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Sondland To Testify In Impeachment Probe; Congressman Elijah Cummings Dies At 68; Pence And Pompeo Lead U.S. Delegation To Turkey. Aired 5:30-6a ET

Aired October 17, 2019 - 05:30   ET




CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: His text messages are at the heart of the impeachment probe. The ambassador to the E.U. testifies behind closed doors today.


REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA): It was a meltdown, sad to say.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): He called her a third-rate politician.


DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Tensions boil over at the White House. Democrats walk out after the president unleashes his fury.

ROMANS: And don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool. An incredible letter from the President to the Turkish -- to his Turkish counterpart who didn't seem to care.

Welcome back to EARLY START, everybody. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs, 5:33 Eastern time on a Thursday.

And just hours from now, the ambassador at the center of the impeachment inquiry will be testifying under subpoena on Capitol Hill. Gordon Sondland was supposed to show up last week but he was blocked by the State Department.

Now, remember, it was Sondland who texted a special envoy to Ukraine that President Trump, quote, "really wants the deliverable." That suggested a link if Ukraine investigates Joe Biden and his son the White House will set a meeting between President Trump and the Ukrainian president.

ROMANS: Sondland also texted the acting ambassador to Ukraine that he didn't think there was a quid pro quo being demanded for the president to release security aid to Ukraine. "The Washington Post" has reported that the gist of that text was given to Sondland by the president, himself. Now, a source tells CNN Sondland claims he did not understand, at the time, the president wanted an investigation into the Bidens.

And now, for the first time, the Senate majority leader, behind closed doors, warning Republicans prepare for impeachment. In a closed-door lunch yesterday, Mitch McConnell answered questions about rules for a Senate trial and he laid out a possible time line. He said if Democrats impeach by Thanksgiving, the Senate will vote on whether to convict and remove the president by Christmas.


BRIGGS: The impeachment inquiry clearly on the president's mind as Speaker Pelosi came to the White House. Their meeting was supposed to be about Syria and Turkey.

According to a senior Democratic aide, the president called former Defense Sec. James Mattis, quote, "the world's most overrated general."

He claimed fewer than 100 ISIS prisoners, the least dangerous ones, had escaped in northern Syria.

During the meeting, Speaker Pelosi went after the president for pulling out of northern Syria, telling him, quote, "All roads with you lead to Putin." That made the president angry. He called Pelosi a name and well, the Democrats were done.


PELOSI: What we witnessed on the part of the president was a meltdown, sad to say.

SCHUMER: He called her a third-rate politician. This was not a dialogue, it was sort of a diatribe -- a nasty diatribe not focused on the facts.


ROMANS: That's not the characterization from the White House press secretary. She called Mr. Trump measured, factual, and decisive at that meeting.

The measured, factual, and decisive president later said this. "Nancy Pelosi needs help fast! There is either something wrong with her 'upstairs' or she just plain doesn't like our great country. Pray for her. She is a very sick person!"

The president also tweeted this photo from the meeting with what he called Pelosi's unhinged meltdown. You can see her standing up there. She didn't mind that characterization at all. It's now the header on her Twitter page.

Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell was asked for his take. He replied, "I didn't make any observations in the meeting. I don't have any to make now." BRIGGS: All right, much more on all of this with Rachael Bade of "The Washington Post" joining us.

Plus, their son was killed by the wife of a U.S. ambassador. Now, Harry Dunn's parents say the president ambushed them.



ROMANS: Some really sad news to report to you this morning if you're just tuning in. Congressman Elijah Cummings has died at the age of 68. His office issuing a press release that he passed away at 2:45 this morning at Johns Hopkins Hospital due to complications concerning some longstanding health challenges.

This is a longstanding, long-serving public servant. Congressman Cummings is currently the chairman of the Committee on Oversight and Reform.

CNN political analyst Rachael Bade joins us now. She is a congressional reporter for "The Washington Post." She joins us this morning.

Such sad news to start with today. I mean, he is a central figure in the impeachment proceedings. He is a longstanding member of Congress, a lifelong public servant.

Your thoughts this morning, Rachael?

RACHAEL BADE, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST, CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Also, I would say a friend to a lot of House Democrats. I mean, this is a huge loss for Nancy Pelosi and for her Democratic colleagues.

I've been covering the House now for something like eight years and I've covered Cummings for a while. And I can tell you he was a really kind congressman, always taking questions from reporters.

But more than that -- I mean, for Democrats, he was really a fighter for them. He was always trying to sort of brute out abuse of taxpayer dollars in the Executive Branch, counter Republican attacks on the Obama administration.

And, you know, I can tell you, he could really move a crowd. One thing that really sticks up -- sticks into my mind was during the IRS controversies when the Republicans were accusing the IRS in 2013 of targeting Tea Party groups. And I remember IRS employees -- the morale was just totally low because they were getting pummeled from the left and the right.

And I remember listening to him talk to local IRS report -- IRS workers in his district and say to them, I see you -- I know that you're doing your best and do not let this get you down. And it moved some in the audience to tears.

So he was -- he is really someone that Democrats are going to miss and also his constituents who he was very close with.

BRIGGS: Yes, he's been serving them for as long as we can remember. Fourteen years in Maryland's House of Delegates, 23 years representing Maryland's Seventh District which encompasses Baltimore, which was where he was born and raised. Really, a legend there.

This particular role -- and we should mention his fight for lowering the prices of prescription drugs really embodied his time in Congress. But right now, it's that role that Christine mentioned as chairman of House Oversight. How central is that to who he was?

And here's something he said recently. "I'm begging the American people to pay attention to what's going on because if you want to have a democracy intact for your children and your children's children, you've got to guard this moment. This is our watch."

How much did he want, did he need this fight right now over oversight of this administration?

BADE: Yes. I mean, Cummings has talked a lot this year about us being at this crossroads in American history where people need to pay attention to what's going on in the Trump administration. And that's what his whole job was at the Oversight Committee was to sort of shine a spotlight on what's going on in the White House.

And, you know, he actually had some success early on when Trump was stonewalling all these congressional investigations for 10 months and a lot of investigators were really struggling to sort of break news.

Cummings and his longtime staffers who he has been working with on the Oversight Committee -- they were able to turn up a bunch of things, including problems with the security clearance issue where Trump basically went around officials in the White House who said that Jared Kushner shouldn't have a security clearance, for example, and actually made him get one. There was a whistleblower that came to Cummings and said there's a problem here.

So he had a lot of success in terms of shining a spotlight on some things that people said need fixing. So this is going to be, of course, a huge loss for Democrats.

But again, beyond oversight, you mentioned prescription drugs.

ROMANS: Right.

BADE: I once heard -- I once heard a staffer say that Cummings was just as interested in, say, making sure that the kids that were separated at the border during family separation policy were finding their parents as he was about holding Trump accountable.


So he didn't lose track of the policy problems and policy challenges even while he was investigating the president.

ROMANS: And, you know, the president famously called his district a rodent-infested district and he handled that, I would say, with a lot of grace.

BADE: Yes.

ROMANS: He also handled with a lot of grace -- he defended his friends. I remember him defending Mark Meadows, Republican congressman who someone accused him of racist language or racist behavior and Mark Meadows defended him. I mean -- I'm sorry, Elijah Cummings defended Mark Meadows.


BADE: That's right. And I would -- I mean, you're going to see Republicans speak out favorably about Mr. Cummings as well --


BADE: -- today.

And that was a huge -- when Trump attacked him it was very clearly because he was getting under the president's skin in terms of shining a light on alleged abuses in the White House or problems in the White House. But, Cummings' response to that was come to Baltimore and meet my constituency.


BADE: He invited him. So very much not the sort of punch back that Trump perhaps was expecting.

BRIGGS: Of course, this moment -- this impeachment battle will go on in his absence. How significant might today be?

BADE: Yes. I mean, look, he's the head of a committee that is one of three investigative committees that is currently probing the Ukraine controversy that has been sort of the center of the impeachment investigation.

Now, the House Intelligence Committee has been taking the lead, from my understanding, on this probe. But, you know, Cummings' staff who, of course, will continue to work and I'm sure be part of this investigation -- they're a central part of this. They're longtime investigators, too.

And, obviously, this is a tragedy that occurs in the middle of a time when Democrats were really hoping to move quickly on impeachment and have something done by the holiday season. I don't know if this will slow their work. I think that Elijah Cummings, knowing him as sort of this longtime oversight (INAUDIBLE) wouldn't want --

ROMANS: Right.

BADE: -- it to slow the oversight work. And I think that in that vein you're going to see Democrats continue to plow ahead even as they sort of memorialize him and take note of this moment and who he was.

ROMANS: We're going to hear -- or the committees will hear behind closed doors today from Gordon Sondland who is the ambassador to the E.U.

And if we could just show one of these text messages with Bill Taylor, who was the ambassador to Ukraine who said, "As I said on the phone, I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign."

Sondland replies four hours later, "I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The president has been crystal clear no quid pro quo of any kind."

What are we going to learn more about this interaction and the president's role in that there was no quid pro quo language and what was really happening there behind closed doors.

BADE: Yes, so Sondland is really a central figure. And we have reported and other outlets have reported that he's going to testify today that he doesn't know if there was a quid pro quo or not. He just sort of texted back what the president told him to at that time.

So -- but, Democrats, I can tell you, are really going to press him on that because he was really a key figure -- one of three key figures who was put in charge of the Ukraine -- foreign policy with Ukraine and was very central to this whole pressure to try to get them to investigate -- give a public statement that they were going to investigate this company that Hunter Biden was a member of the board.

And so, he, at another point, texted back that Trump wanted a, quote, "deliverable" -- specifically, a public statement to investigate this company before he would meet with the president of Ukraine.

So he maybe wouldn't use the language quid pro quo. We'll have to see if he does. But clearly, he knows what was being promised or what was being demanded in exchange for something regarding foreign policy in Ukraine, so he's very central.

As for Trump, I think the thing to watch this morning is whether or not the White House claims executive privilege over his conversations with the president. The thing about Sondland is that even though he wasn't super high up at the State Department he was actually directly in touch with the president, which is very rare in these sort of situations.

And so, we'll have to see if he's able to testify about what exactly Trump instructed him to do, especially regarding that text about, quote, "no quid pro quo."

BRIGGS: Yes, that's of particular interest.

Then there is this whole meeting yesterday regarding the situation between Turkey and northern Syria. There's the House rebuking the president on his withdrawal there, including Republicans.

This extraordinary meeting, though. Just a few things we learned from the meeting that Trump called Nancy Pelosi a, quote, "third-rate politician." Said all roads lead to Putin. That was from Pelosi to Trump. [05:50:00]

What does this foretell between the White House and Congress and the situation in northern Syria -- a dire one at this moment?

BADE: Yes.

Once upon a time, the president admired Nancy Pelosi and told advisers that he did. It's -- clearly, the relationship has very much broken down, especially over impeachment. The president has said privately that he doesn't want to be impeached and he's clearly upset about this. But, no, impeachment didn't come up at this meeting.

But clearly -- or at least this is what Pelosi is arguing -- Trump is feeling the pressure because some of his own members -- Republicans in the House -- voted for a Democratic resolution rebuking the president on withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria. So perhaps that soured his mood at the moment.

I find it so funny that he came back at Pelosi with the same insults that she had made toward him.


BADE: You know, Trump -- sometimes he echoes insults. Remember the time when he said -- when Hillary Clinton said you're a puppet of Russia and he responded no, you're a puppet. He did the same thing here with Pelosi where she used the word --

ROMANS: She said she was praying for his health.

BADE: Exactly. She says --

ROMANS: She said I'm praying for his health.

BADE: She says that all the time -- I'm praying for the president, I'm praying for the president.

She accused him of having a meltdown in the Oval Office -- or in the White House, and he came right back down with the same language, saying she had a meltdown and suggesting that she's looney in some way and needs prayers, so --

BRIGGS: Extraordinary 24 hours --

BADE: Yes.

BRIGGS: -- and it will not stop.

Rachael Bade, good to see you -- thanks.

BADE: Thank you.

ROMANS: President Trump, also in that meeting, bragging about this letter he wrote -- this nasty letter he wrote -- an extraordinary letter to Turkey's president, Recep Erdogan. We've seen that letter now. The White House confirms this letter.

It was written on October ninth. That's the same day Turkey began its military offensive against the Kurds in northern Syria.

In this letter the president warns Erdogan, "You don't want to be responsible for slaughtering thousands of people, and I don't want to be responsible for destroying the Turkish economy -- and I will."

He adds, "History will look upon you favorably if you get this done the right and humane way. It will look upon you forever as the devil if good things don't happen. Don't be a tough guy. Don't be a fool!"

BRIGGS: Remember, it was President Trump who said he wouldn't stand in Erdogan's way. He's now looking to distance himself in the wake of his decision to withdraw U.S. troops and abandon the Kurds in northern Syria.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They have a problem with Turkey, they have a problem at a border. It's not our border.

We're not a police force. He has two countries fight over land. That has nothing to do with us.

Kurds are much safer right now but the Kurds know how to fight. And as I said, they're not angels -- they're not angels.


BRIGGS: Pompeo and Vice President Pence are leading a delegation to Turkey, trying to get Erdogan to halt the offensive. Erdogan has indicated that won't happen.

We'll be right back.



BRIGGS: The family of a U.K. teenager killed by the wife of a U.S. diplomat driving the wrong way on English roads say they feel defiled after the president spoke out about their meeting.

The president met face-to-face with Charlotte Charles and Tim Dunn, Tuesday. They're in the U.S. to make the case that Anne Sacoolas should be returned to Britain to face justice.

The parents described their encounter with the president as an ambush.


CHARLOTTE CHARLES, MOTHER OF TIM DUNN: The bombshell was dropped not soon after we walked in the room that Anne Sacoolas was in the building and was wanting to meet with us. We made it very clear that as we've said all along, we will meet with her but it has to be on our terms and on U.K. soil.


ROMANS: There was a bank of television cameras waiting to capture the moment, reality show-style.

After Dunn's parents rejected that meeting with Sacoolas, the president addressed the situation yesterday.


TRUMP: My meeting with the family was really -- it was beautiful, in a certain way. It was very sad, to be honest. She lost -- and they lost their son.

I believe it was going down the wrong way because that happens in Europe. You go to Europe and the roads are opposite and it's very tough if you're from the United States. You do make that decision to make a right turn where you're supposed to make a left turn. The roads are opposite.


ROMANS: In Europe, the roads are the same as in the U.S. In the U.K., they are not. They are the opposite side.

A spokesperson for the Dunn family says they're extremely angry that they were taken advantage of.

U.K. police say Sacoolas claimed diplomatic immunity following the crash and left the country. Through her attorney, she apologized for, quote, "a tragic mistake."

Harry Dunn's parents will be on "NEW DAY" later this morning.

All right, thanks for joining us this morning. I'm Christine Romans.

BRIGGS: I'm Dave Briggs. More on the breaking news on the loss of Elijah Cummings as "NEW DAY" starts right now.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is NEW DAY. It's Thursday, October 17th. It's 6:00 here in New York.

And we do begin with breaking news -- sad breaking news.

Congressman Elijah Cummings has died. According to his office, Cummings passed way at 2:45 Eastern time this morning. The cause of death, complications from longstanding health challenges. Cummings had a heart condition.

According to "The Washington Post," he recently underwent a medical procedure that was supposed to keep him out of work for one week or so. The congressman missed two roll call votes last week and never returned to the job.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: He was only 68 years old, John.

Cummings served as the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee and was playing a key role in President Trump's impeachment inquiry.

Cummings was born and raised in Baltimore. That's the community he represented in Congress since 1996.