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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
U.S. Ambassador Revises Ukraine Testimony. Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired November 5, 2019 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
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"THE LEAD" starts now.
ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Welcome to THE LEAD.
Welcome to THE LEAD. I'm Jake Tapper.
And we begin with breaking news in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump and an admission by a top Trump aide that he told the Ukrainians, if they wanted $400 million in aid from the U.S., they would need to publicly announce they were investigating the Ukrainian Burisma and, as he also put it -- quote -- "Burisma equals Biden."
It's all part of the release this afternoon of two explosive transcripts related to the Ukraine scandal, Kurt Volker, the former U.N. special envoy for Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., testifying as to their discomfort as President Trump pushed them to his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, and Giuliani pushed them to get the Ukrainians to announce an investigation into Joe and Hunter Biden.
As Sondland put it -- quote -- "It kept getting more insidious as the timeline went on."
That is the word that President Trump's own ambassador that he appointed used, insidious. Though the deposition transcript was released today, Sondland was forced to revisit his earlier testimony from October 17 and amend it. Sondland is now acknowledging that he informed a top aide to the
Ukrainian president of this quid pro quo, aid for investigations, and that he had that conversation with the Ukrainian aide on September one, when the aid was still being withheld, the military aid.
In other words, it's not true that the Ukrainians did not know that there was this alleged attempt to force them to investigate the Bidens at the time.
Sondland calling the -- quote -- "demands" by Trump and Giuliani to have Ukraine investigate the Bidens improper and potentially illegal -- quote -- "I'm not a lawyer. I don't know the law exactly," Sondland said. "It doesn't sound good."
CNN's Alex Marquardt kicks off our coverage today.
ALEX MARQUARDT, CNN SENIOR NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice- over): In black and white, one of the president's top envoys changing his testimony, now admitting he told Ukraine's leadership that hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid were being held up until President Trump got the investigations he wanted.
Ambassador Gordon Sondland, who's a longtime Republican donor turned diplomat who gave money to Trump's inaugural committee, amending his original testimony, writing: "I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, where I said resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks."
That public statement that Trump wanted, according to the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, was that President Zelensky go to a microphone and say he is opening investigations of Biden and 2016 election interference.
Those investigations were being pushed by the president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D-MD): There's really only one story. All of the witnesses agree that the president engineered a shakedown of the Ukrainian government.
MARQUARDT: In Sondland's transcript, released this afternoon, when asked if what Giuliani was doing was illegal, Sondland responded, "I assume so."
REP. TED LIEU (D-CA): That's illegal. You cannot solicit a foreign power to investigate American political parties or your American political opponent.
MARQUARDT: Over time, Sondland said things got more insidious, the demands on Ukraine bigger and bigger, and Ukraine would have to play ball before the Ukrainian president got a meeting with President Trump. The problem grew for the State Department, which was fully aware of
what Giuliani was doing, Sondland said. And when Sondland raised it with his boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Pompeo rolled his eyes and said, "Yes, it's something we have to deal with."
Another member of the trio in charge of diplomatic relations with Ukraine was former special envoy Kurt Volker, who, according to the new transcript, told the Ukrainians about the Giuliani factor and described the extent to which Giuliani controlled Ukrainian access to Trump.
'The Ukrainians believed that by speaking to Rudy Giuliani, they could communicate to President Trump?" Volker was asked.
"That information flow," he answered, "would reach the president."
MARQUARDT: And the president's spokesperson has just responded to these transcripts released today.
Stephanie Grisham saying they -- quote -- "show there is even less evidence for this illegitimate impeachment sham than previously thought."
She also highlights parts of Sondland's testimony where he's uncertain and adds: "No amount of salacious media-biased headlines, which are clearly designed to influence the narrative, change the fact that the president has done nothing wrong" -- Jake.
TAPPER: Alex Marquardt, thanks so much.
Let's chew over all this.
And I want to dive into the section where Sondland, the president's ambassador to the E.U., uses the word insidious.
He says -- quote -- "This whole thing was sort of a continuum. It started as Trump saying, talk to Rudy. Then, let's get the Ukrainians to give a statement about corruption. And then, no, corruption isn't enough. We need to talk about the 2016 elections and the Burisma investigations. It kept getting more insidious as the timeline went on. And then, at the end of that continuum, I became aware that there might be a link between the White House visit and aid to the Ukraine that was being held up."
David Urban, you're a 2020 Trump campaign adviser.
Insidious is Sondland's word, not Adam Schiff's, not the media. It's Sondland.
DAVID URBAN, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, so a couple things about Ambassador Sondland, right? Interesting that his -- goes back to correct this. I think Ambassador Sondland may have had an issue -- perjured himself in one case or another, so maybe -- he may be facing some legal jeopardy of his own to begin all this.
But I don't see in here -- Jake, I didn't get a chance -- I'm just reading the excerpts.
URBAN: But I don't see it here anywhere where it says the president told me to do X. The president told...
TAPPER: No, no, no, he says that the president told me to go to Rudy. And then Rudy did all this.
URBAN: He said, talk to Rudy about what? And he said, I don't even know -- I wasn't even sure what to talk to Rudy about.
And Sondland's testimony says, I was unclear what I supposed to talk to Rudy about.
So the connection between the president and where Sondland thinks he is, is a giant leap that needs to be filled in.
What do you think, Mehdi?
MEHDI HASAN, THE INTERCEPT: I mean, giant leap is interesting, given, as you say, he's Trump -- this is no longer a case of -- we talked about this last week when I was on the show, never-Trumpers.
Trump made this smear of Alexander Vindman, the NSC guy, and Bill Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, saying, they're never- Trumpers, with no evidence for that whatsoever.
Now we have Sondland. You can't call him a never-Trumper, when he donated a million dollars to Trump's inauguration committee and was rewarded with this plum ambassadorship to the E.U.
TAPPER: He still works for Trump.
HASAN: He wasn't qualified to be ambassador to E.U.
Fiona Hill testified that she was worried he was a national security risk. But Trump gave him that job. Trump told him to talk to Rudy Giuliani. Rudy Giuliani, we know, is in a lot of trouble with some of the nonsense he said from the testimony that's come out today, the conspiracy theories that they were pushing.
And I think the problem now is that everybody who's come before this committee, pretty much everybody, has either said they have a problem with the phone call or that the phone call was -- when they saw the phone call, it was an issue.
And that's why the Republicans, we have discussed this endlessly here, keep attacking either witnesses, or the process, or Adam Schiff, or the media, as Stephanie Grisham did, because there's really no counterargument in terms of what's been seen...
TAPPER: I want to bring other people in. I will come back to you.
So, Seung Min, Sondland told -- this is what a lot of people think is the most important line in all the testimony. And David's right. He did have to amend his testimony, and there were questions about whether he had perjured himself. And so he went back.
And this is what he says. He's talking about September 1. He tells a top aide to Ukrainian President Zelensky, and he says: "I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak" -- that's the aide to the Ukrainian president -- "where I said resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks."
And we know that that anti-corruption statement has to include the 2016 election, and Burisma. And as Sondland puts it, Burisma equals Biden.
SEUNG MIN KIM, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, this is why the idea of a quid pro quo is becoming such an uncomfortable point of discussion, particularly for Republicans on Capitol Hill.
And we reported last week that there's actually been a shift in the Senate Republicans messaging. It goes against what the president has been saying all along that, in this perfect call, there is no quid pro quo, that there hasn't been any.
But we have a growing number of GOP senators saying, well, looks like there was a quid pro quo, but it's OK because, A, it's not impeachable, B, the president didn't seem to have a criminal intent here. He wasn't acting on corrupt purposes. And, C, it happens in foreign policy all the time.
A couple problems with that. Obviously, it goes against what the president has been saying. And it just also shows how -- when the president is asking his defenders to defend him on substance, rather than process, it becomes a tricky thing for a lot of Republicans.
I think that's particularly why Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is not, to be fair, a talkative person to begin with, finally said today during his weekly news conference that he's not going to comment on the daily drip, drip, drip coming from the testimony. He will just stay out of it for now.
TAPPER: So, David, I know you were talking about the excerpts.
So the hundreds of pages of transcripts, what Sondland says, is these instructions about what the Ukrainians need to announce is coming from Rudy. So Trump tells him to talk to Rudy, and Rudy makes these demands.
That's the insidious timeline.
But, again, and so I guess my point on the evidentiary basis of this, right, there still is no smoking gun, in effect, of...
URBAN: No, no, but my point is, again, until -- and this is all great, right?
But I don't hear one Republican today changing their position in the House. I don't hear one senator saying they're going to vote for conviction now. This is just a lot of white noise still.
TAPPER: All right, Nia, let me show this.
Sondland describes the effort to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens as demands from Trump and Giuliani directly coming from Giuliani. He was asked: "There were demands, weren't there, that an investigation take place of 2016 or Burisma?"
That's the firm where Hunter Biden was on the board.
"Ultimately, those were demands, were they not?"
Sondland: "Ultimately, yes."
"And it's fair to say that you had to navigate those demands, you had to accommodate what the president and his lawyer wanted if you were going to set up this meeting you thought very important?"
Sondland: "I think that's fair. If you mean that those conditions would have to be complied with prior to getting a meeting, that was my understanding."
That's another example of a quid pro quo. Those conditions would have to be complied with prior to getting a meeting.
NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Yes.
And he's saying that those were the president's and Rudy Giuliani's demands. And we know from the phone call, the memo of the phone call, that it is Donald Trump who is saying that Giuliani essentially knows what he wants to happen in this situation, and that's Zelensky, right, should talk to Giuliani.
So I think it's going to be very hard to sort of say that Giuliani is operating apart from the president. I mean, these are...
TAPPER: But you're not even criticizing Giuliani.
URBAN: Listen, I think that what Mayor Giuliani did is far afield of what is normal in an administration. I will say that, right?
HASAN: But he didn't do that on his own, David.
URBAN: No, no. Listen, I think...
HASAN: He did it with instructions from the president of the United States.
URBAN: Are you kidding me? Are you kidding me? OK. I think that's a big leap to make.
HASAN: How is that a leap? He said, talk to Rudy.
URBAN: But talk to Rudy about what?
TAPPER: In the July 25 phone call, he tells Zelensky to talk to Rudy.
URBAN: But, again, you can't conflate -- there needs to be clear lines.
You can't conflate talk to Rudy in one instance, meaning talk to Rudy about Burisma, talk to Rudy...
HENDERSON: That is what the president said. Talk to Rudy about...
URBAN: He did on the call on the 25th. Absolutely. He did on the call on the 25th.
HASAN: Is that not enough for you?
URBAN: I'm talking about what Gordon Sondland says.
(CROSSTALK) URBAN: I'm talking about two different -- completely two different things.
TAPPER: We have a whole other transcript to go through.
Another transcript excerpts reveal that Kurt Volker, the special envoy to the Ukraine, felt he needed to clean up Rudy Giuliani's work. We're going to show you that exchange next.
Plus, the highest ranking request yet. Democrats now want to interview one of the president's top aides. And that's not the only person their list.
Stay with us.
TAPPER: We're back with breaking news.
Deposition transcripts of Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, are now out. Fresh this afternoon, they paint a stunning picture of how many concern there was in Trump's administration about President Trump and Rudy Giuliani's push for Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter in exchange, in their view, for security aid and a White House meeting.
Let's talk about some of the Kurt Volker testimony.
Nia, let me start with you. Question, this is about Volker's concern about Rudy Giuliani spreading conspiracy theories about Ukraine.
Question: Ambassador Volker, just to be clear, in your opening statement, you referred to a problem that you had to deal with? Answer: Yes. This was the problem.
Question: Rudy Giuliani was the problem? Answer: The negative narrative about Ukraine which Mr. Giuliani was furthering was the problem. It was, in my view, it was impeding our ability to build the relationship the way we should be doing it as I understood it.
And he also talks about how when he heard that Giuliani was going to Ukraine to talk to a former prosecutor, he called up and said this guy is not credible, don't listen to it.
But ended up costing at least one U.S. ambassador her job?
HENDERSON: Yes. And, you know, Rudy Giuliani obviously all over these transcripts, all over, you know, sort of the president's plan here, and this idea that the president seems to have had for many months if not years that Ukraine was somehow out to get him, right? That they were part of the 2016 plot to interfere in the election, and so, you have Giuliani in the middle of this. You have people complaining to Secretary Pompeo about Rudy Giuliani,
and him essentially saying this is a problem has to be dealt with and rolling his eyes at some point. I think that was in the Sondland testimony.
TAPPER: Oh, yes, let's bring that up.
HENDERSON: Yes, yes.
TAPPER: Let's go to the Sondland -- the 2.5 in the script here. Here is how Sondland described how Secretary Pompeo viewed Giuliani. He's asked, quote: Did you ever discuss Rudy Giuliani with Secretary Pompeo? Sondland says: Only in general terms.
Question: And what did you discuss? Sondland: That's he's involved in affairs and Pompeo rolled his eyes and said: Yes, it's something we have to deal with.
You know Pompeo. He's a West Point classmate of yours. If I -- if I can interpret the eye roll, it's, oh, God, I have to deal with Rudy Giuliani in this stuff.
URBAN: Yes. So, listen, I would imagine that there are lots of people who advise the president that give lots of cabinet secretaries, you know, a little bit of agita every once and a while. I don't think that's unique to this administration. I would think that --
HASAN: The president is was asking people at Mar-a-Lago to advise him on how to reform the Department of Veteran Affairs. I can't think of any president in American history that has done that.
URBAN: OK, well, you know. That's fine. I mean, I'm not sure you're a historian and know everything what happens with President Carter or President Bush. Listen, this president is definitely unique and definitely does everything outside the norm. That doesn't mean it's wrong.
HASAN: And the law.
TAPPER: Let's -- we all agree that he's unique.
Seung Min, let me -- Volker says, this is back to number two, Volker says he tried to talk to Trump, he tried to talk to Trump and Giuliani. He tried to talk him out of believing the conspiracy theories about Burisma, about Biden trying to fire the prosecutor, et cetera.
Quote: I believe that Giuliani was interested in Biden -- Vice President Biden's son and I pushed back and I was maintaining that distinction. Question: So, you were maintaining that distinction because you understood that that whole theory had been debunked and there was no evidence to support it, right? Answer from Volker: Yes. KIM: I think stepping back with the whole Giuliani issue and we could
argue like we did in the last block about how much of a legal threat that this poses with exactly what has been testified before the House committees. But at the very least, the Rudy factor is a political problem, and a messaging problem for the administration.
And, clearly, I don't think it's a coincidence that Giuliani has gone a little bit quieter these days. He's not on the airwaves. He's not on CNN or other networks as often because every time he goes on -- he goes on and says a lot of things on air, sometimes he says things that causes some trouble for the president, and the Ukraine issue is not the first time that's happened -- you know, this has happened throughout his presidency.
Republicans who are trying to kind of keep their head down with prefer Rudy not talk as often seems to be listening to that --
TAPPER: Would you? Would you prefer that Rudy stop?
URBAN: Listen, the mayor sometimes a great advocate, sometimes not a great advocate.
TAPPER: What about in the Ukraine situation?
URBAN: I think in this situation, it just muddies the waters. I think everyone needs to exhale and water needs to clear.
TAPPER: Should he cut ties with him do you think?
URBAN: No, I would not.
HASAN: I certainly (INAUDIBLE) Donald Trump says, Rudy, I don't know him. I've never met him. People said I've seen him.
I mean, it is highly inappropriate. We could talk about historical standards to have him in this role freelancing around Ukraine, Ukrainian officials telling Kurt Volker and Sondland, should we talk to Rudy? What do we do? How do we get in good with the president?
His personal lawyer, a private citizen, hasn't been mayor for many years, is there in charge of this. He wanted to be secretary of state if memory serves me correctly. He didn't get that job and I would say there are questions for Mike Pompeo to answer. But how is he OK with being secretary of state and having Rudy Giuliani doing this stuff on the side.
TAPPER: And just to read the part you are referring to, there is a point in which Volker is asked and the answer is the Ukrainians believe -- question, the Ukrainians believe by speaking to Giuliani, they could communicate with President Trump. Volker says that information flow would reach the president.
HASAN: How is that OK?
TAPPER: Because Giuliani would convey that information and the answer is yes. In other words, he's kind of like this freelance -- free floating
ambassador out there.
Everyone, stick around. We're going to take a quick break.
The impeachment inquiry is closing in on President Trump's inner circle. The highest ranked official was just summoned to testify this week. Who is it? That's next.
TAPPER: In our politics lead today, Democrats want acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney to testify Friday as part of the impeachment inquiry. It's not clear if Mulvaney will show up since the White House has ordered staffers to not cooperate. But as CNN's Kaitlan Collins reports for us now, one Trump administration senior adviser may be preparing to ignore that advice.
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: They've been plotting to overthrow the election since the first hour that we won.
KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): One day after President Trump railed against the impeachment inquiry at his Kentucky rally, his chief of staff was summoned to testify before House impeachment investigators this week.
MICK MULVANEY, ACTING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: Get over it. There's going to be political influence in foreign policy.
COLLINS: Democrats are looking to wrap up the closed-door depositions before going public and Mick Mulvaney is the highest ranking official they've called so far. In a letter, Democrats say they believe he has substantial firsthand knowledge and information relevant to the House's impeachment inquiry.
MULVANEY: Did he also mention to me in the past that the corruption related to the DNC server? Absolutely, no question about that.
COLLINS: It's unclear but unlikely that Mulvaney will show up.
However, one senior aide to Vice President Mike Pence is expected to. Jennifer Williams was on that July call with the Ukrainian president and would be the first person on the vice president's staff to appear on Capitol Hill.
The fallout from the inquiry has spread throughout the administration. After a senior aide to Energy Secretary Rick Perry failed to show up today, Perry refused to answer CNN's questions.
REPORTER: Secretary Perry will you be willing to testify publicly? Did you hear any mention of Burisma?
COLLINS: The president and his allies continued to insist it is all a ploy by Democrats to take him down.
DONALD TRUMP, JR., SON OF PRESIDENT TRUMP: The reality is the process is totally going to vindicate him, and I think it's going to hurt people in the middle.
COLLINS: Now, Jake, Williams, that top aide to Vice President Pence did travel with him to Poland where he met with Ukrainian President Zelensky, a trip that Trump was supposed to go on and stayed back to monitor a hurricane. She has since hired an attorney who is not responding to request for comment right now, and we should note that if she does go on Capitol Hill and testify, she'll be the third official who listened in on that call to do so.
TAPPER: All right. Kaitlan Collins at the White House, thanks so much.
Let's discuss. Seung Min, in the letter requesting Mick Mulvaney's testimony, the Democratic chairman leading the impeachment inquiry write, quote, the evidence and public reporting suggest that you played a central role in President Trump's attempt to coerce Ukraine into launching his desired political investigations. They go on to describe his briefing at the White House last month as a, quote, televised confession.