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Ambassador Gordon Sondland at Center of Impeachment Probe Testifying; Ambassador Sondland: Trump Directed Diplomats to Work With Giuliani on Ukraine; Ambassador Sondland: Aid to Ukraine "Should Not Have Been Delayed For Any Reason"; Trump Increasingly Isolated on His Syria Withdrawal Decision; Congressman Elijah Cummings Died at 68. Aired 12-12:30p ET

Aired October 17, 2019 - 12:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN HOST, CNN NEWSROOM: Welcome to "Inside Politics." I'm John King. Thank you for sharing your day with us. Critical testimony today as House Democrats builds their abuse of power impeachment case. A Trump campaign donor turned Ambassador tells Congress the President personally directed him to work with Rudy Giuliani and that Giuliani tied Ukraine's hope for a White House meeting to its willingness to investigate the Bidens.

Plus, difficult diplomacy and bipartisan back lash. The Vice President lobby Turkey to halt its military operation in Syria. As the President bristles both at Republicans and Democrats who say he is making American weaker and handing a gift to Russia, Iran and ISIS.

And Congress looses the unique voice. Elijah Cummings was a son of Sharecroppers who relished being Chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee. A Baltimore icon died this morning at the age of 68 after 37 years in public service, the last 23 in the House.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations.

ELIJAH CUMMINGS, U.S. REPRESENTATIVE: I only have a minute. 60 seconds in it. Forced upon me, I did not choose it, but I know I must use it. Give account if I abuse it. Suffer if I lose it. Only a tiny little minute but eternity is in it. So I join you as we move forward to uplift not only the nation, but the world.


KING: We'll come back to that sad news a little later in the program, but we begin the hour with the dramatic and damning impeachment inquiry testimony from one of the President's people. Gordon Sondland, the American Ambassador to the European Union, telling house investigators this morning that President Trump directed him to run all Ukraine policy through his Personal Attorney Rudy Giuliani.

Sondland testified that he didn't like that but viewed the choice as binary do it or risk the U.S. relationship with Ukraine. Sondland said he was aware that things Ukraine wanted like a White House visit were dependent on Mayor Giuliani signing off, but in his prepared testimony Sondland said, I didn't understand until much later that Mr. Giuliani's agenda might have also included in the effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son ordered to involve Ukrainian's directly or indirectly in President's 2020 reelection campaign.

Sondland also says he never heard any objections from John Bolton or any of his national security counsel staffers about the Ukraine effort. And that his work had the "Blessing of the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo".

With me in studio to share the reporting and their insights on this important news CNN's Dana Bash, Michael Bender of "The Wall Street Journal" CNN's Kylie Atwood and Julie Hirschfeld Davis with "The New York Times". It is interesting and important testimony in many ways. Number one, it's not a deep stater. This is a political donor to the President that the President appointed to this job.

Number two, the other state officials who have testified the career people have painted Sondland as a more willing participant in this. But as they try to clear up that, he says he was reluctant. This is the President's man who said the President personally told me Rudy, not the State Department, not the government, your personal outside attorney is the point person, and that yes, Rudy linked deliverables to Ukraine giving them what they wanted to helping the President with his personal agenda.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: I mean, if what we know that this is what he's going to say because we've seen the opening testimony. But if they, in these Q and A sessions today, can get even beyond that which even if it's just that is damning. But if they can get to the question of whether or not Sondland had a real conversation with the President of the United States about this, about what this actually means and what the President wanted?

Yes, we know from the opening testimony that he is going to say, well, the President - which he called the President and the President explicitly said there is no quid pro quo. But that's something that you say when you know you're supposed to say that. Beyond that, it's not even the quid pro quo, it's was it his understanding based on conversations with the President that these things were not going to happen unless the Ukrainians promised to investigate Joe Biden.

KING: Right. And you may or if anyone watching at home, if you had any doubt the House was going to impeach the President, today makes it much more likely it will in the sense - again, you may disagree with that, even if you think some of the conduct is wrong, you may think that's over the top. This is one of the President's appointees saying the President personally directed me to run policy through his personal attorney not the government Rudy Giuliani.

That's what the Democrats are looking for to make their case - you can disagree with this at home but their case it's an abuse of power. To your point remember the text messages, the career diplomat Bill Taylor saying, wait a minute, what are we doing here? This is crazy.


KING: We're holding up military aid in exchange for an investigation into the Bidens or the 2016 debunked conspiracy theory about the election. Here's what Sondland says in his testimony. I called President Trump directly. What do you want from Ukraine? The President replied, nothing, there is no quid pro quo. The President repeated quid pro quo multiple times. This was a short call and I recall the President was in a very bad mood.

So in there if you're a Trump defender, the President says there is no quid pro quo a couple times. That is important. However, what the investigators need to do, there is a four and a half hour gap between Taylor's last texts, this is crazy and Sondland's response no quid pro quo. Sondland has acknowledged he called the President. Why was the President in a bad mood?

JULIE HIRSCHFELD DAVIS, CONGRESSIONAL EDITOR, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, right I mean this raises obviously additional questions that they're going to ask him about but what his testimony what his opening statements anyway indicates is that even though he was told by the President there is no quid pro quo, he clearly witnessed that there was some sort of quid pro quo.

He is saying essentially the President told him he had to go through Rudy Giuliani, and he discovered later that Giuliani may have been motivated by a political agenda that had to do with wanting these investigations to be open before anything could happen further with Ukraine and that he disagreed with that.

So in a very careful way, in a way that's very deliberately sort of parsed in the statement but which is going to be harder for him to parse as he's answering questions from the Democrats on the Committee, he's essentially saying, I knew this was wrong. I knew what the President was asking me to do was not appropriate, but I felt like I had to maintain this relationship, and I later found out that the reasons he was asking me to do these things were not defensible at all.

MICHAEL BENDER, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: And it's interesting that the President does feel the need to point out there is no quid pro quo here, right? The question of what you want from Ukraine can be seen as a pretty standard question from your Ambassador in the region dealing with some of these issues.

One piece of the context that's important to remember here is that the President had just had a phone call about ten days earlier with Ron Johnson who raised these same questions, who is also specifically alarmed about the idea of quid pro quo in Ukraine related to the Bidens. So Trump already knows that this is a concern.

KING: And Johnson raised those questions after a conversation with the same Gordon Sondland.

BENDER: That's exactly right. So that's on Johnson's mind, Trump is aware this is a conversation taking place, and to go back to your other point, this shows it can't be pinned on Democrats and solely Democrats and never Trumpers. This is Taylor, one of his top diplomats in the region, Sondland, one of his top diplomats in the region who are connecting the dots here on their own and bringing these concerns right to the President.

KING: And to as you jump in, Kai, I just want to again make the point of how unusual this was. The President had a pretty strong Secretary of State, right? The President had a pretty strong hawkish national security adviser. The President had plenty of people to run this policy through if he wanted - I he genuinely wanted Ukraine get your act together, prove that you're actually doing reforms. Prove that the rule of law means something in your country perfectly legitimate questions.

So why then this, President Trump was skeptical that Ukraine was serious about reforms, okay, nothing wrong with that and he directed those of us present the meetings to talk to Mr. Giuliani, his personal attorney, about his concerns it was apparent to all of us. The key to changing the President's mind on Ukraine was Mr. Giuliani, who is on television all the time in debunked theories that it was Ukraine, not Russia that interfered in the 2016 election, with absolutely no evidence saying that Hunter Biden and Joe Biden are crooks.

And so connect the dots why? That's an end around the structure of the United States government and the own people of the President brought in, the Vice President, the Secretary of State, the national security team, to run his government.

KYILE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, the President wanted them to talk to Giuliani because Giuliani believes certain things he had told the President and Trump wanted those who were working for him to be more lockstep with his personal attorney, that's clear.

But I think it's important to note that Ambassador Sondland, he had a direct relationship with the President. He picked up the phone whenever he wanted and called Trump. He took some pretty substantial steps to try to get into Trump's inner circle. He wasn't initially a Trump guy. He was kind of a Republican of the establishment type, and so he made some substantial efforts here.

And as we were discussing this with folks who are familiar with Sondland's work with the State Department and the NSE over the past few days, they said that he was really viewed as a problem here. So what's going to be really interesting is not just what he released in this opening statement, but those instances where he was a problem for the people at the NSE and for the people at the State Department in potentially enabling these alternative agendas that the President was doing alongside the Ukraine policy.

DAVIS: Right. I mean, I think it's really important here to point out that his account is at odds from what we heard from some of the witnesses here.

KING: He describes himself as quite reluctant. [12:10:00]

DAVIS: He describes himself as someone who didn't agree with this at all, but he thought it was his only option where as he has been described by Fiona Hill and others who the Committee has heard from as someone who inserted himself who was very willing participant in going around the formal channels that should existed on Ukraine and putting himself in the middle of all this.

What's bad news for the President here is that he was, at least at this point, an ally of President Trump's, and he appears to be making some efforts to rehabilitate his reputation to save himself, and doing that may entail coughing up some more damaging information on the President or the others--

BASH: And what is that damaging information? Because you said that what we see today just in the prepared statement is more evidence, maybe the most significant evidence to date, that the Democrats could use for impeachment.

But the question is, is going through a private attorney and not the State Department, is that impeachable if they can't prove that they really were asking to investigate Joe Biden. Or even investigate what happened in 2016, which is what we're hearing more and more from Republicans. It's not the next election, it's the last election.

And those answers we don't know yet, and that's why what they get beyond this testimony in this interview they're doing right now is so key.

KING: Right, and if you're Gordon Sondland, you're testifying not only in an impeachment inquiry, you understand that two of the Ukrainian partners of Rudy Giuliani are sitting in federal prison right now. The Trump Justice Department not the deep state, not the Democrats, the Trump Justice Department says they're crooks. One of them paid Rudy Giuliani $500,000. If you're Gordon Sondland there is a lot happening you're thinking about beyond just the President.

Up next, President Trump rebuked over Syria by his own party on the House floor as the Senate Majority Leader then says we need something even stronger.



KING: Vice President Mike Pence and the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tasked overseas today with a critical diplomatic mission. Meeting with the Turkish President Mr. Erdogan trying to broker a cease-fire along the Turkish/Syrian border where Turkish troops have been bombarding Kurdish positions.

Erdogan has said he will "Never call a cease-fire". We're waiting to hear from Vice President Pence and Secretary Pompeo they have press conference. We'll take you there live when that happens. Back home the President finding himself increasingly more than isolated over his decision to pull back the American troops and essentially pave the way for that Turkish invasion.

On Wednesday 129 Republicans, that is two-thirds of Republicans joining Democrats on the House floor in condemning his actions in Syria. Senator Mitch McConnell then today praising what the House did and calling for something even more harsh on the Senate floor.


SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, (R) MAJORITY LEADER: I was encouraged to see yesterday's display of bipartisan concern in the House of Representatives for sustaining America's global leadership and specifically over the damaging impact of hastily withdrawing that leadership from Syria. My preference would be for something even stronger than the resolution the House passed yesterday.


KING: Asma Khalid with NPR joins our conversation. Again just a step back that is the Republican Leader of the United State Senate saying a very tough resolution written by Democrats in the House isn't tough enough. Wow?

ASMA KHALID, POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT, NPR: Yes, I mean, foreign policy is one realm where we've actually seen Republicans willing to disagree with the President. I mean, by big question is this condemnation is sort of symbolic, largely. At this point I don't think anybody can renege and go back in time and essentially prevent troops from pulling out of that northern border with Syria. But look, I'm sort of impressed that this is one place where we've seen Republicans willing to criticize the President, and there have been very few situations where we've seen that at all.

KING: Right. And to add to that point and this is sort of a place where there is always a shotgun wedding sometimes between the President especially Senate Republicans. They don't like the way he tweets, they don't like a lot of what they're hearing about this impeachment inquiry even though they say impeachment is not the answer they don't like some of the facts underneath it. And this is their way to vent their frustration at the President. So I think it's their legitimate disagreement thinking this is a disastrous decision plus their built up frustration.

DAVIS: Right. I mean, foreign policy is an area where Senators in particular, but also members of Congress at large feel like they have some expertise and a leg to stand on to criticize something that clearly everyone can see and I think agree legitimately is a disaster foreign policy wise. Everyone can see what's happening in this region and how bad the situation is for the Kurds who have been our allies.

So I think there is genuine, you know, opposition and a real appetite to express that and make that public. But I also think that Republicans, particularly some of the Republicans who are more uncomfortable with the President's conduct who are the ones who are the most concerned about this Ukraine thing, although they don't want to come out and say we want to impeach him or they even want there to be an impeachment inquiry, they are looking for ways to show the public that when he does something that's beyond the pale, I am willing to criticize him.

BASH: This is releasing a pressure vote absolutely.

KING: To a degree the President is literally alone on this. I just want to go through his first Senator Lindsey Graham often a defender of the President. Not here.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, (R) SOUTH CAROLINA: He's not listening to his commanders, he's not listening to his advisers, he's not - he's making the biggest mistake of his presidency by assuming the Kurds are better off today than they were yesterday.



KING: A more moderate Republican in the House but still a Republican in the House, Adam Kissinger who wore the uniform. Wow, we bombed our own base on purpose because of the impulsive decision by Donald Trump didn't leave time to evacuate the right way. Is this the America you grew up believing in?

And then this from the Wall Street Editorial Board today, the Kurds 354, Trump 60. Now that's the House on the - that's the vote on the House floor. The Headline on that editorial, "The rebuke sense of message of eroding trust in the President's foreign policy judgment that could carry over to other issues." It ends by saying Mr. Erdogan has ignored Mr. Trump's please which is what happens when foreign leaders sends weakness in an American President.

Ran Paul, with him in the United States Senator among Republicans I think that's it pretty much anyway.

BASH: I think that is it. Look, with Lindsey Graham this issue stopped his complete metamorphosis from McCain Republican to Trump Republican and its tracks. Now he's like 95 percent there, but maybe he will go back a little bit given the fact that he is so aggravated and the two of them have words on this.

That Adam Kissinger tweet is astonishing. This is not just a Republican, but a veteran. He might even still be active duty. And he is tweeting that his fellow Republican, the President of the United States, hurt American forces by making an impulsive decision. If you just think about that that is unbelievable.

KING: It takes a lot to get a person that wears the uniform to go after the Commander in Chief.

BASH: Exactly. Never mind that he's in politics. That tweet to me said so much.

BENDER: I got to say, it - in the context of President Trump's normal reaction to these types of things, it doesn't seem to have affected him that much. I know we had the meeting with Pelosi and Schumer and Trump yesterday, which we can talk about, but he's been pretty measured responding to all of this for a couple weeks now.

I was in the Roosevelt room when some of the first criticisms came out and a reporter read him some of the sharpest ones, and Trump kind of shrugged his shoulders and said these are people with different opinions. I have my opinions, they have their opinions, and we need to move on in Syria.

Even the other day at his news conference, he described this as purely as a campaign promise, aside from any morality, any judgment here, any ideology, really. His quote was, good or bad this is what I promised I was going to do.

KING: We'll see if that holds. We'll see if that holds especially after - we'll get to this later in the program. Nancy Pelosi stands up with the Republicans in the room and essentially tries to put the President in his place. We'll see if that relative comment holds up. Up next though, an important moment we paused to reflect and remember the Congressman Elijah Cummings.


CUMMINGS: When we're dancing with the angels, the question will be asked, in 2019, what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact? Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?





CUMMINGS: So why do you take responsibility for layman's mistakes? What do you continue to say "We're great and market doesn't understand" So what do you say to the person who can't find a job, just go and die? Just get lost? No empathy?

I am a member of the accomplished United States of America. I am tired of this. You cannot just have a one-sided investigation. There is absolutely something wrong with that and it is absolutely un-American.

And I truly believe, I truly believe - are you listening?


CUMMINGS: Thank you. I truly believe you could become a force of tremendous good.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are in search of the truth.


KING: Today a giant loss to the Congress and to the nation. Elijah Cummings passed away overnight after a battle for months and months with longstanding health issues. He was 68 years old. Cummings devoted 37 years of his life to public service, including 23 in the Congress. The Baltimore native, rising to become Chairman of the powerful House Oversight and Government Reform Committee earlier this year also of course playing a very important role in the ongoing investigations, including the impeachment inquiry into President Trump.

Gentleman is one word. Just a gentle man, two words. Whenever you encountered him, whatever you politics at home and even the Republicans are saying this today. That's what makes this so remarkable, that Congress has lost a civil rights hero, a very important figure. But rare in this town do you have everybody just pause, even the Republicans, and say, just a gentle soul.

BASH: Right, because even the Republicans were some of his best friends. Mark Meadows, who is probably among the most conservative of lawmakers, the closest of lawmakers to President Trump, said to me earlier this morning, I'm heartbroken and I don't have any other words for this loss.

The two of them, by their own account, were best friends. And Elijah Cummings could not be more different politically from him, and it's actually - it's unfortunate that we have to have these moments to remember, even though things are so bad, and you don't have the relationships not even close to what they used to be a close-