWIN: "We would have to look."
There you have it, President Trump really put on the spot and not able to name a single other instance where he has demanded corruption investigations into anyone other than his 2020 rivals, but still insisting that an anti-corruption crusade was the main motivation in his call with the Ukrainian president back in July.
Democratic Senator Dick Durbin is here with me now.
A pleasure to have you here, Senator.
SEN. RICHARD DURBIN (D-IL): Thanks, Brooke.
BALDWIN: You just heard the president.
I mean, your reaction to saying he's simply fighting corruption?
DURBIN: Well, I can tell you, he has had three strikes now.
And we kind of ignored the first one when he said, "Russia, if you're listening," go after Hillary's e-mails. BALDWIN: Yes.
DURBIN: Then came the one that he released to the American people, the declassified telephone conversation with President Zelensky.
DURBIN: Let me ask you a favor, and goes into Biden information.
BALDWIN: And now, China, if you're listening.
DURBIN: Then he stands on the front porch of the White House and says, China, come get the Bidens.
You think to yourself, has he read the -- would it make any difference, but has he read the basic law which says it is illegal for any person to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election?
You don't have to be a law professor to understand that that is very clear. And he is ignoring it.
DURBIN: He's breaching his oath of office, endangering national security, and making a mockery of basic law.
BALDWIN: As we were discussing in commercial break, in broad daylight.
If the House votes to impeach, all eyes will be on the Senate. You need two-thirds. You need 67 senators for there to have a trial.
Are there Republican senators who you think will stand up and speak up against this president? And, if so, who?
DURBIN: I can count them on one hand, and have some fingers left over.
DURBIN: Mitt Romney has just been -- he's picked a place in history here.
And I say to my fellow Republicans and friends -- and I have many of them -- for goodness' sakes, reflect on history. Which side of the ledger will you be on in terms of really saying what is obvious about this president's conduct?
There will come a moment. There will be the end of Trump, and they will be many who claim, oh, I was after him all along.
Well, now's the moment for many of them. Mitt Romney has led in terms of the statements that are being made.
BALDWIN: Who else, Senator?
DURBIN: The senator from Alaska, senator from Maine...
DURBIN: ... they have in various times spoken out. I'm glad they have. Senator Sasse of Nebraska made a statement a week ago -- or so ago.
But that's it. That is it. I mean, when you look at it, you think, I know there are people of real integrity and character on the other side who are quiet, silent, maybe even afraid.
BALDWIN: What are they really thinking? What are they -- what are the whispers on Capitol Hill that they're just not saying out loud?
DURBIN: Until he's gone, he can take them out in a primary.
And I think they're holding back. If they spoke up now, for the country first, but for their own party, it would be the right thing for this country.
BALDWIN: In 2016, you signed a bipartisan letter praising then Vice President Joe Biden for his efforts to end corruption in Ukraine. It was also signed by your colleague Senator Ron Johnson, who is now saying nothing, nothing improper about what the president did yesterday on the lawn of the White House to investigate the Bidens.
What has changed between just a short few years ago and now?
DURBIN: I can't explain it, other than to say, when that letter was signed by three Democrats, three Republicans in support of Ukraine in wanting to end real corruption, we thought the prosecutor who was there was not doing his job.
And that's why we joined together in this bipartisan letter and released it to the public. This was no secret communication, and never meant to be.
And now even Ron Johnson from Wisconsin, when he returned from Kiev -- he was there over the August recess -- he came up to me on the floor and he said, we have got to get this money released. They're waiting for this money to defend themselves against the Russian invasion by Vladimir Putin.
BALDWIN: Four hundred million.
DURBIN: And I put the amendment in the Appropriations Committee the night before the White House released it. They saw this amendment coming, and they were probably going to lose it.
But the sentiment -- I really believe my colleagues need to step back and look at this in just the most direct and simple terms. What the president has done is in violation of this statute. He has conceded that fact with this declassified telephone conversation.
DURBIN: Every American can read it.
BALDWIN: At this point, part of the reason perhaps Trump keeps doing it is that he's getting away with it. Do you think Trump will continue to have these conversations with foreign leaders, if he feels that there are no consequences?
DURBIN: I do.
We know there is some secret place now in the files.
BALDWIN: The vault.
DURBIN: The vault in the White House. And we don't know what's in there.
My guess is similar conversations have taken place with other world leaders. And the people around the president thought, oh, my goodness, if this ever gets to the public, we're fixed. We're finished.
And I don't know what's in there. I hope the day comes when America can see it.
BALDWIN: How about the quid pro quo with Ukraine? You were talking about the $400 million in military aid the U.S. gives to Ukraine.
And the next question then is about China, right? So we know that there have been these conversations with President Xi from back in June. We know that the U.S. is embroiled in this trade war that affects every single American.
Do you think this is all connected with regard to investigating the Bidens?
DURBIN: Hard to say.
Also remember, when it came to Ukraine, it turns out the president was anxious, Zelensky was anxious to be invited to Washington.
BALDWIN: To the White House.
DURBIN: To the White House. It must be -- I'm sure it is a very important honor to have the president of the United States welcome this new president personally.
But when it comes to the China situation, it is such a complex situation at this moment. This trade war the president has initiated, the tariff battle, is striking my state, the farmers first, but businesses as well, very hard.
And consumers are paying higher prices, and may not have noticed it, but it's happening. They are paying -- [15:30:00]