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Protecting the Whistle-Blower; White House Blocks Ambassador's Testimony Before Congress. Aired 3-3:30p ET

Aired October 8, 2019 - 15:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


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BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: We are all over this breaking news out of Capitol Hill this afternoon, where House Democrats say they will issue a subpoena for E.U. Ambassador and Trump inauguration donor Gordon Sondland, after the White House blocked him this morning from testifying before the House Intelligence Committee.

But that has not stopped us from learning more about this role in this Ukraine controversy and specifically the series of texts, including one where Sondland pushed back on concerns raised by the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine that U.S. military aid hinged on whether Ukraine would comply with President Trump's requests for an investigation into Joe Biden and his son.

The president -- rather, Sondland declared: "The president has been crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind."

And it appears that someone was able to speak with such confidence because, as it turns out, he talked to President Trump before he sent that text.

Kylie Atwood is CNN's national security reporter.

And, Kylie, I want to start with you.

Tell me more about that particular phone call. And did it play any part in why the White House blocked Sondland's testimony at the last minute today?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, so, Brooke, we don't know exactly if these two things are linked.

What it does demonstrate is that Ambassador Sondland has a direct line into President Trump. So what happened here was, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine sent a text to Ambassador Sondland, saying that, in their perspective, it would be crazy to withhold security assistance so that the U.S. could have some political favors from Ukraine.

Now, five hours later, Ambassador Sondland actually replied, but what we now know is that, during that time, he made a phone call, and that was to President Trump. And President Trump told Ambassadors Sondland, emphatically, according to a source familiar, that there was no quid pro quo here, that there was no ask from Ukraine for political favors that would then allow for the security assistant to go through. So that is the gist of how Ambassador Sondland then replied to the ambassador of Ukraine, saying, there's no quid pro quo, and explicitly saying that he sort of misunderstood what was happening here and told the ambassador to call up the State Department.

So what's interesting here, however, is that Ambassador Sondland, who also works for the State Department, didn't call the State Department here. He called President Trump. And we know that he is an ally of the president's.

I know sources that know Ambassador Sondland. He was a donor of President Trump's, and he had a direct phone line in. Now, today, however, his testimony was blocked. It was expected to happen on the Hill, but it was the White House counsel who advised the State Department not to allow him to go forth.

The interesting thing here, however, is, there's a bit of a wedge, because a statement from Ambassador Sondland's lawyer said that he would like to go forth and provide this testimony. So we're kind of at this dead end, trying to figure out in which direction the State Department's going to go and the White House is going to go.

Are they going to allow him to go forth, Brooke?

BALDWIN: Keep digging. Keep digging, Kylie. Thank you very much for all of that.

There is even more coming out today too from that original Ukraine call in the end of July, the one between President Trump and his counterpart in Ukraine, the one that he has been very busy downplaying.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: That call was a great call. It was a perfect call, a perfect call.

That call was perfect. It couldn't have been nicer.

Impeachment for that, when you have a wonderful meeting, or you have a wonderful phone conversation?

Absolutely perfect phone call.

The conversation was perfect. It couldn't have been nicer.

If you look at that call, it's a perfect call. It's congenial. There was no pressure.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BALDWIN: No pressure, at least, so says President Trump.

But CNN has learned that some members of the president's own National Security Council may have actually felt differently. Their concerns sparked a series of actions to contain not just that July 25 phone conversation, but any potential backlash.

With the scoop is CNN senior White House correspondent Pamela Brown there in Washington.

And so you, along with a couple other members of the CNN White House team, talked to six people familiar with that phone call. Tell me about the scramble after the fact. How worried were they about what President Trump said?

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, they were very worried, Brooke, according to the sources who spoke to our team for this story.

What we are told is that in the immediate aftermath after the call with President Trump and President Zelensky of Ukraine, there was a scramble behind the scenes that was pretty isolated in the NSC and in the White House Counsel's Office.

And we're told through sources that at least one NSC staffer actually raised the concern upwards to the NSC lawyers about the call, the concern being that the president asked the Ukrainian president to look into Joe Biden and his son.

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And after that concern was raised up the ladder, the lawyers put that transcript of the call into the code word server that we have reported on extensively.

Now, this only backs up what has been put out there in this whistle- blower complaint about NSC concerns, the lawyers putting it into the code word server. Now, I'm told by sources that there were a couple reasons the lawyers did that.

One is, they wanted to make sure it didn't leak out, because, in the past, NSC lawyer -- or people had raised concerns it would leak to the press. Also, it was an effort to preserve it, because, of course, they understood that it could become an investigative matter.

What's also interesting, Brooke, is we learned that, shortly after the call, officials began quizzing each other, what should we do? Should we alert the Department of Justice here, since Bill Barr, the attorney general, was brought up repeatedly during the call?

That also was part of the dynamic. Now, DOJ had said that Bill Barr was not alerted early on, so that didn't happen. But what's also interesting here, Brooke, is that I'm told that the White House Counsel's Office, which had initially been alerted to all of this by a lawyer from a different agency, tried to keep a very close hold on the initial disclosure and the whistle-blower complaint and the concern over the conversation.

The lawyers thought that this could be a matter of that would be dealt with within the executive branch. But when it became clear, Brooke, that that was no longer going to be the case that the whistle-blower complaint would likely be turned over to Congress, there was a change in posture.

And it was the White House Counsel's Office, among others, who had actually pushed then to put the transcript out there. As you know, the White House released that transcript. And so that kind of gives you a picture of what was going on behind the scenes in the days and weeks after that phone call took place, the phone call that the president says was perfect -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: No, it's incredible detail coming out from within the White House walls that you and our others in our White House unit have gotten your hands on.

Pamela, thank you very much.

Let's discuss all of the above.

With me now, Michael Gerhardt, a CNN legal analyst and UNC law professor and author of a book, really the book on the impeachment process. Peter Beinart is a CNN political commentator and a contributing editor for "The Atlantic" and a senior columnist for The Forward. And Samantha Vinograd is a CNN national security analyst and also served as a senior adviser to the national security adviser under President Obama.

So, welcome to all of you.

And, Michael, let's -- before we get to the scramble in the White House post-call, let's get to the news of the day on the fact that the White House is now looking for outside counsel over all of this. What does that suggest to you?

MICHAEL GERHARDT, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: That suggests that the White House is beginning to realize this is really serious.

(CROSSTALK)

BALDWIN: They're just now realizing that? Sorry.

GERHARDT: Well, I think that they might have thought that they could deflect it, maybe impede it, to some extent.

But now, with the House appearing to be more behind this than ever before, I think the seriousness has sunk in, not just to the president, but those around him, that he's got to get outside counsel and begin to make possibly credible and coherent remarks.

His defense so far has been basically to try to normalize this misbehavior, which is exactly the wrong strategy.

BALDWIN: Peter, the fact that Ambassador Sondland didn't text back, right -- we talked so much about those texts other day -- he didn't text back for five hours, and now we have found out, as part of that gap in time, he picks up the phone and calls the president, what do you think of that?

PETER BEINART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, his text certainly reads as if it's something crafted as a kind of CYA, right, because the ambassador is basically giving the most plausible reading of what's happening.

Remember the context, right? They're literally thinking about drafting a statement for the Ukrainians, so the Ukrainians will say, we're going to do this investigation of Hunter Biden's company in order to get the meeting, right?

Donald Trump seems to be -- first of all, I think it's important to say that there's no necessary reason that quid pro quo should be the standard for impeachment anyway, right? I think most of us up until a few weeks ago would have said, if a president of the United States gets on the phone with a foreign leader, invites him to interfere with our elections by going after his opponent, that alone is enough for impeachment, right?

The Republicans have tried to raise this to the standard of quid pro quo. And now you get the sense that, for Trump, unless he actually uses the words quid pro quo, it's not bad.

But there's all kinds of evidence that there was a tradeoff going on here between the United States in Ukraine, in which the United States was going to give the Ukrainians a meeting and military aid in response for going after the Bidens.

BALDWIN: Taking three steps back, just looking at you Sam, why is the E.U. ambassador even involved in this matter?

SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Brooke, the only reason that Sondland probably has a job right now is because Pompeo and POTUS are worried about what he would say if he was fired and he was a private citizen.

If he was no longer ambassador to the E.U., he wouldn't be able to divulge anything classified in front of Congress, but he wouldn't have to coordinate on his testimony.

If you just look at his behavior, he's violated every rule in the book when it comes to State Department ethics and actually doing his job. His portfolio is in Brussels. It has nothing to do with Ukraine.

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He's supposed to be in Brussels, according to the State Department Web site, serving as the direct link between the United States and the E.U., not to mention the fact that he was conversing with a private citizen, Rudy Giuliani, via personal devices.

The State Department is currently looking into Hillary Clinton's e- mails to a personal server, while the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., who should have nothing to do with Ukraine, is using his personal devices for business that has to do with the president's personal business.

For all those reasons, I think it's quite likely the State Department inspector general is reviewing Sondland's behavior. But, again, Pompeo and POTUS are probably putting a lot of pressure on Scotland to stay. He could resign. He's not doing this job for the money.

But they're probably pressuring him to stay because they're worried about what he'd say, again, if he was a private citizen.

BALDWIN: Got it.

And then what about just pivoting to this scramble the second President Trump puts the phone down to his counterpart in Ukraine? I mean, all of Pam's reporting about this lawyer, that lawyer, get it in the vault, but recognizing that it is a transcript that is highly sensitive, yet not code word, national security sensitive, shouldn't be in that, i mean, all of this is precisely what this whistle-blower has been saying, correct?

BEINART: Right.

And we have a situation where Donald Trump is trying to tell us that the sky is red, right, that this is totally normal for a president to get on the phone and basically ask a foreign government to investigate his political opponents is perfect, in his mind, right, the nicest thing you could possibly imagine.

BALDWIN: But the sky isn't red.

BEINART: But the sky is not red.

And we know that even the people around Trump were freaked out about this, because of course they would be freaked out about this. In private, Republicans are freaked out about this too, right?

And we have this now tussle, as we have had throughout the Trump administration, about whether people are going to accept the reality in front of their faces, or believe the president of the United States.

BALDWIN: Yes.

VINOGRAD: But the lawyers at the White House were complicit with this.

I worked every day with what we call the legal directorate at the NSC, the National Security Council lawyers. They are there to ensure that the president upholds the law. They're not there to help him break it.

And what we learned from Pamela's reporting is that they were complicit in trying to cover up potential abuses of power. What we don't know is whether this was the first time.

When every NSC staffer walks in the door of the White House, they are briefed on who to go to if they see something concerning. Guess who's on that list? NSC lawyers. Guess who was trying to cover up a crime? NSC lawyers.

It is no wonder the whistle-blower had to go through other channels. It is no wonder we see leaks, because the people that are supposed to be there to work on these issues were trying to cover them up.

BALDWIN: Michael, to precisely Sam's point, what do you make of the fact that national security lawyers were involved in hiding this transcript, hiding it specifically in that classified server? And does that open them up to any legal liability?

GERHARDT: It opens them up to a lot of things.

The first thing is, it's suggestive of a cover-up. The duty of the lawyers is to follow the law and to support the Constitution, and they're doing exactly the opposite. They're frustrating the law, which has to do with restricting, constraining what people interacting with foreign powers and foreign interests may do.

Then trying to put it in a place where nobody can find it but them, that's clearly a cover-up. That could get them fired. It could also get them disciplined under ethical rules.

So I would say that they're in very serious trouble. And they're -- because all of their conduct thus far seems to hide -- to be directed at hiding this, rather than, in a sense, calling the president on this or going to the superiors and getting them to agree that something should be done to essentially publicize it, that's what counsel suggested, and then perhaps own up to it, rather than to normalize it.

BALDWIN: OK, everyone, stand by. I have more for you.

We also have breaking news this afternoon on the possible expansion of this impeachment investigation -- why a congressional attorney says this could include a lot more than that call with the Ukrainian president.

Also, House Democrats are going to great lengths to protect the identity of this whistle-blower. The options thus far could include a secret location or a voice disguise.

You're watching CNN. I'm Brooke Baldwin. More to come. Stay with me.

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BALDWIN: We're back. Here's the news.

House Democrats have said that, if the White House continues to obstruct their investigation, it will only add credibility to its inquiry.

And, well, today, we are hearing that House Democrats may be considering articles impeachment that go well beyond that Ukraine phone call and could include obstruction of justice and interference with federal elections.

CNN senior correspondent Manu Raju is live on Capitol Hill.

And, so Manu, tell me more.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right.

The House general counsel, Doug Letter, argued in federal court today that the impeachment inquiry is broader than just Ukraine, this as part of an effort to get that underlying Mueller evidence that the Democrats have been demanding, that the Justice Department has been resisting turning over.

But Doug Letter argued, "I can't emphasize enough," he told the judge, "it is not just Ukraine." He said that Nancy Pelosi is on board. He spoke Nancy Pelosi, who has -- quote -- "been absolutely clear that the various House committees will look into what articles of impeachment to potentially recommend," that it's beyond Ukraine, potential obstruction of justice and other matters as well, potential abuse of power.

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Now, this comes as Democrats are warning the White House that efforts to obstruct the investigation by preventing witnesses from coming forward, like today, by seeing the ambassador to the European Union not come forward, that could ultimately be cited as part of obstruction of Congress.

And, Brooke, when the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, was asked about this earlier today, she said that they have not made any decisions about what to include in articles of impeachment, whether to impeach this president.

She said they're not going to prejudge it, but they plan to discuss this, I'm told from multiple sources, on Friday. They're having a conference call, a caucus-wide call between all their members. It's almost certain that impeachment will likely come up before members come back next week and they decide how to move forward on impeachment.

And one other piece of news from the court today, Brooke. The Justice Department did say they would turn over 33 memos, redacted Mueller- related memos to the House Judiciary Committee. The judge was concerned about the fact they were redacted, but some movement. Democrats demand much more -- Brooke.

BALDWIN: All right, Manu, thank you very much on the Hill for us.

Michael Gerhardt, let me come back to you.

How much weight does the subpoena hold without an official House vote? And do they need to hold a vote here?

GERHARDT: They do not need to hold a vote. That's just a smokescreen that's put up by the president's defenders.

The Constitution doesn't specify that there has to be a vote to authorize an inquiry. It only makes sense to try and investigate, figure out what the evidence is, and then consider whether or not the House Judiciary Committee should formulate impeachment articles.

Right now, the critical thing is, the House is following all of -- is following all of its rules. It's acting properly. The impediments are being thrust up by the president and his defenders, and that's cause for concern.

BALDWIN: Onto this impeachment poll. This is a huge, huge story today as well, Peter Beinart, this impeachment poll. This is conducted by "Washington Post"/George Mason University.

We will throw up a couple of the numbers here. You see 58 percent. So the majority of Americans say that they endorse now the opening of this House impeachment inquiry.

And then the other number that I want to highlight, 49 percent say that the House should take a more significant step to impeach the president and call for his removal.

Do you think those numbers, as I'm thinking of not just Democrats, but Republicans here, is that enough for them to break and speak up against the president?

BEINART: I don't think, so far, it's enough.

What Republicans will be looking at primarily is what Republican voters think. And in such a starkly divided country along partisan lines, most Republican voters are still anti-impeachment, still don't think that Trump did anything that wrong again, largely because they're getting a lot of media information which is telling them that message.

So I don't think, with the exception of maybe a couple of, this would be enough to ratify an impeachment yet, but we have seen some movement. The movement could continue. And what I think we at least can say is the conventional wisdom as of a few months ago, which was that Democrats would suffer political if they pushed forward with impeachment, I think that has changed.

I don't think the impeachment push on Ukraine is hurting Democrats politically.

BALDWIN: What more -- I was just talking to a Republican last hour. And he said the exact same thing. There's not enough. He said, we have to keep watching the facts and there's just not enough there yet.

What else would need to be there for the Republicans to change their minds?

BEINART: I really don't think it's about facts. I think it's about courage.

I really think you already have enough. You had enough on the day that the transcript was revealed. Yes, it might be a little bit easier if there were some more obvious quid pro quo. But the evidence that there was a deal being made with Ukraine about the meeting in response to an investigation was -- is all out there already. I really think that it's a question of whether enough Republicans can

get together in private and have a conversation about how they want to be remembered by their grandchildren, rather than whether they want to get reelected.

BALDWIN: Dick Durbin was sitting in that seat, Senator Dick Durbin on Friday, and he used the exact same word, courage.

Peter Beinart, thank you very much. Michael Gerhardt, nice to have you back.

Coming up next, the fight to keep the identity of this whistle-blower secret -- details on the extreme measures the House Democrats are considering taking.

Also ahead, this huge NBA story. The commissioner now is reversing course and defending free speech, after China reacted angrily to one of its own supporters supporting the protests in Hong Kong -- one of the owners supporting the protest in Hong Kong.

We will be right back.

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BALDWIN: The House Intelligence Committee is now discussing extraordinary measures just to protect the identity of this whistle- blower who first raised those concerns about President Trump pressuring Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

Among these possibilities include an off-site location for any congressional testimony, maybe a limit on the number of staffers who could actually attend, and possibly disguising his or her voice.

But what we do know is this. An overwhelming majority of the whistle- blower's allegations have already been corroborated by official government documents, the president's own public statements, and new reporting.

CNN's Tom Foreman is with me now with a CNN analysis of what we know.

Hey, Tom.

TOM FOREMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Brooke, let's just take a look at five of the complaints from the

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