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Interview With Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, (D-IL) About Difficulties With Interviewing Whistleblowers and Trump Administration Officials Regarding Impeachment Inquiry; President Trump Announces Withdrawal of American Troops From Syria Which May Leave Kurds Vulnerable to Invasion From Turkey; Ambassador Gordon Sondland Refuses to Testify Before Congress. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired October 8, 2019 - 08:00   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: -- top diplomat in Ukraine texted "Are we now saying that security assistance and White House meeting are conditioned on investigations?" To which Gordon Sondland replied "Call me."

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: "Call me." All this as a new national poll shows a big jump in support for the impeachment inquiry, and also for removing the president from office. "The Washington Post" poll finds that 58 percent of Americans now support the impeachment investigation. That is up 21 points from July. And 49 percent of Americans support removing the president from office.

CAMEROTA: While Republicans have been reluctant to condemn the president's actions with Ukraine, there has been rare bipartisan opposition to the president's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria. The move all but giving Turkey the green light to invade and target U.S.-backed forces there who helped the battle against ISIS. So it's a busy day. Joining us now is Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi. He is a member of the House Intel and Oversight Committees. So Congressman, you are the perfect person to speak to this morning. Good morning.


CAMEROTA: OK, about an hour-and-a-half from now, your committee will be meeting with, as we said, the Ambassador Gordon Sondland. He, I think, we should note is not a disinterested party here. As we just said, he gave $1 million to President Trump's inauguration. So how does your committee begin tackling someone like this?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, thanks for having me on. I think Mr. Sondland is at the heart of what appears to be a pressure campaign by the president to get the Ukrainian leader to basically manufacture dirt on a political rival. And as you mentioned, in these text messages, Mr. Sondland appears to be essentially saying, call me whenever somebody asks him, are we conditioning military aid on investigations? He doesn't want to talk about it over text message. He'd rather verbally tell whoever is texting him that let's talk about this offline, which raises the question, why? Why does he want to do that? And what exactly is the pressure campaign that's being waged against the Ukrainian leader?

CAMEROTA: When he does spell something out in a text message, as we saw on September 19th, what he does is parrots the president's talking points, basically word for word. And we know from reporting in "The New York Times" that he spoke to the president before he released the text message, or before he, I guess, sent the text message to that other envoy where he basically says, no, there was no quid pro quo. So what if he just takes that route in today's interview and just continues to parrot the president's party line?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Of course, a quid pro quo is not necessary for committing a crime in this instance of soliciting or asking assistance from a foreign power to interfere in our elections or to give campaign assistance. But regardless, I think on the next day, the ambassador -- I'm sorry, Mr. Taylor, the charges d'affaires for Ukraine and Kiev, again asked a similar question to what he said before, which is I think that we should not be conditioning aid on an investigation. This sounds crazy to me. And he does say what you mentioned in terms of parroting talking points. And then he said let's take this offline again. So I think that's, again, another question mark about what exactly is going on.

CAMEROTA: Well, yesterday, as I understand it, the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent was supposed to appear but didn't appear? And so I'm wondering, are you having trouble getting people to agree to meet their appearances?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, it's always a challenge with regard to getting Trump administration officials to show up for depositions and hearings, but in this particular case, we've already talked to other officials, including Mr. Volcker last week, and, of course, the Inspector General for the Intelligence Community twice. He is a Trump appointed official. That being said, let's hope that Mr. Sondland appears, as well as Ms. Yovanovitch later on this week. Public pressure is mounting, as you mentioned before, and answers need to be had at this point.

CAMEROTA: Two whistleblowers have now come forward, not to the public, of course, but at least to their lawyers. There is an effort to try to keep their identity secret, despite the fact that the president is demanding to know who the whistleblowers are


Are you worried that if your committee meets with one of the whistleblowers, that someone on your committee, perhaps Congressman Devin Nunes, would tell the White House about this? And the reason I single out about this? And the reason I single out Devin Nunes is we remember in March of 2017, he did report intelligence information to the White House that he wasn't supposed to be communicating to them. So are you worried about him doing that again?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: We're in an extremely unusual situation, Alisyn, as you mentioned before, which is that the president essentially wants to know the identity of the whistleblower, and quite frankly, based on his statements, appears to want to retaliate against the whistleblower and wants to discourage that person, him or her, from telling their story to the American people.

In light of that, at this point we have to take extreme precautions to make sure that we protect his or her identity and allow them to tell their story. I'm hoping that we can entrust every member of the committee with this extremely secret information, if it ever were disclosed to anyone. That being said, in this particular instance, I think we should take every precaution necessary to make sure nobody on the committee knows the identity, and that includes myself. I don't want to know the identity of this whistleblower, just because I think that --

CAMEROTA: So help me understand that. So how will you interview that person if you don't know their identity?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Well, I think that there are different ways of doing it. I don't want to get into the specifics of these negotiations that are going on between the whistleblowers lawyer and our committee. However, there are ways to mask their audio and their image. Maybe to do it offsite. But the point is that we just don't want -- in my humble opinion, in this particular instance, we have to protect the whistleblowers identity, not just to protect this courageous person, but also to avoid the chilling effect that the president is deliberately creating with regard to other whistleblowers coming forward to tell their story as well.

CAMEROTA: But again, do you trust every member of your committee?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: I would like to trust every member of the committee. I don't want to comment on any specific person. I'd like to trust every person, but at this point, let's just make sure that there is no inadvertent disclosure that happens or intentional because some information got out that we didn't want to get out.

CAMEROTA: Very quickly, you know Republicans are very angry that your chairman, Adam Schiff, had some sort of coordination or communication with the original whistleblower. What do you say to the people who are outraged about that?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: This is ridiculous. This is nonsense. Basically, what happened is what happens typically with a lot of whistleblowers, which is that they come to our committee, they ask, what's the procedure. Our committee basically says, OK, go to the Inspector General if you would like to file a complaint and then go through the process. That happens one or two times a month at this point. And that's basically what happened in this instance, that they came to an aide for the committee and said that they wanted to disclose a matter and make a whistleblower claim. And the committee then directed them to the appropriate Inspector General in this case.

So I think this is just deflecting attention from the underlying allegations. You notice they're not really talking about the underlying allegations. They keep talking about Adam Schiff. CAMEROTA: Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, thank you very much for explaining to us what is going to happen next this week. John?

KRISHNAMOORTHI: Thank you. Thank you so much.

BERMAN: We're getting new reaction this morning to the president's decision to withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria, which clears the way for a military invasion by Turkey and abandons America's Kurdish allies. Among the critics on Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says the move, quote, benefits Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime.

CNN's Clarissa Ward is live in Iraq's Kurdish region with the latest here. Where are we this morning, 24 hours after this decision was first made, Clarissa, what has changed on the ground?

CLARISSA WARD, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, I think there's still a sense of disbelief, John. The Syrian Kurds have been in this position before back in January when President Trump said he wanted to pull all U.S. troops out. That was something of a shocking revelation. It didn't end up happening because there was an enormous amount of pressure placed on the president to reverse that decision. And essentially the Syrian Kurds are very much hoping there could be some kind of a flip-flop or stay of execution for them again.


Right now, they are looking for some kind of a guarantee from the U.S., some kind of protection that if the Turkish military does invade into northern Syria that they will not be the victims of some kind of a bloodbath. What they've heard so far from the president is that if he deems in all his infinite wisdom, to use his own wording, that the Turkish military has done something that's, quote, off limits, that he will respond by decimating Turkey economically.

But the question that many Syrian Kurds want to know is, what does that actually look like? What is actually President Trump's red line, and what will he do to enforce it and defend it?

Beyond that, there's also the threat of a resurgence of ISIS, John. We're talking about tens of thousands of family members of ISIS fighters, 10,000 ISIS fighters as well, 2,000 foreign fighters, all of them imprisoned in northern Syria. The people who are taking care of and running those prisons are the same people who have been fighting and dying with the U.S. on the ground, Syrian Kurdish forces. And the very real fear is if there is some kind of Turkish military invasion, those people will be forced to leave their posts in those prisons to go and take up arms and fight the Turks. So for a number of reasons, a lot of people here very concerned and very confused, John.

BERMAN: Clarissa, what is the expectation of when Turkey and its military might make a move?

WARD: Well, Turkey said that it is basically ready to go. That it could begin operation Peace Spring, as it's calling it, any day now. They responded to President Trump threatening to decimate them economically by saying they'll not bow down to threats. But certainly, it's fair to say that Turkey now needs to find the goldilocks position between walking the line of what it said it would do and following through on its promise to try to establish that buffer zone, but not doing anything to draw the ire of the international community such to the point where President Trump or other countries at large would be forced to respond in some way, John.

BERMAN: All right, Clarissa, thank you very much.

I want to give you some breaking news which just crossed the transit here. Ambassador Gordon Sondland we've been talking about all morning, scheduled to testify before the House today, his attorney Robert Luskin said that the State Department has ordered him not to appear, not to appear, and his attorney says he has no choice but to comply. The direct quote, he is a sitting ambassador, employee of state, and is required to follow their direction. This is a major development.

CAMEROTA: And this happened yesterday with the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent who also was scheduled to appear and didn't. And we just asked Congressman Krishnamoorthi about that and what they do when people are beginning not to appear at their scheduled appearances.

BERMAN: I think the difference here is they had the expectation he would show up until just now and had the rugged pulled out from in Congress. This closely before. This is the empty chair from this committee room where he was supposed to be testifying. That testimony was supposed to start in 38 minutes. And we're just learning now -- 48 minutes -- just learning now that it won't happen.

CAMEROTA: We've been talking all morning about how complicated it was going to be for him because he, in those texts, certainly seems to be parroting the president's party line and what he would do under questioning from lawmakers and their staff about the texts that don't make any sense.

BERMAN: It's never complicated to tell the truth. And he had the choice to do that and he had the choice to appear. This is a major development. Much more to discuss when we come back.



ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BERMAN: All right. Breaking news, an important development in the impeachment investigation. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, has been ordered by the State Department not to appear before Congress. This news comes about an hour before he was scheduled to appear before three House committees.

Joining us right now on the phone is CNN's senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju.

And, Manu, the State Department pulling the rug right out from under Congress minutes before they are about to hear from the ambassador.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Yes, and, John, this is a very big surprise. Democrats and Republicans, staff members all had prepared for a long day of questioning, believing that Sondland would actually appear today because of the -- because things had been scheduled. There had been negotiations had happened to set this time. And it had been highly anticipated, given his role in the aftermath of the president's asking the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens. Text messages that had been exchanged between Sondland and others about what exactly the president wanted and what the ask was from the Ukrainian government as well.

So, military aid as well as to set up a meeting in Washington. All those questions were bound to be asked and what was expected to be a very day-long -- a very long hearing today, to help Democrats understand where things stand as they push forward on impeachment.

But at the last minute here, the attorney for Sondland sent a statement saying the State Department has ordered him not to appear and as a result, he has no choice as a State Department employee to not appear. So we do not expect him to come to Capitol Hill.

And as a result, Democrats are left having to ponder what to do next. They've warned, John, that people who do not come to their hearings, despite being asked to, that could be cited as article of -- in articles of impeachment for obstructing Congress.

So the question next is, what do Democrats do next? Do they go that route? They probably, and Democrats had warned they could subpoena some of these individuals because they had been -- they voluntarily agreed to come in for a sit-down interview. So, that could be next. If they don't comply with the subpoenas, that would be cited as an article of obstruction.

But no question about it, a big surprise this morning, throwing a bit of a curveball as Democrats push forward on this impeachment probe, John.

BERMAN: All right. Manu, thank you.


CAMEROTA: Manu, thank you for bringing us that breaking news.

Joining us now to talk about it, we have CNN politics reporter and editor at large, Chris Cillizza, and CNN political analyst David Gregory.

David, what's the State Department afraid of? I mean, why now? Why at the 11th hour, literally, the 11th hour, why are they stopping this meeting that had been negotiated for weeks?

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, I think they'll say that this is a process fight that they don't like how Democrats are going about it. You heard Secretary of State Pompeo say at the outset that they weren't going to be intimidated.

What suddenly at the last moment broke and made them pull him is unclear. But it is clear that there's going to be a different set of rules for those who have resigned and those still in the inner circle. This is somebody who is still working at the State Department, still an ambassador to the E.U. and was a central player in all of this.

And his behavior on text messaging and given his role is very important to understand just what the administration is up to, who is involved in freezing aid to Ukraine in order to extract a promise that they'd investigate Joe Biden and other priorities of the president and Rudy Giuliani.

The broader question for me is, you know, who thought you could engage in governmental activity and foreign policy without oversight by Congress? And the State Department thinks that they don't have to be questioned in this matter. Now we're seeing kind of page two. You had the summary of that call with Zelensky initially, the White House releasing that memo, and now, we're seeing what is the next page, which is a much tougher fight on cooperation.

BERMAN: Chris Cillizza, a wise man asks, if a phone call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine was perfect and if the president had the absolute right to call for an investigation of the Bidens here, why not then have Gordon Sondland testify? It seems lose a dichotomy here.

And second question here is, this just escalates the fight here. The ground has shifted, all of a sudden here, and Congress has said you don't give us what we want, that's article three or four of impeachment. This seems to be both sides girding for that fight.

CHRIS CILLIZZA, CNN POLITICS REPORTER: Yes, I think that's right. David has got it in that this is a skirmish in the larger war. I do think -- I recognize my own tweet. So, I know that was my words you read back to me, John. And I think it's true.

Donald Trump has gone out of his way repeatedly to say the call was perfect, his words. He has an absolute try to do these things, that there's nothing here. Just look at the transcript.

If all of that is true, then Donald Trump and his administration should be in favor of transparency, that there's nothing to hide. Gordon Sondland or anyone else Congress would call, they can ask their questions but at the end of the day, and he'll dismiss it as a witch hunt but at the end of the day, there's no there, there. This makes it look -- doesn't make it, but makes it look as if there is some there, there, and I will note, Donald Trump has long been buoyed by the fact that a majority of the American public has opposed impeachment.

I do think the ground is shifting some. I don't know whether it's a permanent shift or a temporary shift based on all this news coverage, but he's not standing on as solid political ground as he was even a month ago. CAMEROTA: And just to remind people, David, of the reason that

Ambassador Gordon Sondland is so pivotal is because he is the person who is having the conversations with these other envoys about the negotiations, the deals between military aid and a meeting set up between President Zelensky and President Trump, and investigating the Bidens and Hillary Clinton.

So, here is that moment, that was a key moment in these text messages that were released.

As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign. That's from Bill Taylor. And then you hear Gordon Sondland go into this, you know, very sort of official statement that we now know President Trump, appears, helped craft because he didn't respond for five hours, Gordon Sondland didn't until after he met with President Trump and talked about this.

And he just sort of parrots the president's talking points about no quid pro quo. But I was talking about the other text that was pivotal where, once again, he says something that's provocative or sensitive and you hear Gordon Sondland say, call me.


Well, remember, Bill Taylor, and there it is -- Bill Taylor, Kurt Volker, these are professional diplomats. Gordon Sondland is not. He's a contributor to Trump who, like a lot of big campaign contributors gets a plum assignment as an ambassador. But they don't have diplomatic experience.

So he's very much in the president's political fold here. And you see him over text message engaging the skepticism by these more seasoned diplomats who say, well, what we are doing here?


What is this arrangement where he's got -- by the way, you know, his language in that -- in Sondland's text, which it begs some cross- examination, is to say, well, we just want to make sure he believes in transparency and is going to investigate corruption.

Let's understand what that means. They want the new leader of Ukraine to do the president's bidding which is, when I say corruption, that means investigate my political opponent and investigate my theory that's been debunked that somehow Ukraine was behind interfering with our election in the United States and it wasn't really Russia. That's what I want you to do. Or else you don't get aid or we don't get a meeting, and I don't prop you up as the president of the United States.

I mean, all of that stuff is very clear.

CAMEROTA: All right. David Gregory, Chris Cillizza, thank you very much for helping us deal with this breaking news. We will follow it obviously. Meanwhile, there's this -- Rudy Giuliani was thrust into the national

spotlight by the 9/11 attacks, of course. Now there's this new op-ed that examines his transformation from America's mayor to President Trump's biggest defender.