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House Democrats To Issue Subpoena For Ambassador Sondland; Sources Say Sondland Called Trump Before Quid Pro Quo Text; White House Scrambled Immediately After Ukraine Call. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired October 8, 2019 - 13:00   ET

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


JOHN KING, CNN INSIDE POLITICS: -- promote the Democratic policy agenda dealing with the impeachment questions as (INAUDIBLE), that is the world we live in at the moment.

[13:00:05]

Thanks for joining us in Inside Politics. See you back at this time tomorrow.

Don't go anywhere, a busy day. Brianna Keilar starts Right Now. Have a good afternoon.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN RIGHT NOW: I'm Brianna Keilar live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

Underway right now, Democrats in the House now reacting to a no-show, committee chairman leading the impeachment inquiry saying they'll issue a subpoena for Ambassador Gordon Sondland. The White House stepped in at the last minute this morning, early this morning, to block Sondland's appearance on Capitol Hill. The U.S. Ambassador to the European Union was expected to face questions on his role and President Trump pressuring Ukraine to dig up dirt on Joe Biden in exchange for much needed military aid.

Our Manu Raju is on the Hill. And, Manu, tell us why Democrats wanted to hear from Sondland.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Sondland played a key role in discussions about setting up a meeting and having discussions after President Trump talked to the president of Ukraine, Zelensky, about the president's desire to investigate Joe Biden, have the Ukrainians investigate Joe Biden.

And around that conversation the president had with Zelensky, Sondland engaged in other conversations with individuals about moving forward in setting up both a meeting with the Ukrainian government and the president of the United States. That meeting had been put on ice. The Ukrainians had raised concerns about that. Also, he was involved in discussions about why that military aid was withheld.

He said in one of the text messages with another diplomat that there was no quid pro quo and then there were more questions in that text message exchange. Sondland said, call me. He told that to Bill Taylor, who is a diplomat, who is also of interest here on Capitol Hill.

The questions are, well, what happened afterwards. Those are among the questions that Democrats wanted to ask. They also wanted to see these text messages of his own that had not been turned over yet to Capitol Hill.

Adam Schiff came out after this was announced that someone would not appear and made very clear he views this as obstruction of Congress.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): We will consider this act today, and we've had members fly in from around the country to hear the ambassador's testimony, as well as the withholding of the ambassador's documents, as well as efforts that may be made to discourage or having the effect of discouraging other State Department to witnesses from coming forward and testifying, as they have agreed to, to be further acts of obstruction of a co-equal branch of government.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): We understand the reason why the State Department decided not to have Ambassador Sondland appear today. It's based on the unfair and partisan process that Mr. Schiff has been running.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: Now, Nancy Pelosi, the House Speaker, just spoke to reporters in Seattle, and she called this an abuse of power. She said the president is obstructing Congress from getting the facts. But she was asked if it would be part of an article of impeachment about obstructing Congress, she would not go there, said they're not going to pre-judge the matter (ph) about whether the president will be impeached and what those articles will look like. But, clearly, that is a major consideration as the Democrats ask for these witnesses who are not yet coming, Brianna?

KEILAR: All right. Manu, thank you.

And a source close to the president's impeachment team is telling CNN that blocking Sondland's testimony today was part of a larger strategy, that the days of playing nice, if you thought they were, are over. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, tell us what you're hearing.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brianna, we know late last night, administration officials were discussing whether or not the ambassador should go up to Capitol Hill for the scheduled testimony. And, of course, you heard from -- there that Manu just pointed out, who said they actually wanted him to come. They wanted to be able to question them about this. But they agreed with the White House strategy in the end.

And while the White House has put out an official statement saying why they blocked from going, we know that we're hearing from behind the scenes, sources who say, essentially, the White House is arguing here is they don't see this impeachment inquiry as legitimate. They want Democrats to take that vote before they feel like they have to cooperate more fully and they don't want to cooperate too much right now before that vote has been taken or a decision has been made on that. And that is really what played a key factor in determining whether or not they should block him from going up to Capitol Hill.

Now, of course, this is going to be a fight that conditions. And what you're seeing with these threats, these subpoenas, as Manu just laid out, is the White House is saying that they think it's worth the risk of angering these Democrats than it is to have Sondland go up there and testify, tell them what he knows, because, of course, he is someone who is at the center of all of this. He's the ambassador to the European Union. Ukraine is not even in the European Union. But he is someone who the president directed to really take a lead on a lot of this. And that is why so many people want to talk to him about those discussions that he's had.

KEILAR: All right. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you.

And joining us now to discuss, Jeffrey Engel, Kylie Atwood, Joseph Marino, Dana Bash and Gloria Borger with us.

[13:05:06]

And, Gloria, you have some reporting. It requires a bit of a setup here. So I just want to say this is about a key text message that Sondland, the ambassador to the E.U., would have had to testify about it.

At one point, Bill Taylor, who is then the senior most U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, texts about how security assistance is being withheld, quote, for help with a political company. He called it, quote, crazy. Now, Sondland, the ambassador to the E.U., replies after several hours with this response, quote, Bill, I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The president has been crystal clear, no quid pro quos of any kind. Tell us your new reporting.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, my reporting is that after he received that text from Taylor, he said, what's going on here? I need to find out. Call the president. You see there's a gap of about four-and-a-half hours that he spoke with the president, I'm told, and that the president emphatically told him there was no quid pro quo, which kind of explains the timeline and also the lawyerly response to Taylor's text.

I should also note that The Wall Street Journal has reported this as well and then so it lets you sort of understand a little bit about what was going on in Sondland's mind. He was somebody who wanted to get aid to Ukraine, and here he, is a political appointee hearing this from a professional diplomat, and he's saying, what, really? And then he decided, I'm going to call the president for myself. And that was the answer he got.

KEILAR: What do you think about this, Dana?

DANA BASH, CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, so many things. First of all, just chain of command. The fact the ambassador to the E.U., it sounds like a shoulder shrug maybe at first blush that he would just pick up the phone and call the president. But that's normally not how it works. And it kind of shows how hands-on the president of the United States was on this particular topic and why.

Second of all, is the gap, the fact that there was that gap and that it was obvious that he wrote that text that we've all seen that you just read again, deliberately.

KEILAR: Within some input from somebody. That was very clear.

BORGER: Maybe a lawyer, who knows.

BASH: And if you kind of take a step back about it, the question of why did he say that, what did he really think, what kind of pressure was he getting, what other information does he have. Those are all the questions, the very real questions that Democrats, and Republicans also, should have they were going to ask him today. And the fact that State Department, as Kaitlan reported, decided to take the hit of the administration, decided to take the political hit in looking like they have something to hide rather than actually letting him come out and testify.

Maybe they have learned their lesson that transparency has some costs and -- yes, no, go ahead.

KEILAR: Well, Joseph, you're a former federal prosecutor. So if you were trying to look for some answers here, where would you be going?

JOSEPH MORENO, FORMER DOJ NATIONAL SECURITY PROSECUTOR: Well, I mean, we all know how dangerous time gaps could be, right, and that answer was absolutely lawerly. I could not have crafted it better myself if I was counseling him as my client. So you want to go to firsthand witnesses, right? I mean, we've seen the transcript, we've seen the whistleblower complaint, but let's go to these individuals who actually know what happened here.

And from my perspective, you've seen a radical change in strategy in the last two weeks, right, going from the president saying, you want the whistleblower complaint, here you go, you want the transcript, here you go, to now, that is not going to be happens going forward. They're going to circle the wagons, they're going to drag their feet and they're going to make every single bit of information as hard as possible to get.

KEILAR: Kylie, how unusual is it for the State Department to tell an employee like Sondland, hey, you're not cooperating with the congressional investigation?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Well, we're sort of in uncharted territory here because this is a situation that the State Department hasn't really been faced with. But the reality is that these ambassadors still work for the State Department. Ambassador Sondland, as the statement put out by his lawyer, indicated earlier today, he didn't really have a choice when the State Department told him that he could not go and talk to Congress today. But that statement did say that he was profoundly disappointed, that he does want to talk to Congress.

Now, the other factor here, however, is the State Department, the legal adviser here had been in touch with the White House and with Congress up until last night. And we heard from Chairman Schiff this morning that there was no indication in those conversation that Ambassador Sondland was not going to show up. So it really does demonstrated that this was a decision made primarily by the White House here. The State Department was going back and forth about this testimony, and then ultimately, when the White House Counsel got involved and directed the State Department not to allow Ambassador Sondland to go forth, that's what happened.

So the State Department is at the center of all this, but it's really, it appears, it's the White House that's calling the shots here.

[13:10:04]

KEILAR: Jeffrey, you're a historian. You're an expert on impeachment. The White House's blanket non-compliance here, historically, how well does that work out for an administration?

JEFFREY ENGEL, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: You know, historically, we've really crossed an important Rubicon if you're taking the big picture look. This is something that doesn't typically work out well for any administration, and certainly not for a president who is under fire in this way. In fact, two of the three impeachment cases that we have, Andrew Johnson is in the 1860s and Richard Nixon is in the 1970s, really hinged upon the idea that the president was subverting Congress, that Congress, if you will, decide it need to reassert its authority and that the president was not allowed to become too dominant over its place within the separation of powers.

So the obstruction question, the question of whether or not Congress has the right to subpoena, that's actually something that goes directly to the heart of the separation of powers. Historically, that's when Congress has acted.

BASH: And Republicans, the White House, they have obviously settled on the reality that the House Democrats are moving on this. And so, yes, the Democrats are saying, as Adam Schiff said this morning, this is another key piece of evidence in our case that we're building on obstruction of Congress, as Jeffrey just said. But that's a case they've already got.

So this -- we're not going to give them more evidence strategy is acknowledging that reality. They wouldn't have anymore -- any Republicans, any --

KEILAR: Do they need more evidence for a compelling case?

BORGER: Well, they would like to get as much as they can.

BASH: Because it's about potentially pulling some Republicans over who could see a broader, more deep, more substantial case and say, I don't have a choice but to be with the Democrats. BORGER: Can I just add one more thing about Pompeo here, the secretary of state, because, of course, it was the State Department that told him?

KEILAR: That's right.

BORGER: Pompeo was one of the leaders of the Benghazi investigation, and now there are clips everywhere about Pompeo talking about how we need to get all the information, we need to get all the documents, we need to get all the facts, we need to have you cooperate. And here he is now telling Sondland that, sorry, you can't testify about something you were directly involved in.

BASH: Shoe me the other foot.

KEILAR: That's right.

MORENO: I would agree on building evidence to a limit though. People, if -- look, when the Democrats are talking substance, they're winning. People can understand the abuse of office for political gain. They understand that. That's why the polls are changing. If the Dems are talking process, they're losing. If you're fighting about whistleblower testimony, subpoenas and who's showing up and who's not showing up, is this a real impeachment inquiry because it hasn't had a vote, then you're losing ground.

So keep your eye on the ball, stick with the evidence you have. Build a case but within reason, don't let this run out over a year. In that case, you're basically playing on the president's field at that point and you're losing ground.

KEILAR: I mean, Jeffrey, this is an uphill battle for Democrats, especially with a president who shows no shame and no desire to try to avoid this fight publicly.

ENGEL: Well, in fact, I actually might take that point and take it into the opposite direction of some of your fellow guests, because I think that this is actually something that the Congress historically can impeach the president for without further evidence.

And I think it might be something that the American people understand. I mean, everybody in 3rd grade understands their civics lessons on the Constitution that we are set up with three co-equal branches that struggle for power, and that when one branch gets too powerful, the branches strike back.

Historically, the fact that the president would not agree with the Congress is reason enough for the Congress to impeach.

Now, may not be the ideal case for the Democrats but it's certainly something that we have seen in the past be enough to move the impeachment forward.

KEILAR: Jeffrey, thank you so much. Kylie, I really appreciate it. Joseph, Dana and Gloria, thank you all. With the White House once again blocking a witness from testifying, what will the Democrats do to get the answers that they're looking for? I'll ask a member of the House Oversight Committee next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:15:00]

KEILAR: The White House ordered Ambassador Gordon Sondland not to testify before Congress today as scheduled. Sondland was intricately involved in negotiations between the U.S. and Ukraine over military aid that President Trump wanted to exchange for getting dirt on Joe Biden.

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton is with us. She is on the House Oversight Committee. Thank you so much for joining us.

DEL. ELEANOR HOLMES NORTON (D-DC): Of course.

KEILAR: So you were supposed to be in this committee room hearing the ambassador. What did you want to hear from him?

NORTON: Well, we were all set to go at 9:30 and only half hour in advance did we learn that he would not be appearing. He has critical information.

Ambassador Sondland was in contact directly with the president in several conversations back and forth. He has personal emails that we need to ask him about.

So this man who is after all the ambassador to the E.U., you must ask yourself, what is he doing in Ukraine.

[13:20:04]

This is a man who flew to Warsaw to meet with President Zelensky. He inserted himself deeply into this matter, and the matter, of course, is withholding information on national security by the president.

He made himself a part of it. We need to talk with him. Now, we must subpoena him because he has refused to come voluntarily.

KEILAR: Congresswoman, I wanted to ask you because one of our experts just made a point that our political analysts agreed with, which is that when Democrats are focused on process, which is some of the Trump administration is making this happen to some degree, but this focus on subpoenas, who is not testifying, stonewalling instead of, say, what is the narrative, right, of what is in the transcript, that it's not really a compelling argument for swaying the public or Republicans.

What do you say to that and what do Democrats need to do to get away from that?

NORTON: First of all, we're not focused very much on process because we already have enough in this inquiry to move forward with impeachment. But we are concerned that we miss no steps. And the reason we are requiring the president to go through all the hoops is so that he will not raise process against us. He knows full well that he himself have confessed, if I may Use that word, to what amounted to articles of impeachment.

But that's not the way the House is going to move. It is going to go step-by-step. And as you can see, what they are doing is simply piling on with more reasons for articles of impeachment.

KEILAR: When do you expect there to be a floor vote on impeachment?

NORTON: We can't know that because that would be jumping the hoop. We need to go through the steps -- remember, the Congress is not even in session and yet we're working.

We do want to do this expeditiously. We want to get to the real business of the House of Representatives. Here, we've taken the House ten months ago. We're not even talking about climate change and gun control, and we want to get back to that.

The only way to get back to those critical issues, which are responsible for our taking control of the House, is to clear away this impeachment matter and move forward when the Congress comes back.

KEILAR: House Republicans came out in support of the White House blocking Sondland's testimony, perhaps no surprise there. But they say that if Democrats release the full transcript from Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker's testimony last week that they will reconsider. Why haven't we seen Volker's full testimony?

NORTON: Well, we're not withholding transcripts. I have not been informed. I'm on one of the three committees. I've not been informed about any delay. We certainly have seen transcripts that are -- for example, of the whistleblower that are definitive on what the president has done. So I have not been informed. But I assume they were --

KEILAR: They say there are text messages. Do you think that that would be helpful to see?

NORTON: More text messages from the ambassador?

KEILAR: Just that Congress was able to see that were in greater number than what was released publicly.

NORTON: Yes, there are more text messages, for example, from Ambassador Sondland. We want those text messages as well as his testimony. And so we will be subpoenaing those text messages as well as subpoenaing him to come before our committee.

KEILAR: All right, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, thank you so much.

NORTON: Always a pleasure.

KEILAR: President Trump has made a number of false accusations against Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, when it comes to Ukraine, and many Republicans have been in lock step with those.

Up next, we have Kate Bedingfield of the Biden campaign joining me to talk about that. She is the deputy campaign manager.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[13:25:00]

KEILAR: So we have some new breaking news right now. We have new details on President Trump's July 25th Ukraine phone call. Sources are telling CNN that in the immediate aftermath of the call, there was a major scramble by national security aides to address potential issues created by this conversation.

We have Pamela Brown following these developments, we have Kaitlan Collins with us again from the White House.

Kaitlan, what exactly are we learning here?

COLLINS: Well, we're learning just what a scramble this was, Brianna, all of this from the minute the President Trump hung up with the Ukrainian president during that phone call in July that now is at the center of all of this. That included what sources are telling CNN at least one National Security Council official alerting the White House's national security lawyers about the concerns that were being raised about what it was that President Trump had said to the Ukrainian president. Those are the same lawyers who later ordered that transcript to be moved from where they're typically kept, to that highly sensitive server where transcripts were not typically kept in the past.

[13:30:06]

It also included almost immediately officials who --