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Public Impeachment Hearings Set to Begin in House of Representatives; White House Prepares Strategy to Combat Accusations of Quid Pro Quo in Impeachment Hearings. Aired 8-8:30a ET

Aired November 13, 2019 - 08:00   ET

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


[08:00:00]

RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: -- of Ukraine and their battle with Russia.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: Rick Santorum, Charlie Dent, thank you both for giving us a preview of how interesting the hearings will be this morning and how they could all go. Great to talk to you both. John?

JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Interesting and historic. And CNN's special live coverage of the impeachment hearing continues now with Wolf Blitzer.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. We want to welcome our viewers here in the United States and around the world. We're about to watch history unfold up on Capitol Hill as open impeachment hearings begin in the House of Representatives and the Trump presidency may well hang in the balance.

Today's testimony marks a make-or-break moment for Democrats. Their entire case for impeachment could depend on the momentum created today by two witnesses and their answers to these questions -- did the president and his allies pressure a foreign country to investigate a political rival? Did they try to withhold aid to that country in the middle of a war until that investigation was announced publicly? For weeks, Republicans have attacked what they said was a secretive, unfair process. But now the hearings are open and televised, and the rules have been established. So the Republican strategy will now shift, focusing instead on undercutting the substance of the Democratic narrative, poking holes in the testimony.

We're covering all the angles as these dramatic hearings are set to begin. Let's start with our senior Congressional correspondent Manu Raju. He's joining us live on Capitol Hill. Manu, set the stage.

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The gravity, both sides recognize the gravity of this moment. The Democrats and Republicans yesterday behind closed doors strategized about exactly their lines of questioning going in. For the Democrats, their strategy is very clear. They want these two witnesses to lay out the full storyline of events, their concerns about what they were seeing. The president enlisting his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani to push the Ukrainians to announce investigations into his political rivals, dig up dirt into the Bidens the same time as vital military aid had been withheld. They expect Bill Taylor to say what he said behind closed doors, that this aid, he was told, had been withheld, nearly $400 million for the Ukrainians until those investigations were announced.

And Republicans, on the other hand, are going to try to make the case that neither of these witnesses had direct line of thinking into what the president actually wanted. They didn't have any direct conversations with the president. And we are told that Republicans are going to try to shift the focus from the process, while they were criticizing the process, instead begin to attack the substance, something that they have not done over the past several weeks.

Expect Adam Schiff, the House Intelligence Committee Chairman, to set the stage from the get-go. We're told from Democratic officials that he's going to lay out the scope and what's at stake in these public hearings and detail why this Ukraine aid in particular was so significant for Ukraine to push back against Russian military aggression. And, Wolf, you said it. This kicks off two weeks of busy public hearings in which the Democrats hope will set the stage for potential impeachment proceedings in which the president could be just the third in American history to get impeached.

BLITZER: Stand by, Manu. We're going to get back to you. There's a lot going on. We want to watch it all unfold. I want to go to the White House right now. Our White House correspondent Pamela Brown is on the scene for us. Pamela, set the stage over there. The president, I'm sure, will be watching.

PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is the expectation, Wolf. It is a monumental day here at the White House and the situation of the first impeachment public hearings. And White house officials have been preparing an aggressive strategy. As one administration source told me, the White House believes it's on the offense. Another source I just spoke with said they are calm and confident. The White House has been closely coordinating with GOP lawmakers and plans on a rapid response approach where officials will be monitoring the hearing in real-time and looking for key moments to highlight that may be good for the president and push back against the witnesses' claims.

Those two witnesses are career diplomats who are still in this administration, Wolf. But that will not stop the White House, I'm told, from trying to undermine the witnesses' credibility, pointing out they weren't on the July Zelensky call and they didn't ever talk to the president directly about Ukraine. As one White House source told me, though, the expectation here is that they won't say great things about the president or that's good for this White House, but that they don't think it will be a clean shot for the Democrats. That is the expectation here today.

Now, the president is, as I said, expected to watch part of the hearing this morning before engaging in meetings with the Turkish President Erdogan who is visiting this White House a month after the president pulled out U.S. troops from Syria, triggering a Turkish invasion and a backlash from Congress. Wolf, we will have the first opportunity to hear the president's reaction to the hearing at around 3:10 p.m. where he holds a joint press conference with Erdogan.

BLITZER: We'll be hearing all of this unfold together with you, Pamela. Thank you very much.

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Democrats' first two witnesses, both career U.S. diplomats set to face lawmakers and the American public in less than two hours. Bill Taylor and George Kent are expected to tie President Trump to a pressure campaign against Ukraine. Republicans argue neither of the men had direct contact with the president and can't testify to what he did or didn't do. Kylie Atwood is joining us right now. So Kylie, why kick off the public televised impeachment hearings with these two witnesses? Why is their testimony so crucial?

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, well, Wolf, as Manu said, House Democrats have laid out the fact that these two witnesses are going to be able to tell the full storyline of the president's misconduct. And though neither of them had direct contact with President Trump himself, it's really important to look at what they already told lawmakers behind closed doors, because it's the expectation that they will reiterate that when they speak to lawmakers today.

So first we have the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine. That's Bill Taylor. And he is the person who came before lawmakers and said that it was his understanding that there was an explicit expectation that the Ukrainians would have to announce investigation into President Trump's political rivals in order to get what they wanted, and that was the release on the U.S. security assistance that had been held up. He had been told that there was a hold on that $400 million of assistance, and also the fact they wanted a meeting between President Trump and President Zelensky.

Now, Bill Taylor is someone who is widely respected. He came out of retirement in order to take this job. He actually had to be convinced by Secretary Pompeo to take the job because he was worried about taking it after Ambassador Yovanovitch had been abruptly kicked out because President Trump had lost confidence in her. And he is also someone who is a West Point graduate and he is a Vietnam war veteran, a highly decorated, respected diplomat that we're going to be hearing from.

And then on the other side we have George Kent. He is a top State Department diplomat as well, and he will reinforce the things that Bill Taylor is going to say. He was also told by U.S. officials that President Trump explicitly wanted Zelensky to go to the microphone and announce investigations and say the words, say the names of his political rivals, Biden and Clinton. So the expectation is that he will lay that out today. And George Kent is someone who has worked on Ukraine policy for the U.S. for years now. He has worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations, and he will be able to shine a really broad light on what the Ukraine policy was and how it changed over the past few months during the Trump administration. Wolf?

BLITZER: We're going to be hearing a lot from them in the next several hours. Thanks very much, Kylie, for that.

Let's break down the potential legal ramifications of all of this. Our legal and national security analyst Carrie Cordero is with us, and Ross Garber, a CNN legal analyst and impeachment expert. So what do you expect, Ross, from the questioning once it begins? We understand that staff lawyers for the committee, a Democrat and a Republican, will begin the process after we hear from the committee chairman and the ranking Republican.

ROSS GARBER, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, it's not going to be like the congressional hearings that we're used to seeing where members get five minutes to sort of speed ask questions and speed try to get the witnesses to answer, and the witnesses can sort of drag things out. So I think what I'm going to be looking for are, are the questions sharp? Are they direct? Are they used to elicit a compelling, cohesive story, and are they used to elicit potential soundbites, because I think the press has done a very good job of laying out what we expect these witnesses to say, what they said in their depositions. But this is the first time the American people are going to be able to hear directly from the witnesses. And so the questions are going to set up, obviously, the answers. And so that's what I'll be looking for.

BLITZER: The Democratic chairman and the Democratic lawyer will have 45 minutes to ask their questions. And then the Republican ranking member and the Republican lawyer will have 45 minutes to ask their questions. The Republicans, they have to get through the fact that these two witnesses basically agree that there was this so-called quid pro quo.

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes. For the last several weeks we've heard Republicans making a lot of arguments that the process was unfair, and now they have open hearings, and so they have an opportunity to be able to question the witnesses in open session, to be able to ask whatever questions they have. But these witnesses from what we know from their released transcripts from their closed testimony, they have been relatively consistent on the fact. And the central facts, Wolf, really haven't changed from the release of the July 25th phone call, which is that the issue of did the president withhold aid? Did he imply that foreign defense assistance was on the table to get President Zelensky of Ukraine to conduct investigations into his political opponents? And that's the central facts that we're going to be hearing.

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BLITZER: We're going to be hearing a lot from the Democrats, Ross, that it's very simple. The president of the United States should never have pressured a foreign leader, President Zelensky of Ukraine, to investigate American citizens -- that was inappropriate -- in exchange for military assistance or a meeting at the White House.

GARBER: Yes, and probably more important, I think what the Democrats are probably going to need to set up is that this was done for the president's personal political gain. It wasn't a foreign policy issue. I think that's where this whole thing is going to wind up breaking out. The Democrats are going to say the only reason the president was doing this and his people were doing this was for personal, political gain. At the end of the day, I think the Republicans are going to say, well, no, there was a personal political benefit that collaterally might have accrued to the president, but he was mostly concerned about foreign policy and the legitimate interests of the U.S. government. I think that's how it's going to go.

BLITZER: And Carrie, remind our viewers why it is inappropriate, to put it mildly, for a president to seek political advantages from foreign leaders.

CORDERO: This is the difference between a legitimate exercise of the president's authority to conduct foreign affairs and an abuse of that authority. So an abuse of the authority means when he's holding out something that's a foreign affairs or defense ability that he has as president, in his institutional role as president, and whether or not he is using that, as Ross says, for personal political gain. There is legitimate exercise of foreign affairs authority, and there is using it for personal benefit, which is his own political ability to get reelected, and that's what this is about. And that is an abuse of authority. That's the issue that's impeachable.

BLITZER: Guys, stick around. There's a lot more we need to cover. Carrie Cordero, Ross Garber will be with us. We're also watching Capitol Hill very closely this morning. The first public impeachment hearings set to begin just under two hours from now. I'll speak to a Republican on the House Judiciary Committee. That's coming up next. Our special live coverage will continue right after a quick break.

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[08:16:23]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Very soon, the first two impeachment inquiry witnesses, diplomats Bill Taylor and George Kent, will be arriving up on Capitol Hill. After the House Intelligence Committee finishes its public hearings over the next couple weeks, it all moves to the House Judiciary Committee where more hearings are expected before a final vote on articles of impeachment against the president of the United States.

Joining us now, Republican Congressman Mike Johnson of Louisiana. He sits on the Judiciary Committee. He's got a lot of responsibilities up there.

Congressman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. MIKE JOHNSON (R-LA): Hey, Wolf. Great to be with you this morning.

BLITZER: Let's talk about what the allegations are against the president. Do you believe, first of all, it's appropriate for the president of the United States to ask a foreign government, a foreign leader to investigate American political rivals?

JOHNSON: Well, here's the thing. We're going to talk about what's appropriate and what's legal, but we have a political show today. This is theater. It literally is.

The Democrats have been rehearsing this in the basement for weeks. They have a script predetermined. They have witnesses that they cherry picked. They know what they'll say today. It's all based on hearsay.

And now, the cameras are on. Everyone is here and this is the opening act. The problem is, Wolf, we've seen all this before. We've seen this show before. We saw it with Mueller. We saw with Lewandowski. We saw it with the Russian collusion hoax, the charade that that was.

And the problem here that we all have and we keep saying repeatedly is that this is a predetermined political outcome.

BLITZER: All right, well let me interrupt --

JOHNSON: Democrats have been trying to impeach the president since he took office.

BLITZER: Let me repeat the question. Is it appropriate for an American president to ask a foreign leader for a political favor to dig up dirt, as they say, on American citizens?

JOHNSON: I think everyone would suggest that that is not an appropriate thing, but we don't know that that's what's happened here. If you look at the facts, the transcripts, and we have to dig into that because it's all been in secret, of course. Adam Schiff has leaked what he wanted to leak. But what we do know from the transcripts is that there was no evidence that there was any pressure applied to Ukraine.

BLITZER: All right. Well, let's take a look --

JOHNSON: He said there was no pressure.

BLITZER: Let's look at the rough transcript that the White House itself released of that July 25th conversation between the president of the United States and the president of Ukraine. Among other things in this rough transcript, the president says to Zelensky, I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation in Ukraine. They say CrowdStrike. Then there's ellipses, dot, dot, dot. I guess you have one of your wealthy people dot, dot, dot, the server. They say Ukraine has it.

Doesn't it sound like the president is asking the Ukrainian president for help for dirt on the Democrats going back to the 2016 election, the reference to CrowdStrike, for example, that server?

JOHNSON: No, it sounds like President Trump is doing exactly what he was elected to do. He's trying to root out corruption. He's trying to make sure that American taxpayer dollars are spent wisely and not squandered overseas. He's draining the swamp.

And I can tell you, I was with him this weekend at the LSU/Alabama game. Thousands of Americans come up and say, thank you, Mr. President. They're screaming their appreciation while the Democrats in Washington are trying to impeach him.

It's like we're looking at two different sets of facts here. I take that transcript and what you said for what it is. It is the best direct evidence of what was said.

BLITZER: All right.

JOHNSON: The president released the transcript because he has nothing to hide.

BLITZER: A few seconds later, the president, according to this rough transcript that he himself released, he says this. The other thing, this is what his conversation with Zelensky. The other thing, there's a lot of talk about Biden's son.

[08:20:02]

That Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that. So whatever you can do with the attorney general -- referring to Bill Barr, the American attorney general -- would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it, then there's more ellipses, dot, dot, dot, it sounds horrible to me.

So, here the president is clearly asking President Zelensky for help in coming up with dirt on the Bidens.

JOHNSON: You know -- you know what the most important evidence is the only direct conversation that was had and that's Ambassador Sondland. He asked the president on a phone call, what do you want from Ukraine? The president said, quote, I want nothing. I don't want a quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing.

The right thing was to try to root out the corruption of things that happened in the past. He wasn't digging up dirt on his 2020 potential rivals. He's trying to do the job he was elected by the people to do.

Look, Wolf, I've been practicing law before I came to Congress. I litigated cases for 20 years. I've never seen a process this rigged. I've never seen where the deck was stacked intentionally and the process was rigged to get a predetermined outcome. That's what we're going to see today.

BLITZER: I understand what you're saying. Let's go to Ambassador Sondland, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, clearly not a career diplomat, a political appointee, gave $1 million to the Trump inaugural committee. He testified under oath but then submitted an addendum through his lawyer saying he wanted to clarify a position. His memory was refreshed in the course of learning what other witnesses were saying, and he then said this. I now recall speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, a Ukrainian

national security adviser, where I said that 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 anti-corruption statement referring to the Bidens and the 2016 Democrats in the presidential election.

So, even Sondland is suggesting there was this quid pro quo.

JOHNSON: So, look, Wolf, what we ought to do is demand an anti- corruption statement from every nation in the world that we give U.S. taxpayer dollars to. I don't think there's anything extraordinary about that at all.

What we do know there's no evidence that Ukraine thought that the aid was being withheld and the aid did flow. Ukraine did no investigation. They did nothing in exchange for that. There isn't a quid pro quo.

And the two witnesses that will be presented today by the Democrats, cherry picked as they are by Schiff and his colleagues, are just going to testify conjecture. It's hearsay. It's what they think or what they surmise might have been happening. They never talked to the president himself. Yes.

BLITZER: Congressman Johnson, you've been generous with your time. We're almost out of time, but the aid began to flow after the whistle- blower complaint went public and everybody knew about it. All of a sudden, the $400 million in defense-related assistance started to flow.

But here's something that I wonder if you want to discuss. If the president was so concerned about the Bidens and allegations of corruption or whatever, why did he go to the Ukrainians to discuss that? Why did he never raise that specific issue with the FBI or the Justice Department?

JOHNSON: Well, you and I don't know that that didn't occur. That's kind of the problem. Because this system is so rigged and the process they put together is so rigged, we can't put on -- Republicans can't put on our preferred witnesses. We can't get down to the bottom of some of those facts. And there's a lot more to come out.

But I think --

BLITZER: Well, a lot of the witnesses -- I will say this. A lot of the witnesses that you want, the president's top aides like Mick Mulvaney and others, the White House won't allow those Republican witnesses to appear before your committee.

JOHNSON: Well, we submitted a list of nine to start and we were given three. There's no co-equal subpoena power here. There's no real due process here for the president. At the end of the day, that's what's frustrating the American people. They're throwing their hands up in all of this.

BLITZER: Just clarify. Did the president go to the FBI and the Justice Department to seek an investigation of the Bidens?

JOHNSON: I don't know. And you don't either and that's part of the problem.

BLITZER: Well, everything -- everything we've reported on and other news organizations have reported on, the answer is, no, the president never did. He went to the Ukrainians instead.

JOHNSON: There was no requirement that he go to the FBI or anything. The president speaks frankly and openly often to the American people and everyone else. You often know what's on his mind, and he shares it expressly. And that's why they appreciate the job that he's been doing.

I think in the public, I think amongst the vast majority of the American people, they are really sick of this and want us to get back to governing the country and hopefully we can very soon.

BLITZER: Congressman Johnson, you've been generous with your time. Thanks very much for joining us on this historic day.

JOHNSON: Thank you, Wolf. Appreciate it.

BLITZER: All right. We're going to continue to watch all the history unfold. The first public televised impeachment hearing set to begin in under two hours.

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Stay with us for much more of our special coverage.

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BLITZER: All right. You are looking at live pictures from Capitol Hill right now.

Pretty soon diplomats will be entering the House of Representatives office building. The House Intelligence Committee is getting ready to hold these historic meetings. Momentarily, we'll be seeing a lot of the members arrive as well as the witnesses. Ambassador Bill Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent.

You know, Nia-Malika Henderson is with us.

You know, Nia, as we look at the format that has been worked out for today, who has the advantage?

NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL REPORTER: You know, I think it's pretty equal, right? I think the advantage in some ways goes to the viewer, right.

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