Return to Transcripts main page


White House Blocks Key Witness from Testifying to Congress; Rep. Adriano Espaillat (D-NY) Discusses the White House Blocking Sondland from Testifying Before Congress. Aired 11-11:30a ET

Aired October 8, 2019 - 11:00   ET




KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everyone. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thanks so much for joining me.

We start this morning with an unexpected twist in the impeachment inquiry. A last-minute decision from the White House to block a key witness from testifying on the Hill today.

And the chair of the House Intelligence Committee now saying that the State Department is withholding text messages and emails on a personal device that are, quote, "deeply relevant to the investigation."

Minutes before U.N. Ambassador Gordon Sondland was set to appear before the three committees, the White House stopped him.

And Adam Schiff said, of his testimony, it's hard to overstate the significance.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): The failure to produce this witness, the failure to produce these documents, we consider yet additional strong evidence of obstruction of the constitutional functions of Congress, a co-equal branch of government.


BOLDUAN: The ambassador is already a key witness in the investigation, even before new things are coming out, because of the text messages that have been released between him and other senior U.S. diplomats about Ukraine and foreign military aid and a Biden investigation.

So, let's get to it. Joining me right now is CNN's Jeremy Diamond at the White House, CNN congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is on the Hill.

Manu, what are you hearing about everything that's already happening this morning?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, major questions right now on Capitol Hill about whether or not there are other witnesses who the committee wants to talk to will come forward, in the aftermath of the State Department taking this move saying that Sondland should not testify today. And Ambassador Sondland saying he would listen to the State Department.

Other State Department officials also have been in the works to come and testify, including the former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. She was scheduled to testify later this week. She's no longer the ambassador but still works in the State Department. So there's on whether she'll come.

Democrats are saying is, if they don't come, they consider all of this as part of articles of impeachment against his president, cite this as obstruction of Congress. Potentially not go down a route all year, which is to fight these matters in court, to get these witnesses to come forward. But cite this as part of an effort by the White House to undermine a co-equal branch of government.

One of the reasons why Sondland is so important is because of text messages revealed by Kurt Volker, a former diplomat for Ukraine in the United States, in Ukraine. In one test message he released, he showed conversations about aid that was being withheld and the decision by the president to ask for the investigations into his political rival, Joe Biden.

And here, in one of these text messages from Bill Taylor, an ambassador, saying, "Are we now saying that security assistance and White House meeting are conditioned on investigations." Sondland's response, "Call me." The question is, why did he say, "Call me."

Republicans, Kate, came out afterwards and said the reason he didn't come today is they don't believe the Democrats have had a fair process.

But I did ask Republicans whether or not they have any concerns about the president himself asking foreign governments to investigate his political rivals. Take a listen.


RAJU: Do you have any concerns about the president asking for Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden? And also the president saying last week that China should investigate. Do any of you have concerns about that?

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): The president's doing his job. The president -- when you're talking about the hard-earned tax dollars of the American people going to a foreign government, the president is going to make sure that there's no corruption there. He's doing his job, his duty as the commander-in-chief, pass duty as president of the United States.


RAJU: Now, Kate, we could see Republicans coming forward and bringing forward Rudy Giuliani after the Chairman Lindsey Graham, the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, invited him to come testify. But we'll see how that happens. But House Democrats have avoided taking that step -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: Manu, much more to come. I just keep this sound byte by me.

As Manu was just telling us, Jim Jordan saying that the president is doing his job and the president saying he wanted to root out corruption where it exists.


Last week, on Friday, the president was asked, point blank, have you asked any foreign leaders for any corruption investigation that doesn't involve your opponent, and the president's response was, we would have to look into that. That's it.

Manu, thank you.

Jeremy, let's get to you at the White House.

What is the White House saying about this?

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Kate, what we're learning, the White House indeed consulted with the State Department over this decision to block Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, from testifying on Capitol Hill. That came after discussions last night between administration the officials over Sondland's deposition.

One of the key factors weighing on the White House right now is how much they should cooperate with the House inquiries, at the same time as they're also pressuring the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to actually bring this for a vote on the House floor.

It's a formal vote to open an impeachment inquiry. That's something that the House speaker has insisted that she is under no obligation to do, pointing to the Constitution, of course.

But this does fit into a broader strategy that we're seeing from this White House, kind of testing the limits of how much they can disobey these requests from Congress, a co-equal branch of government, of course.

One source familiar with the impeachment discussions says, the days of being nice are done. That appears to be the strategy of the White House.

If you look over at the president's Twitter feed, that much is also clear. He put out a tweet this morning saying, "I would love to send Ambassador Sondland, a really good man and American, to testify, unfortunately, he would be testifying before a totally compromised kangaroo court where Republican's rights have been taken away and true facts are not allowed out for the public."

Now, there's no evidence to back up the president's claim that this is somehow a kangaroo court. This is, in fact, a request that we're seeing from the House, which, of course, has the power of oversight over the executive branch -- Kate?

BOLDUAN: And just basic, nothing here is about being nice or not nice. Isn't it just about getting to the truth and actually the rule of law in two co-equal branches of government?

Jeremy, thank you so much.

I'm going to get off of my soapbox and bring in other people. Joining me now, former federal prosecutor, CNN legal analyst, Elie Honig, CNN legal analyst, Ross Garber, who is something of an impeachment expert that we rely on today, and CNN political correspondent, Abby Phillip.

Abby, first to you.

What do Democrats do now? I guess in the short term, it's move to subpoenas. But if the White House is now officially not playing nice, since it was playing nice so far before, what do they do?

ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, we'll see how far the resistance from the White House at this point goes. It seems like, based on our reporting last night, it was -- which this is extraordinary in and of itself. We've known for days that Sondland was going to testify.

The White House decided last night to block this testimony. So something happened last night where they decided to change their strategy. And our reporting is that it's because they've decided that they are no longer going to play nice with investigators.

Now, the House Democrats can move towards subpoenas. But subpoenas may not even end either. Because we've seen the White House using all kinds of convoluted legal arguments to prevent documents from being procured.

But listen to what Adam Schiff said. He was very clear. We will use this as evidence of obstruction that can become an article of impeachment.

It's very possible, Kate, that Democrats might just add this to the pile of things that they want to create for articles of impeachment and simply move towards that vote.

BOLDUAN: Elie, why do you think Adam Schiff revealed when he spoke earlier this morning that the State Department is in his view withholding a personal device with text messages of Sondland's with more messages on that are relevant to the investigation. What is he doing there?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: He's trying to answer the question, why do you need this? People might say, you already have the text messages, you already have his story, why do you need --


BOLDUAN: Or you have the president's words? HONIG: Right. And the answer to that is there's more out there.

Let's -- attention all investigators, prosecutors, detectives always assume someone is doing personal business on their personal phones. We've seen it time and time again. That tends to be the stuff you that don't want captured by subpoena or FOIA requests. That's where the really good stuff is.

I think Schiff is giving us a movie trailer there. He's telling us there's something that we believe even better than the text we've seen out there. And that's the reason we're pushing so hard to get his testimony.

BOLDUAN: Forget better or worse. Maybe more important or relevant to the investigation, right?

HONIG: Exactly.

BOLDUAN: So, Ross, this formal vote on the House floor, over launching impeachment proceedings, Democrats have so far been resisting it. I've asked every single one of them. And they don't think they need it. It's not required by the Constitution.

The president, the White House, wants it and insisting on. It it's part of what's going on behind the scenes of stopping Sondland, you should say.

What would a formal vote on the floor to launch impeachment proceedings actually do?


ROSS GARBER, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: The speaker is right. Under the Constitution, a formal vote of impeachment process or proceedings is not necessary at all to impeach a president. Not necessary under the Constitution.

But two places where it actually is important, one is if the Democrats actually do want to go to court and try to enforce subpoenas, it could matter in a battle over executive privilege. But the House, for the first time in a presidential -- in a modern presidential impeachment did not vote to begin impeachment proceedings. So that's one.

The second is, in this notion to fairness to process. The president is saying, not surprisingly, is saying, if it was good enough to start an impeachment with Nixon and Clinton this way, why not do it here? Why not put the White House on official notice and why not engage in a regular process and relate it to that?

I think we're also going to see a battle over the rules that the committee are using to conduct these investigations. In both Nixon and Clinton, there were rules that permitted, for example, the president's lawyers to conduct cross-examination. That's not here either.

I think what the White House will be saying, look, if you're going to do an impeachment process, do it in the way it was done in Nixon and Clinton. Do that here.

BOLDUAN: A valid question. It still does not stop where we are in this moment, of someone who wanted to voluntarily testify before Congress, had been offering himself up. And then was blocked because he's still, you know, an employee of the State Department.

Abby, then there are these impeachment poll numbers coming out in a new "Washington Post" poll. And they're rough for the president.

The reason they're relevant, I'm going to go back to some of Jamie Gangel's reporting, Republicans told her as far as her reporting, watch the polls, watch the polls, watch the polls, as far as where they stand to speak publicly. And 58 percent now support the impeachment inquiry, where previously the majority actually opposing it.

That's includes a shift among Republicans. Now 38 percent of Republicans supporting an impeachment inquiry. That's nearly three in 10.

It sounds small, but when you look at where it was, that's a 21-point jump among Republicans since the "Washington Post" started asking this question in July. We don't see this number of Republicans move against the president really on anything.

What do you think this does, if anything, to the conversation on the Hill?

PHILLIP: Well, it changes the dynamic of the debate. The direction of the debate is heading in the wrong place for Republicans.

And you know who else is paying attention to these polls, it's President Trump who I should say often doesn't believe them. But he's cognizant that polls matter. He mentioned polls twice yesterday when talking to reporters.

This is a national poll, it's a snapshot of where the nation at large is. But for Republicans on the Hill, they're state by state, district by district


PHILLIP: In some districts, you know, impeachment is not a winner. In some of these districts where Democrats are sitting in seats that Republicans want, impeachment may not be a winner.

But for some Republicans who are in these marginal districts that are really the battlefield for this next election, they're go to start to worry because the president is losing his margin here. And I think that's a very troubling sign for the party overall.

BOLDUAN: Super perspective. Guys, thank you so much. A million more questions. And a million more hours to actually discuss this.

What happens now? Will the Democrats be able to get the answers they're looking for? A key member of one of those key committees is joining us next.


Plus, putting his life on the line again. I sat down with a former military photographer who risked everything to expose the atrocities committed against his people. He's calling on Congress to take action. Much more, ahead.


BOLDUAN: Democrats completely caught off guard this morning after the White House makes a last-minute move to block a key witness to Congress in the impeachment inquiry, pushing the standoff between the White House and Congress to a whole new level. What happens now?

Joining us right now one of the members of one of the committees set to interview Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Democratic congressman.

Congressman, thank you for being here.


BOLDUAN: When did you learn that Sondland wasn't going to be here?

ESPAILLAT: I learned this morning. Again, this is like a classic Nixon Watergate action. That the cover-up becomes worse than the crime itself. So the White House and State Department continue to orchestrate a massive cover-up by stopping witnesses that had actually prepared to testify.

BOLDUAN: Because all indications publicly that he wanted to testify, he voluntarily wanted to come in?

ESPAILLAT: That's correct.

BOLDUAN: Is that the impression you had?


ESPAILLAT: That's the impression. But, you know, he had back and forth in texts with Volker. So, we want to know about this. He had prepared to testify, all of a sudden, he gets a call from the White House.

BOLDUAN: What was the key you that wanted to learn about him?

ESPAILLAT: We wanted to know what they were talking about. The conversation was kind of murky. At one point, he says, give me a call. He may want to tell us why he wanted Volker to call. And what was behind that type of interaction? And this is critical to the investigation.

BOLDUAN: Did you know -- one thing that Adam Schiff said this morning, one thing that he's been made aware of, there's this personal device that the State Department is withholding that has text messages and I believe he said emails that are deeply relevant to the investigation. What do you know about that?

ESPAILLAT: Well, again, Kate, just like in the Nixon Watergate investigation, as more evidence surfaces, and as we move forward, we'll see more of this.

I don't know exactly what's in that device. But I do know the more we hear witnesses speak about this, the more evidence we get, like the Nixon tapes, the American people will begin to understand this even better. Even Republicans are now going to begin to shift their position on impeachment.

BOLDUAN: Are you sure of that?

ESPAILLAT: I think Republicans will shift. We've seen Senator Romney, what he's doing in the Senate. We've seen some governors, also, their position on impeachment. We've seen the poll numbers.

The more you get from witnesses that are obviously being told not to testify, I think the American people will have a fuller grasp of this whole investigation process.

BOLDUAN: There are two minds to this. Is there more information than you need, if you have the president what he said publicly, he said it several times in terms of wanting China to investigate, wanting Ukraine to investigate a political rival?

But if you want information from Sondland, if you want the White House not to block everyone, how can you do that? You've got subpoenas?


BOLDUAN: Right now, it's just a lot of talk and wait, and you should, you can't, and we're not seeing it.

ESPAILLAT: There are several avenues right now. The more they do that, the more we build our case regarding another article of obstruction of justice, right?

BOLDUAN: In the end, you think that's where this leads?

ESPAILLAT: Well, that's one way. Maybe contempt as well. Slap them with fines. That's another avenue that I have looked into.

BOLDUAN: I've heard that since the Mueller investigation, no one has been slapped with a fine.


BOLDUAN: I've not yet heard of the Sergeant at Arms putting anyone in handcuffs.

ESPAILLAT: We should take a good look at that.


BOLDUAN: I'm not saying I promote that. I'm saying I've heard this story before.

ESPAILLAT: We should take a good look at that.

I'll tell you what, clearly, this investigation -- it's the rule of law. This is about three things, natural national security, is one. Ukraine is a strong ally of the United States. All of a sudden, we're putting them at peril, vis a vis Russia. It's about betrayal of office. This is about that as well.

And so Article I, Section II, Clause V gives us the power. This is about oversight as well. And the separation of powers. And the checks and balances in the Constitution.

BOLDUAN: So, do you think -- there's another -- the former Ukraine ambassador was supposed to be testifying on Friday, do you think she's going to appear?

ESPAILLAT: I hope so. Look, they're going to stonewall this investigation.

BOLDUAN: Do you think it's actually going to happen?

ESPAILLAT: I think the more they do -- this is quick sand for them. The more they try to stonewall and obstruct the investigation, the deeper they'll get into the quicksand.

BOLDUAN: One thing we've heard from the president and Republicans as well, is, hold this formal vote on the floor to launch impeachment proceedings and that is the way process has worked.

ESPAILLAT: No, no, no.

BOLDUAN: Not required but that is the way the process has worked with the last two presidential proceedings with Nixon and Clinton.


ESPAILLAT: We'll follow the rule of law. We don't have to do that.


ESPAILLAT: We don't have to do that.

BOLDUAN: But if it was OK for the Nixon impeachment proceedings, if it was OK for the Clinton impeachment proceedings, why not hold the vote if it gets things moving faster for you guys.

ESPAILLAT: We have to comply by law. We have to comply with the --


BOLDUAN: But if it slows you down --


ESPAILLAT: And the mandate is to do this. And those articles in the Constitution tell us we do not have to do this.

BOLDUAN: You don't have, but you can.

ESPAILLAT: We don't have to engage.

We choose our path as a duly elected member of Congress. An independent branch of government, the legislature. We choose the path that we think is the right path. And in this case, we have chosen not to do that.

BOLDUAN: If is it gets witnesses faster, to get to the information you want faster, why not?


ESPAILLAT: I don't think they will adhere to that. I don't think they will comply with our subpoenas. I don't think that will make it easier for us.

BOLDUAN: You don't think this is a linchpin to getting them to agree?


ESPAILLAT: Of course not. They've already come to grips with their reality which is they're going to obstruct this investigation. And they're going to try to delegitimize this investigation. Which is fully legitimate. And it's embedded very deeply in the Constitution of the United States of America.

BOLDUAN: Let's see what happens in the next five minutes.

Congressman, thank you very much.

ESPAILLAT: Thank you so much, Kate.

BOLDUAN: I'll have to have you in more often.

ESPAILLAT: Thank you so much.

BOLDUAN: Thank you very much.

Coming up for us, risking it all. His job was to document car accidents, accidental deaths for the government. Then there was the moment where he realized he was actually photographing torture. Now, he's calling on Congress to act.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I am pleading for the American people to please save the Syrian people, save these people that do not deserve the hellish nightmare that they're living in.


BOLDUAN: More from our conversation, next.