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Sondland to Testify on Capitol Hill; Sondland Says Trump Directed Work with Giuliani; Aired 9:30-10a ET

Aired October 17, 2019 - 09:30   ET

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


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[09:31:34]

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: All right, welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. Happening right now, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, is on Capitol Hill.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: He's set to testify today in front of three House committees that are leading the impeachment inquiry underway. This as they investigate President Trump's dealings with Ukraine.

Let's speak to CNN's Manu Raju. He's on Capitol Hill with breaking news.

We're getting a first look now, Manu, at Ambassador Sondland's opening statements here. Tell us -- well, you can tell us, because it appears that he's defending the president's view of events here.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: This is very significant news. We have obtained the opening statement that Gordon Sondland is delivering to this committee. And it is quite revealing.

In this statement, what he is testifying before these committees, determining whether to impeach the president of the United States, is that the president of the United States put on hold an effort to strengthen relations with the Ukrainian government until they were in contact, these U.S. officials were in contact with Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, who, at the time, was pursuing investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 campaign.

Now, let's get into some of the particulars of this rather detailed opening statement.

He said that in May 2019, after President Zelensky of Ukraine had been inaugurated and they went to his inauguration, Sondland and other U.S. officials went to brief President Trump about exactly how to strengthen relations with the country. Now, he said that the president essentially said, talk to Rudy Giuliani, according to his testimony. He says, President Trump was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms and anti-corruption and he directed those of us present at the meeting to talk to Rudy Giuliani about his concerns. He says it was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president's mind was -- was talk -- was Mr. Giuliani. He said, after that, Rick Perry, the energy secretary and then special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, were in contact, were reaching out to Rudy Giuliani. He said that they were disappointed, Volker and him, that the president said that. And he said that there should be, quote, no preconditions for having such a meeting between the president of the United States and the president of Ukraine.

And then he said. He said, based on the president's direction, we were faced with a choice, we could abandon the goal of a White House meeting for President Zelensky, which we all believe was crucial to strengthening U.S./Ukrainian ties, and furthering long-held U.S. foreign policy goals in the region, or we could do as President Trump directed and talk to Mr. Giuliani to address the president's concerns. He said they were left with a choice, and they ultimately choose to listen to the president and reach out to Rudy Giuliani.

Now, he said that he wasn't aware until, quote, much later that Rudy Giuliani's agenda might include an effort to, quote, prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Biden and his son or to involve Ukrainians directly or indirectly in the president's 2020 election campaign. This is according to Gordon Sondland's opening statement, a Trump appointee.

Now, he said -- he said that he spoke to Rudy Giuliani afterwards in August only a handful of times. He said that he -- that when he spoke to Rudy Giuliani about the public meeting, Rudy Giuliani asked for a public statement from Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, committing that Ukraine would look into corruption issues. And, according to Gordon Sondland, Mr. Giuliani specifically mentioned the 2016 elections, including the DNC server and Burisma as two anti-corruption investigatory topics of importance to the president.

[09:35:10]

Now, according to Sondland, he did not -- Giuliani did not explicitly say the Bidens, but he came to learn later that Hunter Biden was on the board of this company and that's what -- apparently that Rudy Giuliani was talking about.

And there were also these questions about quid pro quo and those texts that have emerged from this -- the top diplomat from -- currently in Ukraine, Bill Taylor, who raised concerns about a potential quid pro quo. They exchanged texts with Gordon Sondland. Sondland went to President Trump and talked to him about this and he said that he had a brief phone call with President Trump and that the president, according to Sondland, was in a, quote, bad mood. And when he called the president to -- in September to ask him, what do you want from Ukraine, the president said, nothing. He repeated multiple times, no quid pro quo, no quid pro quo. But significant here, the president's top ambassador, his ambassador to the European Union, is testifying that the president directed him to deal with this personal attorney in order to further the personal attorney's agenda, Rudy Giuliani, which was to investigate the Bidens and the 2016 election.

SCIUTTO: So help us out here, Manu, because it's, a lot, I think, for people at home to digest.

So he says he went to the president and the president told him there was no quid pro quo. But you're saying he's also testifying here that he realized that this relationship with Ukraine was being put on hold by the president until they routed things through his personal lawyer and then he later found out that involved in that was investigating Joe Biden.

Is that a correct reading there?

RAJU: Yes, I mean, that's exactly right because what Sondland testifies to is that it was very important for the Ukrainian government to have a meeting with the president to talk about how they can bolster this key strategic alliance. But the president was just not interested in that because he had directed the U.S. officials, government officials, to talk to his personal attorney first. Deal with Rudy Giuliani first.

And that's a significant statement here. I mean it's saying that Rudy Giuliani was interested in potentially helping the president's 2020 election. That's what he learned, Gordon Sondland learned, later, that that could be what Rudy Giuliani's agenda was about. Stunning here because what Sondland is essentially saying here, this was the president's direction, directing him to do something, and Giuliani was up to something else, completely separate from U.S. official policy that was being carried out by the State Department.

SCIUTTO: That is remarkable testimony.

HARLOW: And -- it is.

Manu, stay there.

We're going to bring in Josh Dawsey as well, White House reporter for "The Washington Post," who's done extensive reporting, especially this week on Sondland. As we get some more information on what just crossed, which is a letter from Sondland's lawyers explaining why he is not turning over some of those key documents. We'll get to Manu on that in a moment.

But, Josh, I mean, your in-depth reporting this week paints the picture of Sondland, a true Trump ally, someone who was a, as you put it, collector of relationships who wanted the power associated with an ambassadorship and would do a lot to get that power from President Trump.

JOSH DAWSEY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Right. Sondland was a big RNC donor and a Jeb Bush donor. And once the president came into office, he had to work to show that he was loyal to the president. He worked Steve Mnuchin, Jared Kushner, Reince Priebus, others. He'd eventually get that ambassadorship.

And once he received that ambassadorship, Sondland was willing to be very loyal to the president. He somehow managed to take over the Ukraine portfolio. He was working outside the National Security Council. He was going straight through Mick Mulvaney and the president repeatedly to handle Ukrainian issues. And Gordon Sondland became a key player in this role through initially giving lots of money to the Republican Party. Then after he made some anti-Trump comments during the campaign, repeatedly ingratiating himself with top advisers to convince them to give him a post in the administration and now playing the key role in all of this.

SCIUTTO: Yes, listen, we are -- and folks at home, we just have a copy now of his testimony that Manu was referencing here.

And I do want to read a section again here because -- because this is a remarkable break between the EU ambassador, Sondland, a presidential -- a Trump appointee and a Trump loyalist since he joined the government, although, as Josh Dawsey notes in his column, during the election, he did not support President Trump, but did.

Listen to this quote. It was apparent to all of us that the key to changing the president's mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani. Before that he said, Trump was skeptical the U.K. in a series about reforms and anti-corruption and directed those of us present at the meeting to talk to Mr. Giuliani's personal attorney about his concerns.

Manu, I mean, you've got to some of this before. I think it just bears repeating for folks at home because, again, it's hard to digest all this. But where he is differing with the president here, or what he's at least corroborating here, is what was an essential thrust of the whistleblower's complaint, right, was that Ukraine policy, a key strategic partnership, was being hijacked by the president's personal, political interest there, as led by his lawyer.

[09:40:09]

HARLOW: And predicated on investigations, right? That's what he seems to be saying here.

SCIUTTO: Of Biden.

SCIUTTO: Oh, we --

HARLOW: We can't hear -- there we go.

SCIUTTO: His mic's back up.

RAJU: (INAUDIBLE) this energy company --

SCIUTTO: Start from the top just because we lost your mic at the beginning, Manu.

RAJU: Oh, sure.

Yes, just two key aspects of the investigation that Giuliani was pursuing. Both Burisma, this energy company, which Hunter Biden was on the board of, and also what was happening in the 2016 elections. There's been an effort by Giuliani and others to undercut the U.S. intelligence committee's findings that Russia was interfered in the U.S. elections in an attempt to help President Trump. Those were the two key things that he was trying to do, that Giuliani was trying to pursue.

And Sondland makes very clear in this testimony that he is, quote, disappointed by the president's direction for him to talk to Rudy Giuliani because of that, because they believe they can help with this key alliance, this key deterrent to Russia, Ukraine and they could work with President Zelensky. But the president of the United States just was not interested in that until Rudy Giuliani was talked to.

And, yes, you mentioned it, this is what the whistleblower complaint, the thrust of the whistleblower complaint. Here's the president's top appointee essentially confirming key elements of that.

HARLOW: Yes, here's another part that strikes us on page eight of what he'll say in his opening remarks today. Quote, we were also disappointed by the president's direction that we involve Mr. Giuliani. Our view was that the men and women of the State Department, not the president's personal lawyer, should take responsibility for all aspects of U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine.

OK, Josh, he's going to say that, or may be saying that right now behind closed doors, but he -- way he acted was to still call the president in that five-hour break to figure out how the president wanted him to answer --

SCIUTTO: That's a good point --

HARLOW: Diplomat Bill Taylor's key question of, are we holding up aid because you want this, you know, political agenda carried out. He may say he believed this, but critical is how he acted as well.

DAWSEY: Right, but you saw last night when Rick Perry did this remarkable interview with "The Journal" where he said also, we were told to route everything through Rudy Giuliani. What was happening here, from a macro sense, is that different people in the administration who were in charge of this policy were continuingly being told they had to deal with Rudy Giuliani. John Bolton -- Fiona Hill, John Bolton, Gordon Sondland, Kurt Volker, a number of folks in the administration. Everything was going through Rudy Giuliani to some degree.

And what folks were trying to figure out is what conversations was the president separately having with Rudy Giuliani. What was happen with the military aid behind the scenes? What were parts of the channels that they could not see because there was one official foreign policy being run here, according to testimony and our reporting, and then there was a shadow policy also being run and different people inside the government were told you have to go through Giuliani.

HARLOW: Right.

SCIUTTO: Yes, and just to -- it continues down here, something you reference, Josh, that he says, I did not understand until much later that Mr. Giuliani's agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son or to involve Ukrainians directly or indirectly in the president's 2020 re-election campaign. Again, that's a Trump appointee in his testimony. I'm not saying these

lines could nearly be lifted from the whistleblower's complaint, but substantively they capture what was the thrust of that complaint. It's remarkable testimony.

HARLOW: Yes, that's true.

Manu, I know you're going to be watching this closely on The Hill. Josh Dawsey, you've been covering this story from the beginning. Great to have you on.

For all of you at home, and our international viewers as well, we're going to stay with the breaking news and be right back.

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[09:48:14]

SCIUTTO: The breaking news, Gordon Sondland, the president's EU ambassador, a Trump appointee, we now have his testimony. The opening statement to what will be sworn testimony before three committees today.

Joining us now to discuss is Michael Gerhardt. He's a CNN legal analyst, law professor at the University of North Carolina. He also testified during the impeachment of President Clinton.

Good morning, Michael.

You know a thing or two about this. Tell us the significance because just before the break we were looking at some key points to his opening statement and really the language here, where he establishes that, in fact, it was clear to him and to everyone else working on Ukraine policy that they had to sort of side track themselves and run business via Rudy Giuliani at the president's direction.

How significant is it to hear that as part of the impeachment inquiry, but particularly from someone who ostensively is a Trump loyalist?

HARLOW: Yes.

MICHAEL GERHARDT, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think it's very significant. He's not the first person who has worked under this president who now is saying some things that are inconsistent with what the president has said.

More importantly, what he said, as you've already pointed out, is quite consistent with what the whistleblower said. That's the first important reason why this counts a lot. The second reason is, one of the critical things to think about in an impeachment is what the late Howard Baker said during the Watergate hearings, what did the president know and when did he know it?

HARLOW: Right.

GERHARDT: It appeared that the president was involved with this pretty much from the beginning and used an irregular process to try and get Ukraine to do work that would help his re-election.

HARLOW: What's also interesting in these prepared remarks, Michael, and you just wrote an interesting op-ed about the president and these impeachment proceedings and you say the president's sort of M.O. here is treat me like a king. And you see some of that play out here, right, by this argument, by Sondland, that the president directed everything to go through Giuliani, not the career officials at the State Department.

[09:50:02]

But Sondland also is going to testify that, quote, inviting a foreign government to undertake investigations for the purpose of influencing an upcoming U.S. election would be wrong. Now his defense here is he didn't know the politics of it, he didn't know that this was about going after Joe Biden for a long -- for a while, until much later. But that's significant for him to say that would be wrong, right?

GERHARDT: That's correct. It's also significant that from the very beginning, even according to Ambassador Sondland, the president directed people to go outside the usual process.

HARLOW: Right.

GERHARDT: That -- we might think of that as something raising a suspicion. And at the same time I think what we're finding is that what -- Sondland was not the only one dealing with Mr. Giuliani. Think about it this way. What is Rudy Giuliani there for? He's there to get dirt on Joe Biden and his son. And that is a very important fact to kind of keep a focus on because it could suggest that the president really did cross a line here, which is clearly a basis for impeachment.

HARLOW: OK, Michel Gerhardt, thank you very much for rolling with it on the breaking news.

We have to get a quick break in and we'll be back on the other side.

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SCIUTTO: Another story we're following this morning. The British prime minister and the EU say they have reached a new preliminary Brexit agreement. Should be clear, though, the U.K. parliament still has to approve it. Not clear that they have the votes to do so. Boris Johnson saying, however, he's confident the government will get the vote to ratify.

HARLOW: But parliament rejected several of former Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit plans. Johnson is getting pushback already from other parties on this new deal. So it is anything but a sure bet. We will stay on it, though.

Also this morning, in Chicago, more than 25,000 Chicago educators and their supporters are out of the classroom. They're on the picket lines.

[09:55:03]

Members of the teachers union went on strike today. They say they're fighting for smaller class sizes and higher wages.

SCIUTTO: It's not the first time we've seen a teachers strike recently.

HARLOW: Nope.

SCIUTTO: Classes are canceled. Schools will remain open so that the city's more than 300,000 students will at least have somewhere to go.

Still to come, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi set to speak in the next hour. This as a key witness in the impeachment inquiry testifies and after the president blew up on Pelosi during a meeting at the White House. We're going to bring all of that news to you live.

Stay with us.

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SCIUTTO: A very good morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto.

HARLOW: And I'm Poppy Harlow.

It is a busy Thursday morning. We do begin with breaking news.

A key player in the impeachment inquiry, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, right now on Capitol Hill, behind closed doors, answering questions from lawmakers who want to know about his role in President Trump's pressure campaign to find -- pressure campaign on Ukraine to find dirt on political rivals on Joe Biden and his son Hunter. At the center of it, September text exchanges Sondland had with another U.S. diplomat, Bill Taylor.

SCIUTTO: In one of those exchanges, Taylor was concerned about withholding military aid to Ukraine to, he perceived possibly, help a political campaign.

[10:00:03]

Sondland replied almost five hours later denying any quid pro quo. Sondland is expected to tell lawmakers that

[10:00:00]