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AT THIS HOUR
White House Official Testifying He Raised Concerns about Trump's Ukraine Call; White House Official's Testimony Contradicts Amb. Sondland's Account of July 10 Meeting with Ukraine, U.S. Officials; Democrats to Have Full House Vote in Next Phase of Impeachment Inquiry. Aired 11-11:30a ET
Aired October 29, 2019 - 11:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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"AT THIS HOUR" with Kate Bolduan starts right now.
KATE BOLDUAN, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, everybody. I'm Kate Bolduan. Thanks so much for joining me.
So he's a decorated war veteran. He received a Purple Heart after being wounded by an IED in Iraq. He's a current White House official. The National Security Council's top expert on Ukraine, actually. He's an active member of the U.S. Army, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.
And he's sitting down in uniform -- you see him walking down right there. He's sitting down in uniform right now with House investigators. And according to his opening statement, he is speaking out against the commander-in-chief.
This is the first witness to give an interview in the impeachment inquiry who was actually on that July 25th call that sparked the whistleblower's complaint.
What is Colonel Vindman's story? He's corroborating the accounts of some witnesses, contradicting the accounts of others.
In that opening statement, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman says he sounded the alarm not once, but twice, regarding the president's efforts to pressure Ukraine.
Writing this, and this is just. in part, "I was concerned by the call, I did not think it was proper to demand that a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen. And I was worried about the implications for the U.S. government's support of Ukraine."
So after all of that, just wait until you hear how the president and some Republicans are trying to disparage Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman already this morning.
Let's get over to Capitol Hill right now. CNN's Phil Mattingly is there.
So, Phil, he's behind closed doors right now. What are you already hearing from in there?
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: You know, I think going into this, obviously, we've seen the six-page opening statement. And I think what Democrats have kind of keyed on up to this point is how much it lines up with past individuals who have testified and given depositions on several key events.
You also underscored the significance. He is the first current White House official to come in and testify. Obviously, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council inside the White House.
He is also the first individual to come in behind closed door and testify who was actually listening to the call between the Ukrainian president and President Trump. A call which we've seen the transcript to.
You look at the bio as well and Democrats are certainly keen on this. A career military officer, someone who had a Purple Heart when he was serving in the war in Iraq. And somebody who has dedicated his career to a nonpartisan way of doing things or an apolitical way of doing things.
And that's why people have been so struck by some of the attacks he's received in advance of his testimony. Now, these attacks came primarily from Republican commentators, who were questioning, because he was originally born in the Soviet Union, came from Ukraine, emigrated to the United States at the age of 3, that perhaps he had dual loyalties or some sort of smear along those lines.
The president saying in a tweet this morning, that Never-Trumpers are the only people that are coming out and testifying against him.
I relayed that to a Republican member as I was walking into the capital this morning, just to get his sense, is this the broader message that Republicans are going to use to counter testimony that I think most people believe would be damaging to the president. And the members stopped, and I can say, was honestly, legitimately horrified to some degree that this might be the path that they were going down.
And I think that's actually been reflected more and more by Republicans throughout the course of this day. They will certainly disagree with what Mr. Vindman, Colonel Vindman is going to be saying today, but they don't agree with what some Republican commentators have done in terms of attacking him.
Take a listen to what Liz Cheney, the number three Republican and ardent defender of the president, had to say just a moment ago.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. LIZ CHENEY (R-WY): I also want to say a word about something else that's been going on over the course of the last several hours and last night, which I think is also shameful. And that is questioning the patriotism, questioning the dedication to country of people like Mr. Vindman, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman, who will be coming today, and others who have testified.
I think that we need to show that we are better than that as a nation. It is shameful to question their patriotism, their love of this nation. And we should not be involved in that process.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
MATTINGLY: Yes, and just quickly to back the member I was talking to this morning, he said, quote, "If we do this, we deserve to get our blanks kicked."
So I think members are moving away from the Republican commentators, but clearly, they still disagree with at least the opinion or the assessment that Colonel Vindman had related to that call -- Kate?
BOLDUAN: Fascinating, Phil.
All right, so lay out for folks what lieutenant -- lay out what Lieutenant Colonel Vindman is also, additionally, saying in this opening statement and obviously is conveying behind closed doors. He wasn't just concerned about the July 25th call, right? He was also concerned about Ambassador Gordon Sondland.
MATTINGLY: Yes, I think this is actually going to be the most important part of the testimony, at least based on the opening statement that we've seen up to this point.
Is related to Ambassador Gordon Sondland. You talk about how he went to White House lawyers, National Security Council lawyers after the July 25th phone call.
He also went to White House lawyers after a July 10th meeting, between White House officials and a top Ukrainian official, at which point, according to Vindman, Ambassador Sondland brought up the idea of, if the Ukrainians wanted a visit to the White House, their newly inaugurated president, they would need to deal with or make a public statement related to investigations.
He says, in part, "Ambassador Sondland emphasized the importance that Ukraine deliver the investigations into the 2016 election, the Bidens and Burisma. I stated to Ambassador Sondland that his statements were inappropriate, that the requests to investigate Biden and his son had nothing to do with national security, and that such investigations were not something the NSC was going to get involved in or push. Dr. Hill, Fiona Hill, then entered the room and asserted to Ambassador Sondland that his statements were inappropriate."
Let me tell you why this matters. Gordon Sondland has testified behind closed doors, and in that statement, said he had no recollection of anything related to National Security Council officials saying they had problems with the meeting.
Now Fiona Hill, Bill Taylor related to what he was told about the July 10th meeting, and Colonel Vindman all say the same thing, that Sondland says has a different recollection than they do. And this is something to keep an eye on as we move forward -- Kate?
BOLDUAN: Thank you, Phil. So good to see you, man.
So while we don't know what all Lieutenant Colonel Vindman is going to tell investigators behind closed doors, as they're speaking right now, he is already, as Phil is laying out, already saying quite a bit in just his opening statement.
How does his account fit in with all of the others about the calls, about the meetings, about the pressure surrounding President Trump and Ukraine?
CNN's senior national correspondent, Alex Marquardt, he's tracking all of this for us.
So, Alex, connect the dots for folks here, please.
ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Kate, there are lots of dots. There are more dots every day with every passing testimony. Now these dots are all starting to align.
And as you point out, we don't know what he's going to say in his testimony behind closed doors.
But already with that opening statement, Colonel Vindman is painting this much fuller picture, giving more weight to what has already been said by those witnesses to those three different committees, not just about the infamous July 25th phone call, when President Trump asked for a favor from President Zelensky.
But also confirming the deep unease that people who are charged with shaping and directing Ukraine policy felt about what was going on in the White House.
Now, Vindman is echoing what his boss on the NSC, Dr. Fiona Hill, said about that same July 10th meeting and Ambassador Gordon Sondland was in, that Phil was just talking about.
Dr. Hill accused Sondland of connecting investigations to a White House meeting with the Ukrainian president. And then she said that her boss, John Bolton, then the national security adviser, likened this whole affair to a drug deal, and told her and Vindman to go see the NSC lawyers. Now, Vindman is also backing up Ambassador Bill Taylor, who is the
most senior U.S. diplomat in Ukraine.
He told the committees in his testimony last week about a call that he was on following that July 10th meeting, and he wrote, "They gave me an account or rather" -- he said, "they gave me an account of the July 10th meeting with the Ukrainian officials at the White House"
"Specifically, they told me that Ambassador Sondland had connected investigations with an Oval Office meeting for President Zelensky, which so irritated Ambassador Bolton that he abruptly ended the meeting, telling Dr. Hill and Mr. Vindman they should have nothing to do with domestic politics. He also directed Dr. Hill to," quote, "brief the lawyers."
So, Colonel Vindman today in his opening statement, is saying the exact same thing.
All of these people, Vindman, Taylor, Hill, they are careerists. They are apolitical experts, and they are contradicting what Ambassador Gordon Sondland said.
In his testimony, he told the committees, "If Ambassador Bolton, Dr. Hill, or others harbored any misgivings about the impropriety of what we were doing, they never shared those misgivings with me, then or later."
Now, we should just remind our viewers, Sondland is a political appointee, unlike the people I just mentioned. He donated $1 million to the president's inauguration.
We know that he was told by the president in a phone call to insist to Ambassador Taylor in Kiev, there was no quid pro quo.
So now, in Colonel Vindman, Kate, we have yet another person saying that what he saw and heard was deeply inappropriate -- Kate?
BOLDUAN: Much more to come, is the only assumption that we can make right now.
Alex, thank you so much.
So joining me right now is former spokesman for both the State Department and the Pentagon, retired Rear Admiral John Kirby, and CNN political correspondent, Abby Phillip.
Thanks for being here, guys.
John, can you first just speak to the significance of an active duty Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, in uniform, going to Capitol Hill, to raise alarm about action of the commander-in-chief?
REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY & DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: Yes, it's quite remarkable. The only recent precedent that I can even think of would be Ollie North, when he had to testify for Iran/Contra, and he was really falling on his sword in that regard. Not this situation. I don't know the colonel, but I can imagine, Kate, that this is the
last place he wants to be this morning, doing the last thing ever, to have to -- you know, to talk about actions that concerned him.
But I think what's really important for the American people to understand about him today on Capitol Hill is, this is duty. He has to do this. When you're an active duty military member, particularly an officer of his caliber, doing the work that he was doing, you have an obligation to report wrongdoing when you see it or when you feel it's happening. And that's what he did.
So this isn't a Never-Trumper going up there, you know, to actively campaign against a president. He's going reluctantly and he's doing his duty. He has to do this.
BOLDUAN: And, Abby, a tactic that I have to admit I thought was going to take at least a few more minutes longer to set in from the White House and beyond, maybe towards this evening, but set in within minutes, is, I mean, essentially, it's character assassination, right?
I mean, the president labeling the Lieutenant Colonel a never-Trumper on Twitter this morning. This is his top Ukraine expert on his National Security Council. What does this say about the president's defense of himself right now?
ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: At this point, because you have so many of these officials within the president's own administration coming out and testifying to these things that he thinks are damaging to him, he is basically labeling all of them as being Never-Trumpers, part of the Deep State, part of some conspiracy, some grand conspiracy against them.
The problem is, that all falls apart when you see that so many of these people came into the Trump administration to serve under him. Knowing everything that they know about Donald Trump, knowing how many other Republicans refused to do those very things.
Bill Taylor was recruited by Mike Pompeo to come into the Trump administration. Lieutenant Colonel Vindman is someone who has served this country in the armed forces and was so involved in the Ukraine policy that he was sent as part of a delegation to Ukraine earlier this year for the inauguration of President Zelensky. So he is not just a random person.
But I will say, I'm not bothered by the fact that the president doesn't seem to know Lieutenant Colonel Vindman. Vindman himself says, I never had direct interactions with the president. He said that in his opening statement.
PHILLIP: And that's not unusual, because what he was, was a subject matter expert on the issue of Ukraine. His job was to help guide the president's policy on a granular level. And so that speaks to his credibility.
BOLDUAN: The president doesn't need to know him.
PHILLIP: The president doesn't need to know him. But everything the president knows about Ukraine or should know about Ukraine that came through official government channels would have come from Colonel Vindman.
BOLDUAN: Almost to the letter.
BOLDUAN: That's exactly how important Vindman has been to the policy in Ukraine, especially trying to control, trying to control the actions of Russia.
BOLDUAN: That is where his subject matter expertise is.
John, let me play for you -- we heard Liz Cheney speaking out against this. But let me play for you this plan of attack that has emerged from the president's supporters. It was first on FOX News and then we heard it from former Republican congressman, Sean Duffy, this morning, speaking with John Berman. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
LAURA INGRAHAM, FOX NEWS HOST: Here we have a U.S. national security official, who is advising Ukraine while working inside the White House, apparently, against the president's interests, and usually they spoke in English. Isn't that kind of an interesting angle on this story?
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I find that astounding. And, you know, some people might call that espionage.
SEAN DUFY, (R), FORMER CONGRESSMAN: He is a former Ukrainian. He wants to make sure that taxpayer money goes in military aid to the Ukraine.
I'm of Irish descent, I still love the Irish, and he has an affinity for his homeland.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BOLDUAN: From your military background and your national security background, John, what do you say to this?
KIRBY: I'm offended by it, I'm deeply offended by it. And I think all veterans would be offended by it.
He is an immigrant. I shudder to think the state of our military today without immigrants and the contributions that they have made.
He was a foreign area officer specialist, Kate. This is a highly selective group of officers in all the services who have special knowledge, cultural skills, and language skills to do the kind of jobs that we need for building partner capacity overseas. So he was probably very recruited to be in this very selective program.
And let's not forget, above all, Kate, he was awarded a Purple Heart for being the victim of an IED attack in Iraq. He has bled for this country. And I don't know of a single other person in this entire sad saga of this Ukraine phone call who can say the same thing.
He has bled for this country. He's proven his patriotism beyond -- far beyond me, than I ever did, and so beyond so many others.
And I think we ought to be able to give the man the benefit of the doubt for his experience and his love of country and what he has done for this country for the last 20 years, serving both Republican and Democratic administrations.
BOLDUAN: It is -- it's unsettling, it's sad, it's just -- I don't know, it just seems that we have yet to find the limit of where the line can be drawn when it comes to attack, attack, defend, protect the president on this, when it comes to certain people.
I mean, as you said, John, it is indisputable, this man's patriotism to the country, his dedication to the country. His family fled the Soviet Union. He and his brothers -- he and his twin brothers were 3 years old at the time. He, his twin brother, and his older brother, all have served in the U.S. military.
His twin brother, according to the "New York Times," serves in the White House with him, sits across the hall from him in the West Wing in his capacity. I don't know how much more you need to know. It's -- it's something. And I'm glad you're here to talk about it.
KIRBY: Thank you, thank you.
BOLDUAN: Thanks, man.
Abby, thank you so much.
Coming up for us, for weeks, Democrats said they didn't need a full House vote on impeachment. But now, that's exactly what they're doing. Why now and what does the House vote really going to change?
We'll be right back.
BOLDUAN: First, they said it wasn't necessary, so they weren't holding a vote. Now they say it still isn't necessary, but they are holding a vote anyway. That is now set for Thursday. The first House vote on the impeachment inquiry into President Trump. Democrats say it is to call Republicans' bluff after they cried foul
over the closed-door meetings on impeachment so far. Republicans even storming into classified interviews in a public show of protest last week.
But it would also force members, including moderate Democrats in swing districts, on the record, once and for all, for or against impeachment.
So what's all going to happen now? What is this going to do?
CNN senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju. is on Capitol Hill.
So, Manu, what does this vote really do?
MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's not actually a vote to authorize the impeachment inquiry. Democrats say that the inquiry does not need to be authorized, there's nothing in the House rules that would require them to do so. And that's what Republicans have been pushing for.
But what it does is it will set the ground rules for some of the procedures going forward as the Democrats move to the next step of the impeachment inquiry.
That next step, public hearings and a potential vote on articles of impeachment before the House Judiciary Committee, before it gets taken up by the full House.
Now, a big reason, I'm told, why they're pushing this measure is because during the public hearing phase, which could happen as soon as before Thanksgiving, that staff members who are on the House Intelligence Committee are going to question witnesses.
That's what Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee chairman, wants under House rules right now that is not permitted. Only members can ask questions in five-minute rounds. Watch for that change.
Also watching in this House resolution is a procedure allowing the House Judiciary Committee to look at some of the evidence gathered in these closed-door depositions. And that evidence could form the basis of articles of impeachment.
Democrats are saying this would undercut, also, the Republican claims that they have not had any votes to formalize this process.
But talking to Republicans, it's clear they don't agree with that.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): They realize this process is completely unfair, completely partisan, and they're going to try to spruce it up a little bit. And still not give rights to the president, to the minority, and still do these things in secret, so that the American people can't see what's going on. And I think every single Republican will be voting against. And I'm
hopeful, and I think this is going to happen, every single Republican will be voting against the resolution on Thursday.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: And virtually all Democrats will vote for the resolution, which will mean it will pass.
But Kate, it's important to note also, on Friday, a federal judge ruled that the impeachment inquiry is legal. So the Democrats say there's no reason to authorize this probe.
But it will give them at least a political argument to push back, even as it formalizes some of the procedures in moving to this next phase in the investigation -- Kate?
BOLDUAN: It's a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a little bit of folding, a little bit of nod. Welcome to Capitol Hill.
Manu, thanks so much, man.
Back with me now, Abby Phillip is still sticking with me. She will not leave. I keep asking her too. Also, Caroline Polisi, federal and white-collar criminal defense attorney.
So, Abby, Manu lays out the why now. What he's hearing from his criminal defense sources. So it's not a vote to authorize a formal impeachment process. They don't think they need the authority. We've talked about this quite a bit, that it's not constitutional, to set the ground rules.
But I can't tell you the number of Democrats, that have spoken to you, but have definitely been on the show and said that for weeks, this -- there are no votes that are necessary to need to move forward. They have all the power that they need. This is the way it's going to be. The Constitution doesn't require any kind of a vote like this, et cetera, et cetera.
Something clearly has changed. Even though they're saying it's not the actual formal vote that Republicans were asking for. Something's changed.
PHILLIP: Yes, something that has changed. In some ways, this does kind of box Republicans in. Because the whole argument has been that this is an illegal process, so we're not going to cooperate because it's illegal.
Well, if there are rules that they then vote on, whether they like the rules or not, they can no longer say that there are no rules, that they don't know what they are and it's arbitrary. That's one aspect of this.
There's also the other aspect of this, which is that we now have at least one witness, Charles Kupperman, who said, I need to go to the courts to find out whether or not the White House's argument wins out or the Congressional Democrats' argument wins out.
This may be one more way for Nancy Pelosi to say, well, here are our rules. What is your argument for defying a congressional subpoena?
And then the last thing is, the part of this that becomes public, that's the part that starts to really matter. How much of the testimony, you know, all of it, do we get to see from some of these individuals?
And I think we're getting to the point now where a lot of the testimony is starting to look really overwhelmingly not on the side of the president's. And the Democrats are starting to feel much more comfortable that they're on a roll here with some of these witnesses coming forward and really giving them everything that they have been looking for, essentially.
BOLDUAN: Almost word for word.
Caroline, the last line of the letter that Speaker Pelosi sent to members about this vote, it says this: "We are taking the step to eliminate any doubt as to whether the Trump administration may withhold documents, prevent witness testimony, disregard duly authorized subpoenas or continue obstructing the House of Representatives."
I read that, in short, maybe that's what they're -- maybe that's what they will be voting on in this resolution, but will this vote really compel the White House to hand over everything that Democrats want?
CAROLINE POLISI, FEDERAL & WHITE-COLLAR CRIME CRIMINAL DEFENSE ATTORNEY: I don't think so. I think this is more symbolic. I really don't think that this vote in and of itself is going to suddenly reverse course for the White House.
This is the old one-two punch by Pelosi. She is coming from a position of power, right, on the heels of that federal district court judge's ruling, saying, basically --
POLISI: -- eviscerating the White House counsel's argument, Pat Cipollone, who says, we are not going to take this inquiry as a legitimate inquiry, because it doesn't follow the precedence of Nixon and Clinton, even though, as we know, you don't need a vote.
Now she's really taking the wind out of their sails in that talking point, in that there's no due process. She's now saying, all right, you want a vote, here we go. She's always said there was going to be a vote and now they're doing it.
Now what they're doing -- and this is part of their strategy -- and Schiff has said he doesn't want to partake in any of this rope-a-dope in the court, arguing over block testimony. What they're going to do is use whatever block testimony that they have and put a negative inference on it. Basically saying, that's going to corroborate the whistleblower's story.
And so they're going to use that in and of itself as an article of impeachment, really, for obstruction, obstruction of Congress.
BOLDUAN: And you have Charles Kupperman, who is --
BOLDUAN: -- saying, I can't decide. Court, tell me what to do.
And today you have Colonel Vindman not saying, Court, decide, you tell me what to do, he's behind closed doors right now. There's a different -- just the different application already that we're seeing.
So we are already seeing the move clearly doesn't satisfy the president's allies on the Hill. Basically, you heard from Jim Jordan, that this is essentially an empty vote.
But one thing that is also doing is it does put moderate Democrats in those swing states that helped Democrats win the majority, it puts some of them in a tough position. Some not, because they have said very clearly that they want to vote. But some, it is putting them in a tough spot, it puts them on the record, forces them on the record at this point on essentially impeachment.
I think to play Anthony Brindisi, of New York. He's one of them. He flipped a red seat in 2018. Listen
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
RAJU: Are you going to vote for this resolution?
REP. ANTHONY BRINDISI (D-NY): To be honest, I haven't even read the text of the resolution yet. I'm going to wait and see what it says and make a decision before the vote comes up on Thursday.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BOLDUAN: He very well might get there. But he's not trusting in the speaker on this resolution and how it's being written at this point.
PHILLIP: That's the Democrats' version of, I haven't read the tweet.
BOLDUAN: Yes, I haven't read the tweet. I haven't read the three- page, exactly.
PHILLIP: It's hard for some of these people who are not sure where the politics is going to land on this. It's become very partisan.
If you look at the polling, the partisanship really has taken a hold on the issue of impeachment and they are relying on moderates and maybe even some Republicans in their districts for the political power that they have.
You do hear from Democratic leadership that the way out is just to vote present. They don't have to vote for or against, just to vote present, say I was here.
PHILLIP: We should call for that.
But that is a way out. But this is what Pelosi has been trying to avoid for a long time.
PHILLIP: But I do think we may be at a crossroads here, where Democrats -- she's trying to put pressure on the Republicans, politically, and she's trying to get this impeachment inquiry to an end point, as quickly as possible.
BOLDUAN: Good luck, Speaker.
Thanks, guys. It's great to see you.
All right, still ahead for us, after two fatal crashes that led to a worldwide grounding of the 737 MAX --