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Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) Dead at 68; Boris Johnson: 'We've Got a Great New Deal' for Brexit; Ambassador at Center of Impeachment Probe to Testify. Aired 6-6:30a ET

Aired October 17, 2019 - 06:00   ET


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 17. It's 6 a.m. 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 away 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.

He became committee chair in January after the Democrats won back the House of Representatives in the 2018 elections.

He made headlines on NEW DAY in 2015 in the wake of the death Freddie Gray. Here was his emotional message.


REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D-MD): I had my turn. I want them to have their turn. Simple as that.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: What can you do for them? What do you do for them, Congressman?

CUMMINGS: What I can do -- What I can do is fight for them. And I've got to make sure that people will hear them. See, they feel as if nobody hears them. And I think we're beginning to see that. But I'm telling you, Baltimore can happen anywhere. And you've got people right now looking at us right now, saying, it'll never happen in my community. But yes, it will. But you've got to have people to listen, and you've got to begin to act on it.


BERMAN: I was there with Chris talking to Elijah Cummings that day. He had been on the streets at night, putting his body on the line to save lives. There were demonstrations and protests. He went out overnight to keep people safe.

He was beloved in Baltimore. And also beloved on both sides of the aisle in Congress. Don't forget, Mark Meadows from the Freedom Caucus, one of his best friends there.

CAMEROTA: I know. I mean, I think that that's part of why he was such an important voice, is that he wasn't afraid to allow his emotions to come to the surface and to show, whether he was crying like we just saw there in a very sad moment; or whether he was expressing his friendship and revealing a deep sort of affection for someone that people didn't know that he had.

BERMAN: I gave him my handkerchief to wipe away the tears after he talked to Chris. And he asked me if he could hang onto it, because he was going to need it again that day.

CAMEROTA: Now I'm going to cry.

BERMAN: He was a great man and a great member of Congress and, as I said, beloved on both sides of the aisle. He was 68 years old. We're going to have a chance to talk more about Elijah Cummings throughout the morning.

There is other major news this morning. In just a few hours, one of the key figures at the center of the impeachment inquiry will testify before congressional committees. We're talking about Ambassador Gordon Sondland.

He was supposed to appear last week, but he was blocked by the State Department, according to "The Washington Post." He's expected to say there was a -- was -- was -- a quid pro quo with Ukraine. But not a corrupt one. We'll try to explain what that means. And there are other new details about what he will say.

Also today, assessing the fallout from the tense White House meeting on the U.S. withdrawal from Syria. Democrats say the president had, quote, "a meltdown," calling the House speaker a third-grade politician. Pelosi walked out of the meeting.

The White House released this photo of the confrontation, somehow thinking it helped their argument. But it's now being used as the background on Speaker Pelosi's Twitter page. She obviously loves it.

CAMEROTA: OK. But we begin this conversation with an extraordinary piece of presidential correspondence. President Trump wrote a letter to Turkey's President Erdogan, warning him not to invade Syria. The White House confirms it was written last week on the same day that Turkey did begin its military offensive against the Kurds in Northern Syria.

So here now, we're going to just -- listen, some of our colleagues read this in real time yesterday as they got it, but it's now been 12 hours and I think that it deserves more analysis. So you and I are going to read this letter in full. Do you want to start?

BERMAN: You go ahead.

CAMEROTA: All right. Here we go: "Dear Mr. President, let's work out a good deal!" exclamation point. "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. I've already given you a little sample with respect to Pastor Brunson."

BERMAN: The president goes on, "I have worked to solve some of your problems. Don't let the world down. You can make a great deal. General Mazloum is willing to negotiate with you, and he's willing to make concessions that they would never have made in the past. I am confidentially enclosing a copy of this letter to me, just received. History will look 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!" exclamation point. "I will call you later. Sincerely, Donald Trump."

CAMEROTA: So the letter was dated October 9. That was three days after the two leaders had spoken by phone, when it's been reported that President Trump basically gave the green light somehow.

BERMAN: It's been announced by the White House.

CAMEROTA: Because he cleared the troops out of the area that they would have been in the way of. And so it's hard to know, really, John, what -- what this letter means. If this is just a cover and the president's releasing it to show that he's being a tough guy, but whatever it is -- whatever the point is, it didn't work.

BERMAN: I know two things. No. 1, people are dying while this letter is being sent. The Kurds are dying.


And No. 2, he handed out this letter at the meeting inside the White House with the House speaker. We showed you that photo before. So I think it's part and parcel of the same mindset.

Let's get more on that. Jim Acosta, chief White House correspondent, is here with us this morning. So we have this letter with this

mind-set. Let's get more on that. Mind-set. Let's get more on that. Jim Acosta is here with us this morning. So we have this letter with this language that isn't exactly a Ph.D. level.


BERMAN: Nothing unusual. And then you also have that White House meeting.


BERMAN: Jim, give us the big picture here. What's going on?

ACOSTA: Well, I think the president is playing a game of red light/green light. Remember, we all played that as kids. And the president, in his phone call with Erdogan, essentially gave the Turkish leader the green light to go into Turkey; and it looks as though, in a bit of cover, the president fired off this letter to say red light. And the Turkish military did not get the -- the response. The message.

BERMAN: They said no light. They said no light. We see nothing.

ACOSTA: Yes, and Erdogan, once he got that green light, decided to do something he's been wanting to do for some time, which is to go after the Kurds in northeastern Syria.

I will tell you, talking to people inside the White House over the last couple of weeks, they are very sensitive to this notion that the president gave Erdogan a green light. It is something that has gotten under their skin.

And the vice president, just a couple of days ago, was standing in front of reporters outside the West Wing, insisting the president did not give Erdogan a green light, when clearly that's what happened.

CAMEROTA: That -- it's just hard to understand their reasoning. Because if -- if the president didn't give Erdogan a green light, why did Erdogan go in?


CAMEROTA: In other words, if we hadn't pulled back the U.S. troops --


CAMEROTA: -- that wouldn't have been possible. He hadn't gone in before that.

ACOSTA: That's right. And this happens before. You know, this has happened before with this administration. They -- they're trying to pull the wool over your eyes, I think, to some extent here. Remember what the White House said in its initial statement that started all of this.

BERMAN: I can read it.

ACOSTA: It said Turkey is going to begin --

BERMAN: "Today President Donald J. Trump spoke with President Erdogan. Turkey will soon be moving forward with its long-planned operation into northern Syria." Period.

ACOSTA: It doesn't say don't be a fool, don't be a tough guy. It says they're beginning their operation. And that, in not just diplo- speak but, you know, in layman's terms gave a green light to Erdogan.

CAMEROTA: I don't know. The word -- I mean, the word I keep hearing is impotent, and I know, obviously, it has a double meaning, and I'm trying not to think of the other one.

But impotent. This is the U.S. president who we can't -- America can't stop, I guess, Turkey from going in there. If this -- if this is the letter, it didn't work.

ACOSTA: Right.

CAMEROTA: Obviously, the atrocities that are being reported on the ground by our correspondents are still happening. The incursion is still happening. So the conversation didn't work. The letter didn't work. And when the president signs off with, I will call you later, what does that tell us?


CAMEROTA: How is that conversation going to be different than with what's on this letter?

ACOSTA: And I think the key is the original conversation. And that is why you hear lawmakers up on Capitol Hill saying we want to see the transcript of this phone call between President Trump and Erdogan. I wouldn't hold your breath on that one. We've been asking for that.

And I think it's also the reason why you have to watch these Senate Republicans right now, people like Lindsey Graham. Even the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell. They are deeply concerned, or they say they're deeply concerned about how the Kurds are being slaughtered at this point. And just listen to what the president was saying yesterday, talking about how they're not angels and how, essentially, they were mercenaries, because we were giving them money and weapons and so on.

Our other allies around the world are watching that.

BERMAN: Jim, very quickly, the reporting from inside that meeting, the White House released the photo. There were no pool cameras inside. This was a White House photographer. And for whatever reason, they felt it helped the White House argument to show this picture.

Let's put it up on the screen so you can see Nancy Pelosi there, standing up in a room full of men, taking on the president. What went wrong here? The Democrats are saying the president had a meltdown.

ACOSTA: They are and, if you read some of the readouts that came out of that meeting, it does sound as though he did have a bit of a meltdown. He referred to Nancy Pelosi as a third-grade politician. He claimed that he was personally responsible for taking out ISIS and that Mattis didn't do it, because he wasn't, quote, "tough enough."

Pelosi was dishing it right back. At one point, she said during this meeting, according to a Democratic aide who released a readout, "All roads lead to Putin with you, Mr. President." And I think that is what led to this, you know, clash between these two leaders. And the speaker and the top Democrats in the room got up and left.

But it just goes to show you, this government right now in Washington is completely dysfunctional. The wheels are off. They've spun down the street. You're not getting this car back on the road. And it just, underlined the fact that there should be no hope for Democrats and Republicans really working together on anything. As they were leaving the room the president said, "We'll see you at the polls." I think that speaks volumes.

CAMEROTA: All right. We have -- we will analyze this photo more. Because you also have to look at the body language of everyone else around them and how uncomfortable their -- and their heads bowed they look.


ACOSTA: Who thought this was a good idea, you know?

BERMAN: That's what I'm saying. He thought releasing this letter and releasing this photo helped his argument there. What does that say about his view of the world? We'll talk about that.

ACOSTA: Can I just -- and I'll just say request very quickly, it's all about his base and his story. That's it.

CAMEROTA: OK, Jim, thank you very much for being with us.

We have more breaking news. It's a very busy morning.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announcing just moments ago, he says there's a new deal for Britain to exit the European Union. CNN's Melissa Bell is live in Brussels with all of the breaking details for us. What do we know about the deal?

MELISSA BELL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Alisyn, this 11th hour breakthrough. And no one really expected it first thing this morning, because Boris Johnson seemed so penned in by his own Brexiteers in his party, the concerns of the Northern Irish Party.

Nobody imagined that any kind of compromise could be found between his administration and the European Union as they all scramble to find some kind of deal before the 31st of October.

Because bear in mind, Alisyn, that without it, the United Kingdom crashes out of the E.U. without a deal, and that was considered catastrophic from all sides.

In the end, a last-minute breakthrough has been confirmed by both the European Commission here in Brussels and Boris Johnson, who's just left Downing Street to come here to Brussels. A deal. The negotiators have struck a deal that would allow for a deal to be found.

Now, that doesn't mean it's going to happen, because later today the 27 leaders of the European Union are going to come here down this red carpet. It's going to be put to them. The expectation is they will approve it.

But it then needs to head to Westminster for a special sitting on Saturday, where British MPs will have to give their agreement to it.

Still, questions even at this late hour about whether the northern Irish parties will give it their backing once it's put to a vote. But clearly, a massive breakthrough here that has led immediately to a rise in the pound and hope that some sort of deal will now be found -- John and Alisyn.

BERMAN: A major step, but not the final step. Melissa Bell, please keep us posted on the developments there. As we said, we have news all over the place this morning, including brand-new details about what one of the officials at the center of the impeachment inquiry is expected to tell lawmakers in just a few hours. That's next.



CAMEROTA: In just a few hours, the U.S. ambassador to the E.U. will testify before impeachment investigators. Gordon Sondland was allegedly key to the administration's efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate President Trump's political rivals.

Suzanne Malveaux is joining us now with a preview. What do we expect, Suzanne?


Really, a sad day on Capitol Hill as we have lost Congressman Elijah Cummings. My condolences to him. But his Oversight Committee will continue their work today.

We are expecting U.S. Ambassador to the E.U., Gordon Sondland, to testify this morning.

Now, Sondland, he's a hotel tycoon just like President Trump. He donated $1 million to Trump's inaugural committee back in 2017. Well, he is now a key voice in this inquiry. And the big question, of course, is whether or not he is going to show up today after getting blocked last week.


SONDLAND (voice-over): Despite President Trump's constant swipes --

DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The whistle- blower's report was totally wrong.

SONDLAND: -- and the White House stonewalling Democrats' impeachment inquiry, more and more Trump administration officials and career diplomats are showing up, helping shape a better understanding of the president's Ukraine scandal.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The president's phone call to President Zelensky was really the tip of the iceberg.

SONDLAND: This morning, Gordon Sondland is scheduled to testify, joining a growing list, including Kurt Volker, Marie Yovanovitch, Fiona Hill, George Kent and Michael McKinley.

The Republican donor turned United States ambassador to the European Union, a key piece to House Democrats' probe. A source telling CNN Sondland's planning to tell Congress he didn't understand President Trump wanted the Ukrainians to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden until after the release of the transcript of the July 25th phone call.

Sondland was the person texting a week before that call with fellow U.S. diplomat Bill Taylor, those messages released by House Democrats, writing, "I believe you are incorrect about President Trump's intentions. The president has been crystal clear. No quid pro quos of any kind." Adding, "I suggest we stop the back and forth by text." Fiona Hill, Trump's former top Russia adviser, telling lawmakers Monday she viewed Sondland as a security risk, a source familiar with the testimony tells CNN. She reportedly testified Sondland often used his personal cell phone to conduct official diplomatic business and worried his lack of experience could be exploited by foreign governments.

REP. DENNY HECK (D-WA): Every single witness, every single one that has come forward has added to the richness and the texture of our understanding of the sordid affair.

MALVEAUX: After abruptly resigning from his position less than a week ago, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's former top aide, Michael McKinley, telling lawmakers the reason why he quit. Sources with knowledge of his testimony saying he blamed the details of the transcript from the July 25 phone call and Pompeo's lack of support for U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.

REP. MIKE QUIGLEY (D-IL): None of the testimony seems to contradict in any way, by anybody, what we have learned in the whistle-blower's complaint and the transcript that came out of the White House.



MALVEAUX: Now Republicans continuing to say that the Democrats are hiding their impeachment inquiry investigation behind closed doors, mainly going after Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff, but Schiff firing back now, saying he's following the rules and the proceedings, quote, "in a deliberate manner" -- John.

BERMAN: All right, Suzanne. Thank you very much.

Then there's this White House meeting, this closed-door meeting on Syria that left House Speaker Nancy Pelosi questioning the mental health of the president. So what happened behind closed doors? We have some of the new details, next.



BERMAN: All right. The breaking news this morning is this. Congressman Elijah Cummings from Baltimore has died at 68. He'd been in Congress since 1996, and he was the chair of the House Oversight Committee. Of course, that committee involved even today with the impeachment inquiry.

There's personal, though, and then there's politics. And sometimes the two are separate.

Want to bring in Jim Acosta, CNN chief White House correspondent, and Dana Bash, CNN chief political correspondent.

Elijah Cummings, Dana, the son of sharecroppers in Congress since 1996 with friends, real friends on both sides of the aisle.

DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Of course. Look, this is -- there's so many emotions. There's the personal, but then there's the political. There is the reality of where we are right now.

He was the chairman of the Oversight Committee, which by definition, is in charge of looking after the executive branch. It is -- when you look at the balance of power and separation of powers, this committee was put in place to do just that.

So he had been a critical player when it comes to these impeachment proceedings. Adam Schiff might have been the face of it in the last month, because of the issue of Ukraine. He has been leading the charge. But Elijah Cummings, certainly, was right there with him. And he is somebody who clashed with the president and brought out, you know, one of the examples of not the best in the president, when Elijah Cummings went toe-to-toe with Mr. Trump, said that he was, you know -- lashed out at him over -- over an issue. And the president went back at him and started attacking his city of Baltimore. That is in recent memory what we -- one of the many things that we remember him being in the headlines for.

But it's also, again, very personal. I mean, he's a sitting member of Congress, only 68 years old, is right there with his colleagues; have been every single day. And this is going to hit Democrats and Republicans hard.

CAMEROTA: Yes, and he did all of his work with such emotion and such -- so much --

BASH: Exactly.

CAMEROTA: -- heartfelt feelings and speeches. He often wore his emotions on his sleeve. He cried in public. His voice would crack. So obviously, we'll have much more on Congressman Cummings throughout our program. But let's turn to something that was so important to him, since he was

pivotal in the impeachment, and it continues apace every day, Jim, obviously.


CAMEROTA: Big, huge breaking news today is Gordon Sondland.

ACOSTA: That's right.

CAMEROTA: He's the U.S. ambassador to the E.U. Just to remind people of why he's so pivotal, there was this text message that got a lot of people's attention; it raised a lot of eyebrows. And this was the text message between Sondland and Kurt Volker, who's the special envoy on -- OK. Bill Taylor. Sorry. I think.

ACOSTA: Yes. Bill Taylor.

CAMEROTA: OK. Bill Taylor. So this was on September 1. It says, "Are we now saying that security assistance" -- meaning military aid to Ukraine -- "and the White House meeting are conditioned on investigations?" Meaning of President Trump's political rivals.

That's when Gordon Sondland says, "Call me."

And so, of course, the question is from investigators, what did you say in that phone call? What happened then next in that phone call? And what did you know about those investigations?

ACOSTA: Yes, I think that "call me" and the other text was an indication that there might be a problem and that they needed to have a conversation over the phone instead of via text. Something that could be kept in records for, you know, later days to come.

You know, the other thing that Gordon Sondland is going to be asked about is Fiona Hill's testimony. I mean, she gave some ten hours of just explosive testimony earlier this week. And some of that involved Ambassador Sondland.

At one point, she talked about how John Bolton, the former national security advisor, described Rudy Giuliani as a hand grenade that's going to blow everybody up.

But she also testified that Bolton described this arrangement, what was going on between Gordon Sondland and Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, as being a, quote, "drug deal."

So obviously, these are requests that are going to be asked of the ambassador. And it's going to be how much did he know at the time and whether or not there was this quid pro quo?

There has been reporting that, you know, he has said, well, there was a quid pro quo, but it wasn't an illegal one. Well, how does he make that distinction? And I'm sure lawmakers are going to have lots of questions about that, as well.


BASH: And he spoke to the president in the middle of all of this. That when he was trying to figure out how to navigate this question of whether or not the administration really was holding up aid, which he thought was -- and still thinks, as the sitting ambassador, is so important for Ukraine, whether or not that was happening because of run-of-the-mill corruption or whether it was really because the president of the United States wanted the Ukrainians to investigate his political opponent, Joe Biden.

During that period, our reporting --