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House Dem Leaders Meeting This Hour Ahead Of First Televised Impeachment Inquiry Testimony; House GOP Meeting Tonight To Discuss Defending Trump After Holding Mock Impeachment Hearing; NYT: Trump Weighed Firing Intel Inspector General Who Sent Whistleblower Report To Congress; Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) Is Interviewed About The NYT Report That Trump Considered Firing Intel Inspector General Michael Atkinson, House GOP Impeachment Defense, Democratic Strategy, Mick Mulvaney; Both Sides Rest In Roger Stone Trial After Key Witness Describes Trump Call About WikiLeaks; Waves Of Rockets Fired From Gaza After Militant Leader Dies In Israel Airstrike; Impeachment Testimony Reveals President Trump's Desire To Please Putin. Aired 5-6p ET

Aired November 12, 2019 - 17:00   ET

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


[17:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news. Firing an Intel official. A new report says President Trump has considered dismissing the Intelligence Community's inspector general because he reported the whistleblower's complaint about Mr. Trump's Ukraine dealing to Congress.

Strategy session. House Democratic leaders are scheduled to meet this hour ahead of tomorrow's historic first public impeachment inquiry hearing. And we're also learning details of how Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff plans to present his case for impeachment to the American public.

Gates' gift. Former Deputy Campaign Chair Rick Gates testified in the trial of Roger Stone that the WikiLeaks release of Democratic e-mails was like a gift to the Trump campaign. And now after a day of bombshell testimony, Stone's lawyers have rested their case.

And pleasing Putin. Newly-released testimony from the impeachment inquiry reveals President Trump's repeated efforts to keep from angering Vladimir Putin. Why is the American President determined to placate his Russian counterpart?

I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in "The Situation Room."

We're following breaking news. Including a new report just out from "The New York Times" saying that President Trump has discussed firing Michael Atkinson, he's the Intelligence Community's inspector general who gave Congress the whistleblower report that sparked the impeachment inquiry.

Meanwhile, House Democrats and Republicans are gearing up for the historic live televised testimony by three key witnesses starting tomorrow morning. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is expected to meet this hour with her leadership team to finalize their strategy. This, according to Democratic sources.

And House Republicans are also planning to meet tonight to discuss how they'll defend the President after holding a mock hearing today according to a source.

We'll talk about all of the breaking news and much more with Congressman Ro Khanna of the Oversight and Armed Services committees. And our constituents and analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go straight to Capitol Hill. Our Congressional Reporter Lauren Fox is covering the story for us. Lauren, what are you learning, first of all, about the Democrats' strategy tomorrow morning?

LAUREN FOX, CNN CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: Well, Wolf, the stakes here could not be any higher. And here is why. Tomorrow will be the first opportunity for the American people to see in front of them Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine and George Kent, a career State Department official. Democrats hoping those two men can tell the full story about what exactly has transpired over the last several months when it came to the withholding of that U.S. military aid.

Also, of course, Republicans doing their own preparation. They held a mock hearing earlier today, the full conference will meet. And Democrats behind closed doors will meet with Speaker Nancy Pelosi as part of her leadership meeting that's normally scheduled. But you can expect that impeachment is going to be a key topic that they discuss.

Meanwhile we're getting more details about exactly what could happen in that Senate trial. We heard Richard Burr, the Senate Intelligence Committee chairman saying that that could go on between six and eight weeks. Of course those discussions still ongoing, Wolf, but it gives you a sense. This is going to take over the entire Capitol as we move into the public phase of this testimony tomorrow. Wolf.

BLITZER: When, Lauren, will future hearings be announced and more transcripts released?

FOX: Well, that's a key question that a lot of us are waiting for on Capitol Hill tonight, Wolf. Of course, this all comes before that public testimony tomorrow. There are questions about whether or not the E.U. Ambassador, Gordon Sondland, might be coming before the committees.

And I will also tell you that there is a question about who of the Republican requested witnesses might actually come before the House Intelligence Committee for those public hearings. Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Lauren, thank you. Let's get some more now on how Republicans are preparing tonight to defend the President's tomorrow televised impeachment hearing. Our Justice Correspondent Jessica Schneider is working that part of the story for us.

Jessica, they're meeting tonight to discuss strategy. They've also held a mock hearing today. What else are you learning?

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, a lot going on, Wolf. A lot of responses here in this first set of public hearings really signals high stakes for Democrats and Republicans. Republicans circulating an 18-page memo on ways to defend the President while Democrats are dismissing those talking points as really ignoring the facts.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER (voice-over): Tonight Republicans are laying out their strategy to push back and defend President Trump ahead of the upcoming high-stakes impeachment hearings.

CNN has obtained the internal memo that marks the most centralized and detailed effort yet by Republicans to counter the Democrats' argument for impeachment hitting on four central defenses. First, that the July 25th call between President Trump and President Trump Zelensky of Ukraine shows no conditionality or evidence of pressure. It's a point the President has repeatedly pushed.

[17:05:00]

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: -- because I have a perfect phone call. I made a perfect call. Not a good call, perfect call.

SCHNEIDER: But the rough transcript released by the White House clearly shows Zelensky asking for aid and Trump responding, "I would like you to do us a favor though."

The second point stresses that President Zelensky and President Trump have both said there was no pressure on the call. But before Zelensky took office a source familiar told CNN that the Ukrainian President and his aides had a meeting on how to handle the Trump request to open the investigations.

The third and fourth Republican points state the Ukraine government was not away of the hold on the U.S. assistance during the July 25th call and the hold on that military assistance was lifted on September 11th.

But the Ukrainians were aware that they wouldn't receive the White House meeting they wanted without the announcement of investigations. An aide only flowed after the White House faced criticism from Republican lawmakers.

With just hours before the public hearing, Republicans are attacking one of tomorrow's key witnesses. The top diplomat to Ukraine, Bill Taylor.

REP. LEE ZELDIN, (R) NEW YORK: They're relying on people like Bill Taylor as a star witness who is going to tell us something that is third or fourth-hand information.

SCHNEIDER: In closed door testimony, Taylor revealed that he was told Ukraine would not receive military money until officials announced the investigations the President wanted. But Taylor admitted he never spoke directly with the President. A point Republicans have seized upon.

REP. MIKE CONAWAY, (R) TEXAS: He said what he heard. Hearsay is not admissible.

SCHNEIDER: But Democrats say, they're just trying to muddy the waters.

REP. GREGORY MEEKS, (D) NEW YORK: Well, basically I look at those defenses, avoid the facts, avoid the facts, avoid the facts. That's basically what it is. The facts are the President abused his power and this is coming from the mouth of patriotic diplomats and their authority.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And the public testimony tomorrow, Wolf, feature Bill Taylor as well as George Kent, the State Department's lead career official focused on Ukraine. And it will all unfold with Democrats and Republicans each getting 45 minutes for questioning off the bat. That questioning will be led by skilled staffers from each side who have actually been doing the closed-door questioning. Plus the 12 Democrats and the eight Republican members will each get five minutes for questioning on their own. Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jessica, thanks very much.

Let's go to the White House right now. And the report that President Trump has actually discussed firing the Intelligence Community's inspector general who sent that whistleblower's complaint to Congress. Our Chief White House Correspondent Jim Acosta is joining us right now.

Jim, so what are you picking up there?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, President Trump is expected to arrive at the White House at any moment after his trip up to New York. We'll see if he takes questions about those "New York Times" report that says that the President did talk about with his aides the prospect of firing Michael Atkinson, the inspector general for the director of National Intelligence. That's key because Atkinson essentially green-lighted this whistleblower complaint, found the whistleblower complaint about the President's phone call with the leader of Ukraine to be credible.

In the meantime, President Trump and his defenders are gearing up for war in week as the public hearings get underway in the impeachment inquiry. The Trump campaign will be running a rapid response operation to react to the fast-moving developments up on Capitol Hill. And the war room and chief is already preparing for battle. But some Trump advisers are telling us they are questioning how the President is handling this inquiry. As one source close to the White House put it, nobody believes the President's phone call with the leader of Ukraine was perfect. (BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA (voice-over): Tearing into the impeachment inquiry, President Trump is demonizing his Democratic accusers, referring to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi as "nervous Nancy."

TRUMP: Democrats in Washington would rather pursue outrageous hoaxes and delusional witch hunts which are going absolutely nowhere. Don't worry about it.

ACOSTA: Hitting GOP talking points that question the main witnesses scheduled to testify in public hearings this week. The President tweeted, "Why is such a focus put on second and third-hand witnesses, many of whom are never Trumpers, or whose lawyers are never Trumpers, when all you have to do is read the phone call, transcript, with the Ukrainian President and see firsthand."

Even though Mr. Trump has repeatedly described his July 25th phone call with the leader of Ukraine as perfect, the President is vowing to detail another conversation with his Ukrainian counter part tweeting, "I will be releasing the transcript of the first, and therefore more important phone call with the Ukrainian President before week's end."

In an early morning tweet storm, the President complained that both Joe Biden and his son Hunter targets of Mr. Trump's July 25th call should be forced to testify. Even some top Republicans aren't exactly following the President's lead.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Do you think it was a perfect call?

NIKKI HALEY, FORMER U.S. ABASSAFOR TO U.N.: If in his mind he thinks it was a perfect call.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: But what do you think?

ACOSTA: Former U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley is taking issue with Mr. Trump's actions while saying he shouldn't be impeached.

[17:10:00]

HALEY: I think it's never a good practice for us to ask a foreign country to investigate an American. It is just not a good practice. Having said that, there is no insistence on that call. There are no demands on that call. It is a conversation between two presidents that's casual in nature.

ACOSTA: Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice went further telling CNN "The call is murky, it is really murky. I don't like for the President of the United States to mention an American citizen for investigations to a foreign leader. I think that is out of bounds."

There appears to be a scramble inside the White House over whether to testify as Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney tried to join a lawsuit in federal court on Friday to seek guidance on whether he should appear before Congress then announcing his own legal challenge on Monday before dropping the idea altogether. Democrats see some self preservation.

MEEKS: I think those individuals have looked in the past. They looked at Nixon impeachment and saw that everyone but Nixon went to jail.

ACOSTA: The President is trying to convince the public. He is focused on issues that matter like the economy. But Mr. Trump isn't sticking to the facts, praising his daughter Ivanka's record of creating jobs in her roles at the White House.

TRUMP: She's now created 14 million jobs and they're being trained by these great companies, the greatest companies in the world. Because the government can't train them. It is a great thing.

ACOSTA: But that is not true. That number refers to a training opportunities. There haven't been 14 million jobs created. As that would double the actual number.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: And getting back to this legal maneuvering on the part of the Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney as to whether or not he should testify up on Capitol Hill, a White House official says Mulvaney will now stick with the administration's view that he has immunity from a congressional subpoena. But, Wolf, I will tell you after talking to a source close to the White House there are once again discussions going on inside the White House as to whether or not Mulvaney should stay in his position. Wolf.

BLITZER: Yes, he's been on thin ice for a while. Jim Acosta, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all the breaking news. Joining us now Democratic Congressman Ro Khanna of California, a member of the Oversight and Armed Service committees.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us. And I quickly want to get to the breaking news from the "New York Times." President Trump has reportedly discussed dismissing, firing the inspector general of the U.S. Intelligence Community for bringing that whistleblower complaint to Congress. What's your reaction to that news?

REP. RO KHANNA (D-CA): Well, Wolf, if true it's absolutely outrageous. And we need to understand the stakes tomorrow. The rule of law in this country is at stake. I mean, you have the President of the United States not learning any lesson from the Mueller investigation, basically believing he can fire anyone who calls him into question. And he's threatening to fire someone who basically did his job by allowing the whistleblower complaint to move forward.

BLITZER: If the President were to retaliate and -- against the Inspector General Michael Atkinson and fire him, would that rise to the level of its own article of impeachment?

KHANNA: Yes, Wolf. At this point, we just have so many illegal actions that the President continues to engage in that the numbers keep adding up. But the central case here remains that the President bullied Ukraine's President to investigate Joe Biden for political benefit and withheld aid. And I think that case is going to be made clearly tomorrow.

BLITZER: CNN has obtained this internal Republican memo. It's very detailed laying out their strategy for defending the President now that the public impeachment hearings are just hours away and we pointed out some of the major points insisting there was no conditionality or evidence of pressure that President Zelensky and President Trump both said there was no pressure on the call. That the Ukrainian government was not aware of any hold on U.S. security assistance during that July 25th call. And that the U.S. security assistance hold was actually lifted on September 11th. So how do you respond to those points?

KHANNA: Well I think Ambassador Taylor tomorrow will respond and will make it very clear that his understanding was and many people thought that this President was threatening to withhold aid and if Zelensky didn't investigate Biden. Now the Republicans say, well, he -- Ambassador Taylor didn't speak to the President. Well guess who the two people are who did speak to the President? Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton.

So you can't have it both ways. You can't say we're not going to have Mick Mulvaney and John Bolton testify and tell the truth and then say that people who were lower on the food chain haven't spoken to the President.

BLITZER: Your Democratic leadership, they're about to meet very soon to discuss their strategy going forward. Clearly the stakes are enormous right now. What do you think the strategy should be?

KHANNA: The strategy needs to be simple. We need to have a few key witnesses. And we need to stick to the basic fact that this President has compromised our national security as Secretary Condoleezza Rice recognizes, as even Ambassador Nikki Haley has alluded to, why is he asking a foreign leader to investigate an American citizen who just happens to be Joe Biden. Who just happens to be the one person leading him in all of the polls. And I think most Americans think that that is wrong.

[17:15:12]

BLITZER: We're told that the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Adam Schiff, in his opening statement is going to lay out the scope of this investigation to the American public, obviously we're going to be televising it. There's going to be television cameras in there. What do you think of the strategy?

KHANNA: I have a lot of confidence in Chairman Schiff but my view is that the more we have the witnesses talk and let them make the case the better we are. I don't think the American people want to hear from members of Congress or our spin or our interpretation. The facts here are so powerful, let people just hear what happened.

And what they will realize is this is not just one phone call or two phone calls. This is a concocted plan over months to hold aid from Zelensky unless Zelensky launches a public investigation into Biden.

BLITZER: Because you remember the criticism that the Chairman Adam Schiff received for that parity, that embellishment of what the President said in that phone conversation with Ukrainian President Zelensky has been hammered as you know. Are you worried that something like that might happen again?

KHANNA: No. My sense is that Chairman Schiff will keep it brief, that he will allow the expert attorneys to do the questioning. And that we will let these witnesses speak and share their stories. I mean, here the facts are so overwhelming. The facts will speak for themselves. I don't think it requires interpretation from any of the members of Congress.

BLITZER: The Acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney said he's dropping his lawsuit against House Democrats. But still says he won't comply with your subpoena. Are Democrats content to let witnesses defy subpoenas as long as they can get that kind of information elsewhere?

KHANNA: No. And especially in Mick Mulvaney's case because he was in charge of the Office of Budget and Management. He knows why the decision was made to withhold aid. He knows whether the President directed him to do that.

And here is the important thing to understand about executive privilege, Wolf. It doesn't cover illegal acts. So, yes, Mick Mulvaney doesn't need to tell us about his advice to President Trump about Russia or Ukraine but he does need to disclose if there was illegality and that's not covered by executive privilege.

BLITZER: But you're not going to court to fight him because it's going to take too long, right?

KHANNA: Well, we're going to continue to fight it but we're not going to hold up the entire process to do that. And here is my view. I think we will have the public hearings.

The evidence will be overwhelming. We'll have a vote in the House. We'll have a trial in the Senate. And then over the next few years more and more information is going to come out and people are going to realize how deep this went and how wrong it was and how much of an abuse of the Constitution it was. Unfortunately we're not going to be able to get all of that information before we have to vote.

BLITZER: Congressman Ro Khanna, you guys are going to be very, very busy. Thanks so much for joining us.

KHANNA: Thanks for having me on.

BLITZER: Up next, dramatic testimony and new revelations about what Roger Stone told Donald Trump before WikiLeaks started dumping documents that hurt Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Much more on all of the breaking news right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) [17:23:05]

BLITZER: There is breaking news in the trial of President Trump's associate Roger Stone. Both the prosecution and the defense, they have now rested their cases after truly bombshell testimony today by former Trump campaign official Rick Gates.

Let's go to our Political Correspondent Sara Murray. She's outside the federal court House in Washington.

Sarah, tell us more.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf. We did get some pretty bombshell testimony today. What people may not have seen from Robert Mueller's report and that's a look at how Donald Trump allegedly reacted to Roger Stone's saying that more information was coming from WikiLeaks.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY (voice-over): Tonight a direct line is being drawn connecting then-candidate Donald Trump to Roger Stone's efforts to get intel from WikiLeaks during the 2016 campaign.

Former Deputy Campaign Chair Rick Gates testified he was riding with Trump to New York's LaGuardia Airport that summer when Trump took a phone call from Stone lasting several minutes.

Gates said the two men apparently discussed WikiLeaks plans to release Democratic e-mails which were hacked and stolen by Russians. "After Mr. Trump got off the phone with Mr. Stone, what did Mr. Trump say," the prosecutor asked Gates. "He indicated more information would be coming," Gates responded today at Stone's criminal trial.

Gates testified that prior to WikiLeaks first e-mail dump for months information had been talked about. After the July release, Gates said, "The campaign was in a state of happiness."

TRUMP: This just came out. WikiLeaks, I love WikiLeaks.

MURRAY: Gates' testimony flies in the face of denial from both Stone and Trump that the two ever discussed WikiLeaks.

TRUMP: I know nothing about WikiLeaks. It's not my thing.

MURRAY: In written responses to Robert Mueller's team, President Trump said, "I did not recall" any communication between Stone and WikiLeaks. But the phone call and Trump's reaction described in court today puts into sharper focus how much Trump allegedly knew about how the Russian hack and release of e-mails could boost his campaign. This revelation was ultimately redacted from the public version of the Mueller report because Stone's case was ongoing.

[17:25:08]

During the residential campaign Stone bragged about his contacts with WikiLeaks founder, Julian Assange.

ROGER STONE, LOBBYIST: I actually have communicated with Assange. I believe the next tranche of these documents pertain to the Clinton foundation but there is no telling what the October surprise may be.

MURRAY: He later walked those claims back and said he never communicated directly with Assange. When he testified before the House Intelligence Committee, he claimed he used intermediaries.

In January, Stone was arrested in a predawn raid at his Florida home. He was charged with lying to the House Intelligence Committee, obstructing those proceedings and witness tampering. He pleaded not guilty to all seven charges he faces.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

MURRAY: Now, Wolf, Roger Stone will not be taking the stands in his own defense. Instead, today his attorney's plead for the jury a portion of that testimony that Roger Stone offered to the House Intelligence Committee where he's accused of having lied.

But they played a portion where Stone repeatedly denied that he colluded with any Russians, anyone from the Russian government to interfere in 2016. The case continues tomorrow when both sides are expected to offer their closing arguments. Back to you.

BLITZER: And this trial went relatively quickly. Thanks very much Sara for that report.

All right, we have a lot to discuss. Our experts and our analysts, they are standing by. Lots of breaking news. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:31:28]

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories right now including "The New York Times" now reporting that President Trump has considered firing the Intelligence Community's Inspector General, Michael Atkinson, because Atkinson concluded that the whistleblower's complaint about the President's interactions with Ukraine was credible.

Let's bring in our experts to discuss all of this. Mark Mazzetti, you work at "The New York Times." How significant are these discussions that your -- your newspaper is now reporting about firing the Inspector General for bringing this whistleblower complaint to Congress?

MARK MAZZETTI, WASHINGTON INVESTIGATIVE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Well, we certainly believe that the President has vented about Michael Atkinson for some time and, as my colleagues reported, talked openly about firing him, again, because of this question of whether he was loyal or not.

And this is, of course, a pattern with the administration. Recall with Jeff Sessions, James -- James Comey, the idea that anyone who might make a decision that could be contrary to the President's interests was disloyal and therefore, could be fired.

You know, it's -- this moved -- this story has moved so fast that many people might forget Michael Atkinson's -- Atkinson's role in this, and it is quite significant. He was the person who first assessed the whistleblower's complaint, sent it to Congress, and here we are today on the eve of impeachment hearings.

So you can see the President's anger at Michael Atkinson, but it doesn't appear that this is something he's going to act on any time soon.

BLITZER: Yes, the ramifications of that would be very, very significant. And he also concluded, the Inspector General, that the whistleblower's complaint was credible. That's why he sent it to Congress.

Nia, let's talk a little bit about tomorrow. Democratic congressional aides, they're telling CNN that the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, Adam Schiff, intends to use his opening statement during this, the first public impeachment hearing, to lay out the scope of the investigation. How critical will it be for the Chairman to make an impact right there from the very start?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: Very, very important for Adam Schiff to do that. Adam Schiff, of course, is a former prosecutor. He sees opening statements as akin to opening arguments that a prosecutor would lay out before jurors, right? So that's what he'll do tomorrow.

He'll want to focus on the details of the case but put those details into a larger story and paint a bigger narrative about what happened and what he sees as wrong with what happened.

And I think the other challenge he has, and one of the goals he'll have, is to put it in plain, simple to understand language, right? Not sort of inside the beltway language, not legalese, not Latin, not quid pro quo but something that people can easily understand and easily remember.

And in that way, he sort of sets the table for the witnesses. And the witnesses, of course, will do much of the heavy lifting throughout this hours and hours of testimony, but he'll certainly want to have a memorable opening argument to lay before the American people that they can go away with and remember the facts of this case and why the stakes are so high.

BLITZER: Yes, that's really important. And, Sabrina, let's talk about all of this. Because Democrats haven't always had success with these public hearings. As you know, Adam Schiff himself handed President Trump one of the President's favorite talking points when he did that parody of the call with Ukraine. Is there some level of serious political risk for Democrats tomorrow?

SABRINA SIDDIQUI, NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: Well, I think the challenge for Democrats is going to be to let the facts speak for themselves. They have gathered a significant amount of evidence through these closed-door depositions over the course of the past month. And now, they need to tell this story in a clear-cut way before the American public.

[17:35:04]

And so, Republicans are going to try to make this about the phone call between President Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart, President Zelensky, which Republicans say does not amount to a quid pro quo.

And they also will try and get into definitions of a quid pro quo and whether or not the President's conduct amounts to an impeachable offense. That's not where Democrats want to focus their attention, what would essentially be more of a partisan back and forth.

What they want is to build this case before the American people where they have witnesses who have essentially told a fairly straightforward story, which is that critical military assistance to Ukraine was withheld in order to launch or have the Ukrainian government launch political investigations that were sought by the President.

And they also want these witnesses to reinforce that these efforts were being overseen through this irregular backchannel that was led by the President's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. That's the story that they need to tell, especially as Republicans try to undercut some of the key elements of these -- their testimony.

BLITZER: You know, Bianna, we're also learning more about the Republican strategy for tomorrow, and it's critically important obviously. Take a look at some of the key Republican talking points for defending the President during this public televised impeachment hearing. And we've put them on -- on the screen. We mentioned them earlier. Do you think that's going to be a successful strategy?

BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN SENIOR GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: Well, those talking points alone, Wolf, are -- are not that successful, and I'll tell you why.

You go through the argument of the President saying that he did not pressure Zelensky, and Zelensky came out publicly and said that he was not pressured. He really didn't have much of an option.

This is a much weaker country who's in a hot war with Russia, losing thousands of Ukrainians in this war, desperately in need of military assistance, and publicly in need of a meeting with the President at the White House. So for him to come out and say, yes, I was pressured would not be worth it for him if that were the case.

Also, another talking point is who -- who cares? They got the money, no big deal. They ended up getting what they needed.

They had a short window. By the end of September would have been the end of the budget year, and they would have run out of that money. That money would have expired, and Congress would have had to reappropriate that funding and that military aid. So the only reason that that may -- that aid came out at September

11th was because there was so much pressure and noise coming out of the White House and from that whistleblower.

And then another argument they make is that the Ukrainians didn't know that the money was being withheld and the aid was being withheld when, in fact, many of the witnesses -- including Laura Cooper who said that she was called by her Ukrainian sources and was surprised that they were well aware of what was going on in Washington.

And clearly, Zelensky, immediately after he was inaugurated and -- and elected, was concerned and held meetings, high-profile meetings, about how to proceed moving forward with working with this back channel through Rudy Giuliani and getting that aid.

And the bigger picture that Democrats need to make is that this goes beyond just one phone call. This goes beyond just this past summer and the whistleblower. This is something that has been going on for months, if not over a year. This has been an issue that Rudy Giuliani has been pressuring the Ukrainians prior to Zelensky. Petro Poroshenko, his predecessor, they had been pressuring them as well.

So this is something that the Democrats will need to tell the full picture of, not just one phone call.

BLITZER: That's an important point. Everybody, stand by. There is more on the breaking news we're following, including new transcripts in the Trump impeachment investigation raising a very disturbing question. Why does President Trump seem obsessed with not angering the Russian leader, Vladimir Putin?

[17:38:43]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: We're following all of the breaking news on tomorrow's televised impeachment hearings. Much more of that coming up. We're getting new information, both parties right now meeting to plan strategy.

But we're also keeping a very close eye on the breaking news coming out of Israel and Gaza. Nearly 200 rockets have been fired from Gaza in retaliation for Israeli airstrikes targeting members of the Islamic Jihad militant group including a senior leader.

CNN's Oren Liebermann is near the Israel-Gaza border for us right now. So what's the latest? What's the situation, Oren, right now?

OREN LIEBERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, well into the evening here, there have been red alerts warming -- warning of incoming rocket fire. And over the course of the past hour and a half or two hours, the Israeli military, the IDF, has carried out strikes inside of Gaza.

So the fighting that started very early this morning certainly isn't over yet from what we're seeing. If fact, there were a number of interceptions above our head at about 9:00 a.m. local time, so three hours or so ago.

This all starts early this morning, at about 4:00 a.m. in the morning, when Israel carried out a targeted killing, an assassination of Palestinian Islamic Jihad leader Baha Abu al-Ata. They say he was a ticking time bomb, someone who is planning to carry out attacks against Israel in the immediate future and had been responsible for some of the rocket strikes that we've seen from Gaza into Israel over the course of the past few months.

That, they say, is why they decided to carry out that targeted killing. In response, Islamic Jihadists fired off, at this point, some 200 rockets and some of the more powerful rockets that have gone some 30 or 40 miles into Israel.

As of this point, Israel has carried out a number of airstrikes as well. There are 10 who have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian Ministry of Health there, as well as injuries and damage, of course, on both sides of the border.

The key question, of course, is where does this go from here? And this is where it's important to point out why this time is fundamentally different.

[17:45:03]

As of right now, Israel, it seems, has almost gone out of its way to make sure and make it clear that this fighting is between Israel and Islamic Jihad, and that's how Israel would like to keep it. Israel said Islamic Jihad is responsible for all the rockets, and Israeli strikes have targeted Islamic Jihad positions.

So far, Hamas, the militant group that runs Gaza, that's the most powerful group inside of Gaza, according to Israel, has not fired any rockets. Whether they decide to do so because of internal pressure or otherwise will go a long way to determining, Wolf, how this goes over the next couple of days here.

BLITZER: Yes, really tense situation unfolding. Oren Liebermann, on the border there, thanks very much. Be careful.

Coming up, what new impeachment testimony reveals about President Trump and his desire to keep Vladimir Putin happy.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[17:50:43]

BLITZER: The impeachment inquiry testimony released by House Democrats is shedding new light on President Trump and his efforts to keep Russian President Vladimir Putin happy.

CNN's Brian Todd is working this part of the story for us. Brian, based on the sworn testimony, it seems Mr. Trump is concerned about doing anything that would really anger Putin.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Right, Wolf, those transcripts reveal that anything that might have set the Russian President off was met with resistance or, at the very least, hesitation from the President and his aides. And tonight, analysts are warning that Putin is going to see the contents of those transcripts, take that ball, and run with it.

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DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: It's great to be with you.

TODD (voice-over): New indications tonight of a president who's determined not to anger his counterpart in the Kremlin. The revelations come in newly released transcripts of House impeachment hearing testimony from two top aides to the former U.S. Special Envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker.

Catherine Croft testified that a couple of years ago, a hold was put on America's sale of javelin tank-busting missiles to Ukraine. Why? In a briefing with then-Budget Director Mick Mulvaney, the question centered around the Russian reaction. That Russia would react negatively to the provision of javelins to Ukraine.

A clear signal, critics say, of Trump, once again, trying to placate Vladimir Mir Putin.

DEREK CHOLLET, EXECUTIVE VICE PRESIDENT AND SENIOR ADVISOR FOR SECURITY AND DEFENSE POLICY, THE GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE UNITED STATES: In casino terms, this is a tell. I mean, he knows what bottom -- what Donald Trump's bottom line is. He sees it laid out plainly in these transcripts. Trump is trying to find ways to cooperate with Russia at almost any cost and with great resistance from within his government.

TODD (voice-over): Ukraine eventually got the javelin missiles.

But the new transcripts reveal another instance where the President seemed worried about backlash from Putin. Former Volker aide Christopher Anderson testified that Trump saw a report from CNN's Ryan Brown in December of last year --

RYAN BROWNE, CNN REPORTER: -- the Turkish government.

TODD (voice-over): -- about a U.S. warship moving into the Black Sea to counter Russia's aggression.

BROWNE: And the U.S. moving a warship into that area could be seen as pushing back on Russia.

TODD (voice-over): It prompted an urgent call from Trump to his national security adviser. According to Christopher Anderson, quote, Ambassador Bolton relayed that he was called at home by the President, who complained about this news report.

Analysts say the former KGB colonel in Moscow will be buoyed by these transcripts, confident that he can get his way with a president who views him sympathetically. MAX BOOT, CNN GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: He is doing things like

stepping up his aggression in Ukraine and in Syria, and he feels pretty safe from American push back. If you look at what Russian T.V. says, they basically play around with Trump. They make fun of him as being a Russian lackey.

TODD (voice-over): President Trump has denied being a stooge for Putin.

TRUMP: Probably nobody has been tougher to Russia than Donald Trump.

TODD (voice-over): But experts warn, going forward, Vladimir Putin will use the transcripts and the impeachment probe as a whole to try to further manipulate Trump and subvert him.

CHOLLET: One of the core strategies of Vladimir Putin has been to divide. Divide the U.S. from its partners and, as we've seen recently, divide the U.S. from within itself.

If you're Vladimir Putin and -- and Russian leadership reading these transcripts, and there's no question that they are watching this whole impeachment drama quite closely, what they see is a president who is fundamentally trying to work on their side.

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TODD: Analysts say these transcripts also illustrate how easy President Trump is making it for Putin's spies to gather intelligence on him. Unlike Putin whose secrets and closest confidants are harder to crack for U.S. intelligence, Trump remains an open book. His public statements and reactions making it easy for Putin to read where the President is going on any given issue -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Very important. Brian Todd, good report. Thank you very much.

There's more breaking news coming up next. President Trump reportedly considering firing the Intelligence Community's Inspector General who reported the whistleblower complaint to Congress that sparked this impeachment inquiry.

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BLITZER: Happening now, breaking news. Impeachment talks. House Democrats are meeting tonight as they prepare to make their case for impeaching President Trump with T.V. cameras rolling. We're getting late details on their strategy on this eve of potentially explosive hearings.

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Firing threat. There's new reporting tonight that the President discussed ousting the Intelligence Community's watchdog who reported the whistleblower complaint to Congress. Could that be used as impeachment evidence?