Return to Transcripts main page

CNN NEWSROOM

White House Ukraine Expert Arrives for Testimony on Trump's Ukraine Call; House to Vote Thursday on Formalizing Impeachment Inquiry; U.S. Futures Mixed After S&P 500 Hits All-Time High. Aired 9- 9:30a ET

Aired October 29, 2019 - 09:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[09:00:07]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Very good morning to you. I'm Jim Sciutto. Goodness, things are moving very fast.

POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: It's only Tuesday.

SCIUTTO: Mm-hmm.

HARLOW: It is a big day. Good morning, everyone. I'm Poppy Harlow.

A White House official, an active duty Army officer who was wounded in an IED attack, and a person who was on that now infamous July 25th call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine. That is not a description of a group of people. It is one man. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman. And today he is an impeachment witness, one who is planning to tell House investigators that he was so troubled by the administration's pressure on Ukraine and the president's Ukraine call believing it could undermine national security that he reported those concerns to his boss twice.

SCIUTTO: Don't listen to the noise. Look at that resume and see if you see credibility in there. That testimony coming as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is giving Republicans what they had been demanding. A House vote on impeachment set for this Thursday. This vote on procedures for the inquiry, not authorizing the inquiry itself but the vote could still undercut a key GOP talking point that the inquiry is unfair to the president. Doesn't have broad support in Congress.

Joining us now from Capitol Hill, CNN senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju.

So, Manu Raju, there was a lot of pushback against this broader vote, concern from Nancy Pelosi that this might put, in particular, swing state Democrats at risk in 2020. But now she's made the decision to move forward. Do we know why?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, a big part of the reason why is procedural. When they moved forward to open hearings, one of the reasons why Democrats want to have open hearings to allow some staff members to ask questions, which is not currently allowed under the rules. And this resolution would essentially allow just that. But also it signals a new phase of this investigation where they're moving from closed-door to open hearings and Democrats are arguing this is not to authorize this inquiry but they're going to use this as a way to push back against the Republican arguments that there have been no votes to allow this to go forward.

Now there will be a series of closed-door depositions this week, potentially up to next week and I'm told there's a push to try to get these open hearings before Thanksgiving and then decide about whether to vote on Articles of Impeachment, maybe even have those Articles of Impeachment vote in December, potentially before Christmas.

Now today is critical. Alexander Vindman coming to testify. The first person testify who was on that July phone call between President Trump and President Zelensky, and someone who raised serious concerns about what he was hearing in the White House. He said this, according to his opening statement. "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. I realized that if Ukraine pursued an investigation into the Bidens and Burisma, it would likely be interpreted as a partisan play which would undoubtedly result in Ukraine losing the bipartisan support it has thus far maintained. This would all undermine U.S. national security. Following the call, I again reported my concerns to the National Security Council's lead counsel."

And also, guys, significantly in this testimony today, he's going to contradict some key elements of Gordon Sondland's sworn testimony before this committee. He is, of course, the E.U. ambassador and someone who made some different interpretations about what happened, particularly in that July meeting where there were discussions about investigations into the Bidens and the like. Nevertheless, that's going to be an area of also inquiry going forward, guys.

HARLOW: Manu, you had a really I think telling exchange with the sitting member of Congress, a Republican from Nevada. Can you tell us about it and perhaps play some for us?

RAJU: Yes, Congressman Mark Amaday, who's a Republican from Nevada, who initially had suggested he might be open to an impeachment inquiry then said he's not open to an impeachment inquiry. I asked him just a simple, straightforward question whether or not the president was -- it was appropriate for him to ask for Ukraine and then later ask for China to investigate his political rivals, and he dodged the question.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: The substance of the things that have come out is that the president asked for a public investigation into his rivals and also Ukraine aid was being withheld. And Bill Taylor testified --

(CROSSTALK)

REP. MARK AMODEI (R-NV): That's your conclusion.

RAJU: No, no, that's not my conclusion. I'm saying that's what's come out. AMODEI: It sounds like a conclusion to me so we disagree on the

question.

RAJU: The president has asked for the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens. Is that OK?

AMODEI: The president has asked for the whistleblower complaint to go through the normal process. We've seen nothing of that. So beyond that when you say that you've made the conclusion, it's like you're a gifted guy because guess what? It isn't over and you already know what you think.

RAJU: The White House -- the White House transcript that was released had President Trump asking President Zelensky to open an investigation into the Bidens.

AMODEI: Do you know if they've even got plans to call the whistleblower? Because I heard they didn't. Now I don't know if that's true.

RAJU: You're not answering my question about the substance of the allegation.

AMODEI: No. I disagree with your conclusion. It's a conclusion, not a question.

RAJU: I'm asking you about what's in the White House transcript.

AMODEI: Well, my English teacher says you've got a conclusion. So if you want to interview yourself, go right ahead. You're interviewing me.

[09:05:04]

RAJU: Why you -- don't you want to answer the question about, is it OK for the president to ask a foreign country to investigate the Bidens?

AMODEI: Why don't you do an interview instead of interviewing yourself?

RAJU: The president asked on the White House lawn, on the south --

AMODEI: Will you answer my question?

RAJU: On the South Lawn of the White House, the president asked China to investigate the Bidens. Is that OK?

AMODEI: You know what? If you don't want to interview me, then interview yourself?

RAJU: I'm asking you a question. If you don't want to answer --

AMODEI: I don't understand.

RAJU: You don't understand? AMODEI: Yes. Thanks for doing the best you could.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

RAJU: So there you have it. Not answering a pretty straightforward question. Whether or not it was OK for the White House to -- for the president to ask a foreign government to investigate his political rivals. And we have seen this time and again from Republican senators, Republican congressmen, not wanting to give a straightforward answer because, in a lot of member's views, it's not defensible for what the president did. And you saw that in that exchange with that Republican congressman, guys.

SCIUTTO: You know, Sam Donaldson used to say in reporting, sort of lessons, he said, if you ask someone, did you steal the money and the answer is anything other than yes or no, then you've got a problem. It's a simple question you asked, couldn't get an answer.

HARLOW: Good point. Manu, not only are you -- was that a good interview and an important question, you're one of the best there is. So don't let him get you down. Thank you, Manu. We appreciate it.

All right. So much of what we have learned so far from key witness testimony has backed up the facts laid out in the whistleblower complaint and echoed in the, you know, transcript that the White House released. However, it is important to note that Alexander Vindman in his opening statement in about 24 minutes will contradict what Ambassador Gordon Sondland said regarding a July 10th meeting in Washington between Ukrainian and U.S. officials.

He's going to say, quote, "Ambassador Sondland started to speak about Ukraine delivering specific investigations in order to secure the meeting with the president at which time Ambassador Bolton cut the meeting short." He'll go on to say, "I stated to Ambassador Sondland that his statements were inappropriate, that the request 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."

SCIUTTO: And this is the thing. Tune out the noise. Sworn testimony now from several witnesses, in effect corroborates the whistleblower complaints. And also Vindman now, his account corroborating what ambassador and military veteran Bill Taylor said in his sworn testimony as well, quoting here, "In the same July 19th phone call, 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 that they should have nothing to do with domestic politics. He also directed Dr. Hill to brief the lawyers."

That's contradictory testimony.

HARLOW: Yes, from both of them. From Bill Taylor and then coming soon from Colonel Vindman. Both those statements contradict Ambassador Sondland because Sondland said this under oath in his deposition. Quote, "If Ambassador Bolton, Dr. Hill or any others harbored any misgivings about the propriety of what we were doing, they never shared those misgivings with me then or later."

SCIUTTO: I mean, problems here, one, because the testimony corroborates the whistleblower complaint, of course. Contradicts many statements by the president and others but Sondland in particular because he swore under -- he testified under oath here. Raises the question whether they bring him back to reconcile this testimony.

We have Elie Honig now, CNN legal analyst and John -- retired Rear Admiral John Kirby.

Thanks to both of you.

Elie, I want to ask you this from a lawyer's perspectivehere. Because the Democrats are basically playing this out like a legal case. So you had Sondland say, they never came to me with any of these concerns, one, but now Vindman is saying not only he and others did. Do Democrats bring back Sondland and say, how do you reconcile these two?

ELIE HONIG, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: I think you do. I'm not sure Sondland should go back in. I think he may have potential exposure here. If I'm his lawyer I might say, hold on, we might need to take the Fifth Amendment here because when you stack up who's telling the truth -- first of all, it's two against one. Right now it's Taylor and Vindman against Sondland. Second of all, look at the credibility. Taylor and Vindman are career nonpartisan military diplomatic officials. Sondland is a guy who's a hotel magnate who gave $1 million to the Trump inauguration in order to get his position. So who's got more credibility? And it's two against one. Doesn't stack up well for Sondland.

HARLOW: Admiral Kirby, how significant do you think this testimony is from Vindman? You know, we have his entire opening statement here. And this is a guy who is very uncomfortable with what he heard and complained twice about it.

REAR ADM. JOHN KIRBY, CNN MILITARY AND DIPLOMATIC ANALYST: No, I think it's very significant. I mean, he's a career military officer, infantry, a foreign area officer specialist in the Eurasia area of the world. So he's got great credibility. Not just as an active serving officer in the Army, but also from his long expertise in this part of the world. And if you look at that statement, Poppy, and I'm sure you have it's pretty nondispassionate.

[09:10:03]

I mean, he just kind of lays it out fact by fact, date by date, what he saw and what concerned him. And it wasn't just the July 10th meeting that he issued complaints about. He also was able to listen to the July 25th call and made complaints directly after that. So twice now he has heard and said he saw evidence of an effort to investigate the Bidens, express national security concerns about that and it's, again, pretty a dispassionate statement. SCIUTTO: It is important to detail this role. The FAO position,

Foreign Area Officer position.

KIRBY: Right.

SCIUTTO: This is for someone serving in the military, in uniform, comes into the White House with area expertise, serves their government while they're a member of the military. You know, it adds some credibility to the point of view.

I'm not, Admiral Kirby, going to repeat the character assassination attempts against Vindman which have started already. They were repeated on this broadcast and on others last night. Somehow claiming that because he was born in Ukraine, therefore Vindman is not loyal to his country.

You served in the military. You served in the State Department. You served in the Pentagon. I just want to give you an opportunity to push back against that character assassination.

KIRBY: Yes, I mean, (INAUDIBLE), Jim. Look, I don't know this officer. Never met him, but he literally bled for this country. He earned a Purple Heart. Wounded in an IED attack in Iraq in 2006, I believe. I mean, he has served this country honorably for 20 years. And he is proud of being an immigrant to this country from Ukraine. His family emigrated when he was very young. He's very proud of that.

I think, given his resume and given his long service and his bravery in combat to this country, that people on both sides of the aisle could cut him a little slack and give him the benefit of the doubt here that he's an honest man. There's just no indication of anything different. And I find it -- just as a veteran, I find it offensive that we would be attacking his motivations or his intentions especially given again what he has done and what he has bled for this country.

HARLOW: Yes. Well said, Admiral.

Listen to this. This struck us from the "Times" reporting this morning. Quote, "Even as he," which is Vindman, "expressed alarm about the pressure campaign, the colonel and other officials worked to keep the United States relationship with Ukraine on track. At the direction of his superiors at the NSC, including John Bolton, then the National Security adviser, Colonel Vindman drafted a memorandum in mid-August that sought to restart security aid that was being withheld from Ukraine, but Mr. Trump refused to sign it."

The significance of that, Elie, and also how much more imperative you think it makes bringing Bolton in for questioning.

HONIG: Yes, two big pieces of significance there. First of all, it even ups the stakes more on John Bolton's testimony. It shows you John Bolton was putting the brakes on what he saw happening here. He recognized it to be improper and irregular. And second, the fact that John Bolton took the time to write a memo, he's a lawyer, he's an experienced lawyer, this is what lawyers do when they say, something is going bad here. I want to make clear I'm not part of this.

HARLOW: Vindman drafted the memo, just you know.

HONIG: Oh -- and --

HARLOW: At the --

HONIG: But it went up to Bolton.

HARLOW: Yes. Yes.

HONIG: And you can see the lines forming. That sort of pros versus the pretenders. The real diplomats, the real career officials against this whole Rudy, Sondland, Rick Perry group.

SCIUTTO: It was interesting here, as you look at this, Admiral Kirby, you know, this question of a quid pro quo, was the aid being withheld, was the meeting between Trump and Zelensky being held back in exchange for this politically motivated investigation of the Bidens. What you have here is you have multiple officials involved. That's what they saw. That's what they saw playing out in front of them. And actually Sondland, according to "The Wall Street Journal" account of his testimony, even he said he saw a quid pro quo there.

KIRBY: Yes. Yes. He kind of had to -- had to clarify that a little bit. You know, you're right. I mean, just the -- as Elie has been talking about, just simply the weight of evidence on the one side here of a clear quid pro quo request and it wasn't just for an investigation of the Bidens. It was for a public announcement of an investigation of the Bidens. I mean, it was that specific. And not to mention the military aid. But the weight of the evidence from credible witnesses is just becoming alarmig.

SCIUTTO: Sorry to interrupt, Admiral Kirby. This is Vindman now arriving on the -- we're going to let the cameras settle his shot there. This is him arriving. You're going to see him behind those cameras there and the police officer -- bicycle mounted police officer there. Here they come. And note that Vindman arriving, and I think this is significant, in his full uniform. He is a -- he's not a -- well, he's not a veteran. He's a current --

HARLOW: Active duty. Yes.

SCIUTTO: Active duty member of the U.S. Military.

KIRBY: That is right.

SCIUTTO: Some 20 years. He earned a Purple Heart. He was injured in an IED attack. I think it's notable that he's walking in to that room here to deliver testimony of conscience about his view of the call. And I think you could say, too, that, you know, the consistent attack on the whistleblower's complaint has been, it's all hearsay, it's some unnamed partisan bureaucrat. I think that's the language that the White House has used here, saw this. In fact, a number of people saw this exchange, this pressure and they were uncomfortable with it.

[09:15:00]

HARLOW: I think you make such a good point to call it, you know, with his conscience, why he is doing this today because he'll say, gentlemen, in his opening remarks that he'll say I am a patriot, I have deep appreciation for American values, he'll talk about his service overseas, and then he'll tell at the open his personal story that his family fled the Soviet Union when he was 3 years old, came to this country in 1979.

His father worked multiple jobs to support them while he learned English. I mean, this is an American hero who you said Admiral Kirby bled -- literally bled for this country.

KIRBY: Yes, he did. He literally bled for this country. And I think it's really important for people to understand whether we know this man or not, he has served his country honorably in combat and he made a choice. You know, nobody forced him into the army. There wasn't a draft.

HARLOW: Right --

KIRBY: He was an immigrant to this country, proud of that, proud of his background, but prouder still to raise his right hand, take the oath of office and join the army. And then -- and then go off to combat. I mean, it's -- we haven't -- you know, we don't have time to talk about the all-volunteer force and how we fought this long war, longer than we've ever fought a war with all volunteers.

But it's important to remember as you look at him today, that man is a volunteer. He signed up to do this.

SCIUTTO: Yes, and listen, his family fled the Soviet Union. You might say that Vindman has a sense of the threat from Russia --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Today which is at the core of this. Russia invaded and is at war with Ukraine.

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: U.S. military assistance to Ukraine --

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Was intended to help them defend against this, and that aid was withheld as the administration was demanding a politically- motivated investigation. I mean, that is the essential conflict here. The folks at home have to say, are they comfortable with that from the president?

HARLOW: Fair point --

KIRBY: And now, Jim, not only -- not only does he get that from being an immigrant, but he is a foreign area officer expert.

HARLOW: Yes --

KIRBY: It's a specialty inside the army. And he has focused his -- the bulk of his career on Eurasia, on Russia and Ukraine and that part of the continent. So, I mean, he's educated in this, he's had multiple assignments that have given him a chance to get even deeper knowledge of Ukraine and Russia.

I mean, this is a man who knows what he's talking about when he talks --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

KIRBY: About Russia's actions in the world.

SCIUTTO: Yes, and I've known some FAOs. That's not an easy job to get --

HARLOW: Yes --

KIRBY: It's not --

SCIUTTO: You've got to know what your -- you've got to know what your subject matter to get that job. So --

KIRBY: Yes, indeed.

SCIUTTO: He's no lightweight. Elie Honig, John Kirby, stand by, we've got a lot of news to cover, we're going to be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:20:00]

SCIUTTO: This is just moments ago. Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman arriving on Capitol Hill for his sworn testimony today. A critical moment, possibly damning for the president and the impeachment inquiry. That's because he is the first person who was on the call between the president and the president of Ukraine when this pressure was applied here. He has enormous credibility. This is quite a moment in this investigation.

HARLOW: Let's talk about it. Julie Pace; a Washington Bureau Chief for the "Associated Press". With us Anne Gearan; White House reporter for the "Washington Post" joins us as well. As we have seen some Republicans try to undercut him with, you know, slurs that we will not even bring up on this broadcast. How consequential, Julie, is hearing this from Vindman based on what he lays out in his opening statement?

JULIE PACE, WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF, ASSOCIATED PRESS: I think it's quite consequential for two reasons. One, he has first-hand knowledge of the calls that the president had with the Ukrainian leader. He also has first-hand knowledge of other actions within the administration related to Ukraine. And one of the knocks from the White House and Trump allies about this whole process is that the whistle-blower didn't have first-hand knowledge.

Well, now that's largely irrelevant because lawmakers --

HARLOW: Right --

PACE: Are hearing from people who did. And the second reason is that, this is not a person who is a political appointee. This is not someone who comes to this from a political position. This is a person who has served in the U.S. military, who is a decorated -- a decorated member of the military. Someone who has served, you know, as a foreign service officer.

So someone who is outside of the political sphere. And I do think that those people come to the table with more credibility. It doesn't mean that Republicans --

SCIUTTO: Yes --

PACE: And Trump allies are not going to try to discredit them, but I do think that's tougher, given this man's background.

SCIUTTO: The president just called him a never Trumper. Not clear what he's basing that on. In fact, Vindman would have volunteered for this position as a foreign area officer in the White House in the Trump administration. Anne Gearan, to your point and to Julie's point, Julie is saying, you know, the initial White House and president attacks on the whistle-blower have been hearsay, you know, partisan, et cetera.

Now that the hearsay argument has been well undermined and undercut, we're seeing the focus on character assassination really here. Is that really the only option going forward, you know, as this sworn testimony mounts?

ANNE GEARAN, WHITE HOUSE REPORTER, THE WASHINGTON POST: Yes, I mean, Jim, I think what you're seeing from Trump and from his political allies is an attempt to undermine people whose very credibility they know is really the most important question here. Vindman is important for a number of reasons. Julie outlined some of them, but one of the things he does that's going to be very difficult for the White House to counter is, he builds on the testimony and the dates and the calendar and the note-taking of other career professionals.

[09:25:00]

Most notably and specifically, Bill Taylor last week whose testimony really changed the -- all the dynamics of this investigation. Vindman was there for a lot of the things that Bill Taylor describes. And he also was keeping notes. His opening statement goes date-by- date through what he sees as a terrible trajectory after the election of Zelensky last Spring.

He says Zelensky and Trump had a good phone call. It was positive. He, Vindman, is doing his job, he's saying, great, here's how we build on that, here's how we go forward in this consequential relationship. These are the things I'm going to do. And then he describes how that relationship started to go south because of what he sees as outside maligned influences that start to change President Trump's mind. He'll outline that today and he's going to have -- as Bill Taylor

said, he's going to have the receipts.

HARLOW: Julie, let's talk about what was announced overnight, and the fact Nancy Pelosi on Thursday is going to hold basically a rules vote, a procedural vote on the impeachment inquiry. It's sort of half of what Republicans were pressing -- hard to do, Mark Meadow slamming the thing, unless you have a vote of inquiry on the house floor, a rule vote is certainly not the same thing.

You've -- I don't know if you can look at it both ways, right? You have some say she's caving, and you have others saying, look, your argument that this isn't formal now is moot because it is formal. How do you see it?

PACE: Yes, I think post is trying to split the baby here that. You know, she's going to make her members vote, and that is something that -- well, vote on anything involving impeachment at this phase was looked at as pretty untenable for some of these more moderate members. Now, she's saying we're going to go forward with that.

So, that is a change in position. It's not the full vote to authorize the inquiry. But I do think it's notable that Pelosi has made clear that she doesn't think she needs this vote based on how impeachment is set up under the constitution, but she also has a court ruling now from last week that backs this up where a judge, in a quite lengthy and detailed ruling, made clear that the impeachment inquiry already is legal.

Now, this is a process argument. And any time you're arguing about process, you're generally not winning, but that is where Republicans really are. They are fully in a process argument. Pelosi is trying to take a little bit of that away from them. I do think that they want to argue on that before the GOP does, because of the substance as we're laying out here --

SCIUTTO: Here --

PACE: With Vindman is not very good territory for them right now.

SCIUTTO: Yes, process plus character assassination.

HARLOW: Yes --

SCIUTTO: Two columns it seems of this strategy. Julie Pace, Anne Gearan, thanks very much to both of you. Could he be the smoking gun that House Democrats are looking for? We're going to speak to a Democratic Congressman about what could be the explosive sworn testimony from Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

HARLOW: We're also just moments away from the opening bell on Wall Street. U.S. futures mixed this morning, the S&P 500 hit a record high yesterday. Stocks have been up after the U.S. trade representative said last week that it was close to finalizing a phase one trade deal with China. The president says all of this is happening ahead of schedule. We just don't have any details yet on what that U.S.-China agreement

may actually look like. The news, though, has been good for investors. Agreement, though, not as comprehensive as the president was looking for. Meantime, investors will now turn their focus to the Fed, that two-day meeting kicks off today, Friday, we'll have the jobs report.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[09:30:00]