Return to Transcripts main page


GOP Lawmakers Storm Secure Room, Disrupt Diplomat's Testimony; Top Diplomat Directly Ties Trump To Ukraine Quid Pro Quo; U.S. Envoy Rebuts White House Claims Trump Did Nothing Wrong. Aired 1-1:30p ET

Aired October 23, 2019 - 13:00   ET



JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: See you back here this time tomorrow. Brianna Keilar starts Right Now. Have a great day.

BRIANNA KEILAR, CNN HOST: I'm Brianna Keilar live from CNN's Washington headquarters.

And underway right now, could they be the words that directly threaten a presidency? Bombshell testimony from a diplomat directly tying the president to Ukraine quid pro quo and rocking his entire impeachment defense. And it's a familiar pattern speak up against the president become a target. But will the president succeed in smearing the credibility of this respected diplomat who was handpicked by Secretary Pompeo?

Plus, as the Senate Majority leader suggests the president lied about their conversations, the second ranking Republican in the Senate says the latest testimony from the diplomat does not paint a good picture.

And as the president tries to spin a victory out of the U.S. retreat from Northern Syria, Vladimir Putin takes an actual victory lap by filling the void as America abdicates influence in the Middle East.

We start with a bizarre turn on Capitol Hill when as many as two dozen house Republicans upset over the impeachment inquiry stormed a secure hearing room. Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, was getting ready to answer questions at the time, but she had to removed as Republicans physically got in the faces of Democrats to protest these proceedings.

Our Manu Raju is on Capitol Hill. I mean, this is pretty extraordinary, Manu. Tell us about this.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, it is. Earlier today, the Republicans, who are not part of these proceedings, railed on the process. Roughly two dozen or so conservatives came out demanding to be part of this impeachment inquiry. Then they stormed into the secure hearing space where this hearing space where this hearing was supposed to take place. And these members came in. Some of them were just not allowed in the secure hearing space, but they came in, demand to part of it.

One congressman, Bradley Byrne, I'm told, got in the face of Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, and yelled at him about the process. Also Louie Gohmert, a congressman from Texas, also was shouting about the process in this closed-door hearing.

Now, Laura cooper, who was the witness, actually left while this was taking place. But one Democrat did shout back. That is Val Demings. And we're told from a source that she said that these Republicans questioning what they're doing and saying, is it okay to lie, steal and cheat so as long as you don't get caught?

Now, these Republicans still have not left the room. Some are still there. The Capitol police have been consulted, as has the sergeant of arms as this hearing has not gotten yet underway.

I did get a chance to catch up with one Republican who was part of this effort, Mo Brooks, and I tried to engage him about the substance, about things that have been revealed by the president's top diplomat in Ukraine raising concerns about how the president apparently wanted investigations to be announced that could help him politically in exchange for releasing military aid, and Brooks pushed back.


RAJU: Mr. Brooks, the opening statement says very clearly -- this is not -- this is what the --

REP. MO BROOKS (R-AL): The opening statement doesn't make any difference.

RAJU: Let me finish what I'm saying. Let me finish my question. He says very clearly --

BROOKS: You should not be relying on it.

RAJU: Why should it not be relying on his public testimony?

BROOKS: If you were in a court of law, would you rely just on the opening statement of an attorney, or when the first witness was called or would you have cross-examination, which allow to go to witnesses to determine, to explore whether the first witness' testimony was accurate (ph).

RAJU: I'm asking about the substance of what he said. He said that --

BROOKS: That doesn't make any difference. We don't know whether what he said is true or not because of the sham process that's being used.


RAJU: And this has been the argument that Republicans have been making for some time, that it's about the process about more than anything else. And that's one thing that they discussed in the White House yesterday. I am told that these members, a lot of them, who are here today were meeting with the president who was criticizing everything that was happening here. So you're seeing a sharper, more aggressive Republican response to everything and what they're doing today, disrupting proceedings from this witness who could provide more clarity about what happened to that stalled military aid. Brianna?

KEILAR: Manu, thank you for that report. And these antics are coming just one day after a respected diplomat who has served multiple administrations, Republican and Democratic, dismantled the president's claim that there was no quid pro quo with Ukraine.

Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, told Congress the president was holding up military aid to the country as well as a promised visit to the White House by the Ukrainian president in exchange for investigations into Joe Biden and his son and also the debunked claim of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. It's the very thing that many Republicans have said would be their red line.


In Taylor's opening statement, he said, quote, Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate the Burisma, the company whose board Hunter Biden was on, and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election. That is a conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election.

And then this, quote, Ambassador Sondland said everything was dependent, everything, on such an announcement, including security assistance, that's the military aid. He said that President Trump wanted President Zelensky in a public box by making a public statement about ordering such an investigation.

And then Taylor goes on, according to Mr. Morrison, President Trump told Ambassador Sondland that he was not asking for a quid pro quo. But president Trump did insist that President Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and the 2016 election interference and that President Zelensky should want to do this himself.

Taylor also describes just how far some U.S. diplomats, like Ambassador Sondland, a former Trump donor, were willing to go to appease the president. Taylor describes how Sondland gave Ukrainian President Zelensky specific lines to say, quote, Ambassador Sondland told me that he had recommended to President Zelensky that he use the phrase, I will leave no stone unturned, with regard to investigations when resident Zelensky spoke with President Trump.

And we could hear from President Trump any moment now as we expect he will soon be leaving the White House for an event in Pittsburgh. He is leaving behind the beltway buzzing over Bill Taylor's testimony and with his staff strategizing about what to do next.

Our Kaitlan Collins is at the White House. And, Kaitlan, what did they have in mind over there? KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, right now, today, we've seen the president try to discredit the testimony of Bill Taylor, of course, his own top diplomat in Ukraine, quoting the Republican congressman on Twitter earlier today, John Ratcliffe, saying, quote, neither he, Taylor, nor any witness has provided testimony that the Ukrainians were aware that military aid was being withheld. You can't have a quid pro quo with no quo. That's what the president is saying as he's declaring this impeachment inquiry dead, saying that the Democrats don't have a case.

But, of course, he's quoting John Ratcliffe there. But as you just laid out, that is not what Bill Taylor said yesterday. In fact, he testified in his opening statement during those several hours that he was on Capitol Hill that actually the Ukrainians were aware because he said that Gordon Sondland, that Ambassador to the E.U., told a top aide to the Ukrainian president that the military aid was conditioned on him committing to opening that investigation into the energy company that Hunter Biden sat on the board of.

So you're seeing the president essentially trying to quote this. That's something else that we've heard from Republicans on Capitol Hill today, as you were just seeing Manu and what those discussions have been, is they're not focusing on what it is Bill Taylor has said.

But then there are other Republicans who are raising questions now after hearing what it is that Bill Taylor said during that lengthy closed-door session. But, of course, we've read his opening statement. You can see exactly what it is he testified at the beginning for about 40 minutes, we believe, that's how long it took.

And that's why it's raising concerns, Brianna, for Republicans, like John Thune, who is saying that, actually, the picture that's emerging in light of Bill Taylor's testimony is not a good one for the White House. And that is something that Republicans are paying closing attention to and that's something the White House is also paying close attention to, even though, right now, publicly, they're dismissing this as a smear campaign with the press secretary putting out that statement last night saying that it was radical, unelected bureaucrats that are trying to get the president right there.

We should note that Bill Taylor is a West Point graduate, a Vietnam veteran and he was personally picked by the secretary of state to come take this job.

KEILAR: Very important to point out. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thank you.

Massachusetts Congressman Stephen Lynch is joining us now from Capitol Hill. Sir, thanks for being with us.

REP. STEPHEN LYNCH (D-MA): Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: You're a Democrat. You're on the House Oversight Committee. You were there in this room for Bill Taylor's testimony. Tell us what that was like and why his testimony is so significant to you. LYNCH: I would describe it as stunning. So the clarity of his testimony, the specificity, the level of detail, the fact that he's a prolific note taker, and most of the important information he provided was corroborated by documents, so really, really impressive.

He's also a 50-year employee. He was originally appointed by President Bush. He was the ambassador to Ukraine in 2006 to 2009. And as you've previously pointed out, he was actually asked by Secretary Pompeo to come in and take this job as (INAUDIBLE) for the specific purpose of filling this responsibility.


KEILAR: Yes. I mean, to be clear, he was appointed by the Trump administration. He had not been confirmed by Congress, but he was essentially acting as the ambassador because he wasn't confirmed. He was (INAUDIBLE).

LYNCH: Right.

KEILAR: You have said this could accelerate impeachment. Tell us why that is.

LYNCH: Well, just looking at the people in the room yesterday, the members of Congress, Republican and Democrat, and the sense of urgency that those revelations brought, you know, you could feel the energy in the room, the determination, the shock, in some cases, of the president's actions and the deep sense of indignation and that this was wrong, this was deeply wrong. This is not anything on the edges. This is central to our obligation to protect and to preserve the Constitution, to defend that Constitution.

I think that evoked a lot of energy from members of Congress. It called upon them to do the right thing. And I think that was very, very powerful.

And while some of the other testimony was, I would say on the periphery, this was really central. I hope that at some point we are allowed to bring Ambassador Taylor before the public in a hearing and let him tell and corroborate his story. I think that would be important.

KEILAR: Are there plans? Is your leadership on your committee planning to do that?

LYNCH: Well, I know that at some point when we are done with this inquiry, the whole purpose is to move forward. So we'll make that decision when we collect all the evidence. There are still -- Chairman Schiff has indicated there are several witnesses that still remain to be interviewed. We had two scheduled for today. There's been some disruption there, but we will get to those as well.

KEILAR: That's right. Republicans have -- they're protesting, actually, the hearing in the secure room there. You said, so if you were going to bring, for instance, Bill Taylor before the public to share his story, when do you -- I mean, you've said, generally in the process of when you think that would happen, what's the timeline for that? Do you think that would be November, December?

LYNCH: That would be too speculative, I think. As you know, some of these documents are both in the custody of the State Department. They have refused to present it. But we do know the details and the existence of these documents because of the testimony yesterday. So there will be sort of a tug-of-war to get those documents.

But I think you could fairly say that their refusal to deliver these documents to Congress constitutes obstruction of justice. It just makes the case for the president that much worse that we know the documents exist, we even know what they say, but we would like custody of those documents as direct evidence to corroborate Ambassador Taylor's testimony.

KEILAR: So you alluded to a delay in the hearings today. Republicans, I think, as many, maybe more two dozen of them, went into the hearing room and were protesting before Democrats. We know one of them certainly had words for the chairman, Adam Schiff. There's a lot of acrimony, obviously, between Democrats and Republicans even on this committee. What was that like? What's your reaction?

LYNCH: Well, it was clearly a violation of the House rules. Because we have 435 members of Congress, everybody can't be in on every meeting, right, especially a deposition in a room that holds maybe 25 to 40 seats at any one time. So it obviously was a measure that was exercised by my Republican colleagues to disrupt the hearing.

And it was in violation of the House rules. The House rules give jurisdiction to certain committees, mine included, to conduct oversight. So members that don't have that responsibility came in and wanted to exercise a right that doesn't exist by coming into the deposition.

So we have -- it's standing only in this hearing room. So all the seats are filled, right? And, you know, there are over 100 members I think that are eligible to be in that room, so not only are all the seats filled, but standing up against the wall all the way around each and every day of these depositions. So to bring in a whole other group that is not entitled to be there is clearly disruptive. It's in violation of the House rules.

We've had this issue before, not on this scale. But I am confident that Speaker Pelosi and Chairman Schiff will figure this out, because we have to get this information, we have to get this testimony.


It's clear that the Republicans don't want to hear the truth. They don't want this testimony to go on. After yesterday, they don't want any part of testimony they can't dispute the substance of the testimony. So they're attacking process here. They're trying to tip over the table, you know, to try to stop this. But it is not serving them well.

And at the end of the day, we will get the testimony. There's no question about that. If we have to do this on the weekends or if we have to do it in another location, we will get the testimony.

KEILAR: Congressman Stephen Lynch, thank you so much for talking to us.

LYNCH: Thank you, Brianna.

KEILAR: The president apparently furious with how Republicans are defending him or not defending him, as he sees it, and new talk of an impeachment war room.

Plus, as the president claims victory after abandoning the Kurds in Syria, Vladimir Putin is now warning the Kurds leave or be, quote, steam rolled.



KEILAR: The White House is now attacking these career diplomats who are testifying before Congress. Vice President Mike Pence implied that they are all part of the swamp that President Trump vowed to clean up.

And after Bill Taylor's bombshell testimony Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said, it's a, quote, coordinated smear attack from far-left lawmakers and radical, unelected bureaucrats. That's what she's calling these folks, radical, unelected bureaucrats.

Well, Bill Taylor is hardly a radical bureaucrat. He went to West Point, the Army Service Academy. He was an infantry platoon leader in Vietnam, he served in Germany and then in the diplomatic stage. He was posted at NATO during the Reagan administration and the first Bush administration.

He coordinated U.S. assistance to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Clinton administration. And then under President George W. Bush, he coordinated U.S. assistance to Afghanistan. He oversaw reconstruction in Iraq. He was Bush's pick to be U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

At the beginning of the Obama presidency, he moved over to the U.S. Institute of Peace, which is a non-partisan institute founded by Congress. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asked him to return to the diplomatic corps to be that top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.

Let's talk about this with Michael Zeldin. He's a former federal prosecutor. Carrie Cordero is former Counsel to the U.S. Assistant Attorney General.

President Trump is really trying to spin this as he's a deep stater, right? That's what he's trying to say. Clearly, he's not. s that part of why Bill Taylor's testimony is so damning here?

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think Bill Taylor's testimony is damning because of what it said. It confirms everything that the whistleblower had reported. It confirms what we've been learning about all of the other testimony that Congress has been taking over the past week or so. And it provides extensive details and a chronology and his impressions -- he's informed and expert impressions of what was taking place over time.

And I think it clearly lays out basically that the president and his close people around him who were doing this shadow diplomacy with Sondland and Giuliani and Kurt Volker, that basically they were extorting the president of Ukraine. Stand up in front of microphones and say that you'll do this investigation that the president wants of his political opponents or we're going to hold out our security assistance.

KEILAR: What do you think?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think there are a couple of things that are interesting about it. First is I find it interesting that the quid pro quo, if there was one, was that it be a public statement. That's --

KEILAR: The idea that the Ukrainian president should make a public statement that there is an investigation into the company that Hunter Biden was on the board of.

ZELDIN: That's right. And so all of the years I spent as a prosecutor, I didn't really ask for public statements about my ongoing investigations or to be investigations. So this was an effort to do political damage for the public statement, part of it.

Second, this notion that there is or isn't a quid pro quo is not a constitutional requirement. The requirement is did the president of the United States abuse the powers of his office. And it appears here clearly, quid pro quo or not, that he was asking a foreign government to help him in his personal political ambitions in 2020. That's not acceptable. That's an abuse of the powers of his office. The question will become is that an impeachable offense or not.

KEILAR: It is, it appears at this point in time, a political requirement. This is what many Republicans have said they want to see more information on. This is where you can tell they get very unsettled, Carrie, with the idea that there was a quid pro quo, because this is the higher standard that the White House has set up for itself.

CORDERO: Well, I think the White House and the president's defenders are setting up a very high standard, which is unless they see some kind of evidence of a crime, something that would be a prosecutable case, then they are trying to argue that Congress shouldn't be concerned about it.


But that's not the impeachment standard. The impeachment standard is that whatever in Congress' judgment is either high crimes or misdemeanors, and bribery is in there. And it doesn't say bribery, according to the federal statutes. It says bribery just as the plain meaning of the word. And this is what they were asking for from the Ukrainian president, I think, could potentially fall into that category as well.

KEILAR: The former acting attorney general, Matthew Whitaker, had this defense of the president.


MATTHEW WHITAKER, FORMER ACTING ATTORNEY GENERAL: What evidence of a crime do you have? I mean, the Constitution, you know, sort of abuse of power is not a crime. Let's fundamentally boil it down. The Constitution is very clear that this has to be some pretty egregious behavior and they cannot tell the American people what this case is even about.


KEILAR: That's what he's making the point, right? He's saying there isn't a crime. So he's putting the standard at a crime. But President Trump's supporters, I mean, we are seeing the numbers shift when it comes to who is in favor of impeachment but largely Republicans are not. And this is the standard for a lot of voters that there has to be a crime.

My question to you, Michael, would be, sure that's not the impeachable standard. Why is that something that Democrats should focus on or, I mean, what is the case to be made about that when you have a lot of people who say, but it isn't a crime, it's just how things go?

ZELDIN: Well, it's not how things go, specifically, you don't generally have the president of the United States asking another president to investigate his chief political rival in the upcoming presidential election. But what the Republicans are trying to do is to say, look, in Nixon and in Clinton, there was a crime.

And that's what you need to -- in your effort to get rid of Trump, tou have to find that crime. Without that crime, you've got nothing. That's a false answer to the question of was it an abuse of power but that's how they're trying to set it up.

Whitaker, he knows better or he should know better but this is the straw man that they've set up.

KEILAR: A lot of people know better. And a final quick word to you, Carrie.

CORDERO: Well, I would just also add, I think part of what Republicans really need to wrestle with as well is the national security implications of this particular allegation. And that's what distinguishes it from when we go back to the historical examples of Nixon or Clinton. This pertains to national security.

What the president was doing was holding out security assistance to a country that has historically been someone that we have supported both militarily and with foreign assistance and advice and against a hostile country, Russia. And the president is realigning foreign policy and he is trying to do it in a way that he's getting political favors for it. So it's the combination of the two that should really concern members of Congress.

KEILAR: Carrie, thank you. Michael, thank you so much.

The president claiming victory for the Syria deal that benefits Russia, and his top envoy is contradicting his claim that ISIS prisoners have been recaptured.

Plus, more on our breaking news, Republican lawmakers currently are in a standoff with Democrats in a secure room. They've disrupted the testimony of an impeachment witness and this protest still has not cleared. It's delaying the hearing. Stand by for news on that.