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New Impeachment Testimony Revelations; Interview With Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD); Testimony Says, E.U Ambassador Told Trump Ukrainian President Will Do Anything You Ask Him To; CNN Obtains Opening Statement of Witness Who Overheard Trump Call Asking About "Investigations". Aired 6-7p ET
Aired November 15, 2019 - 18:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: A very, very dramatic development in the impeachment investigation of President Donald Trump.
I want to go to Phil Mattingly, who's got -- all of us now have, Phil, the transcript of the opening statement by this U.S. Embassy official in Ukraine, David Holmes, who overheard a conversation between the president of the United States and the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, at a restaurant in Kiev in Ukraine, in which the president was talking -- the president was talking about his disdain, in effect, for Ukraine.
The only thing he really wanted, the only thing he wanted basically was an investigation by the Ukrainians of the Bidens.
I want you to go ahead and for our viewers read that section of this transcript of this opening statement from David Holmes in which all of that is laid out.
PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, it is a 10-page opening statement.
And it was read, according to sources, word for word to members of the committee a short while ago. That deposition is still ongoing.
But the statement is both detailed and it is damning.
Now, to set the context here, David Holmes, a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, is talking about coming out of a meeting with Ukrainian President Zelensky.
And as he says here -- quote -- "As I was leaving the meeting with President Zelensky, I was told to join the meeting with Ambassador Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., and Mr. Yermak, a top official in Zelensky's team, as a note taker. I had not expected to join the meeting. There was a flight of stairs behind Ambassador Sondland as he headed to meet with Mr. Yermak.
When I reached Mr. Yermak's office, Ambassador Sondland had already gone in. I explained to Mr. Yermak's assistant that I was supposed to join the meeting as the embassy's representative and strongly urged her to let me in. But she told me that Ambassador Sondland and Mr. Yermak had insisted that the meeting be one-on-one with no note taker.
I then waited in the anteroom until the meeting ended, along with a member of Ambassador Sondland's staff and a member of the U.S. Embassy in Kiev staff. When the meeting ended, the two staffers and I accompanied Ambassador Sondland out of the presidential administration building an into an embassy vehicle.
Ambassador Sondland said that he wanted to go for lunch. I told Ambassador Sondland that I would be happy to join if he wanted to brief me on the meeting with Mr. Yermak and discuss other issues. And Ambassador Sondland said that I could join. The two staffers joined as well.
The four of us went to a nearby restaurant and sat in an outdoor terrace. I sat directly across from Ambassador Sondland, and went directly to two staffers through the" -- Wolf, when you go through the details of this actual deposition, of this opening statement, it makes very clear that during the lunch, Ambassador Sondland said he was going to call President Trump and give him an update.
Ambassador Sondland placed a call on his mobile phone. And I heard him announce himself several times along the lines of 'Gordon Sondland holding for the president.' It appeared he was being transferred through several layers of switchboards and assistants.
I then notice Ambassador Sondland's demeanor change, and I stood that he had been connected with President Trump. While Ambassador Sondland's phone was not on speakerphone, I could hear the president's voice through the earpiece of the phone. The president's voice was very loud and recognizable. And Ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume.
I heard Ambassador Sondland greet the president. And while he was talking to the president, and explained that he was calling from Kiev, I heard President Trump then clarify that Ambassador Sondland was in Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland replied, yes, he was in Ukraine. And he had just" -- sorry, Wolf, trying to go through the entire details of this right now.
Ambassador Sondland -- "President Trump clarified that Ambassador Sondland was in Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland replied, yes, he was in Ukraine, and went on to state that President Zelensky 'loves your ass.'"
He continued that he -- I often heard President Trump ask, 'So, he's going to do the investigation?' Ambassador Sondland replied, 'He's going to do it,' adding that, 'President Zelensky will do anything you ask of him.'
Even though I didn't take notes of these statements, I have a clear recollection of the statements that were made. I believe that my colleagues who were sitting at the table also knew that Ambassador Sondland was speaking to the president." Wolf, the statement goes on in detail. It also goes on into further meetings, including a meeting later in August with Ambassador John Bolton, where Bolton expresses his frustration with Ambassador Sondland's portfolio, expresses concern about Rudy Giuliani.
In all, though, what this does explicitly is, it confirms Ambassador William Taylor's testimony on Wednesday that a staffer was in fact present, that a staffer did in fact hear the president very clearly and explicitly talk about investigations, and that Gordon Sondland then spoke to the staffers after the president hung up the phone.
He informed the staffers that the president was -- quote -- "in a bad mood." And he informed the staffers that, when it came to Ukraine, the president -- quote -- "just cares about the Bidens."
Wolf, what this does is, it provides a first-person witness to the president's own words, something that Taylor in his testimony on Wednesday first alluded to.
That deposition is still ongoing behind closed doors right now. But the depth and detail of this statement -- again, he says he did not take notes from this meeting. But he says two things that are important here, he has a very clear recollection of the meeting, and that there were two other staffers who were sitting at the table that also would confirm the same exact things that he was saying.
In other words, everything that Taylor testified to has now been confirmed in first person through the words and direct quotes of the president, as well as the thereafter conversation with Ambassador Gordon Sondland.
Wolf, this is something that Democrats have been looking for. This is something that was obviously new when it came out on Wednesday. And this is a statement in full detail over the course of 10 pages, and the deposition question-and-answering that is still going on right now, that will certainly move to the very heart of the Democrats' investigation into what's going on here with Ukraine, the very heart of their impeachment inquiry.
And you can almost be certain, at this stage in time, at least based on this opening statement, there's a very good chance that we will hear from David Holmes in a public setting at some point soon. That hasn't been confirmed yet. The committee has not said whether or not they're going to do that.
But several members I talked to coming out of this briefing made very clear, this is somebody they want to testify publicly. And based on this statement, Wolf, you can see why.
BLITZER: Significant development, indeed.
Phil Mattingly, thank you very much. Stand by. I'm going to get back to you. John King, so much jumps out at us, specifically when Ambassador Sondland tells this U.S. Embassy official day, David Holmes, that President Zelensky, when he said that in this conversation that he overheard with the president, President Zelensky, he told the president, "loves your ass."
And he will do whatever you want, including investigations of the Bidens.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: There are a number of things here very important to the impeachment inquiry.
Number one, it's the voice of the president of the United States. Number two, the fact that the aides were excluded from this meeting. Gordon Sondland goes into this meeting. The aides who thought they were going in are left out.
But then Gordon Sondland emerges and tells the president, President Zelensky loves you. He will do whatever you want.
And again, according to what Mr. Holmes overheard, and then what Ambassador Sondland told him afterwards, when he questioned him, investigations came up directly from the United States. Mr. Sondland told them that he knew from his conversations with the president investigations meant the Bidens.
In the context of the impeachment inquiry, the Republicans have been saying essentially that, if anything went wrong, it was an immaculate conception. It just sort of happened in Ukraine or people who didn't know it was happening. You can't connect it to the president.
That is a career Foreign Service official saying he heard the voice of the president of the United States after a very key meeting.
Just one other quick point. Just as the -- for me, this has nothing to do with the impeachment, but two-and-a-half years into the Trump presidency, the president of the United States saying, I don't think Ukraine is a big deal to his ambassador, you have the heirs of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan in that committee room defending this president.
Just on a policy standpoint, if two-and-a-half years into his administration, he didn't realize how important Ukraine was to the world, hmm.
BLITZER: You know, Preet Bharara, our senior legal analyst, former U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York, Preet, you're listening to all the breaking news right now.
PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes.
BLITZER: This is no longer hearsay.
This is a senior U.S. Embassy official in Ukraine. There's an ambassador. There's a DCM, deputy chief of mission, the charge, and then there's a counselor for political affairs. David Holmes is the counselor for political affairs. He overhears a
conversation between the president of the United States and the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., in which the president makes these statements. This is no -- this is no longer hearsay. This is somebody who is listening directly to the voice of the president.
BHARARA: Yes, to the extent there are people who say, well, witnesses who were not part of the conversation can't be believed, obviously, you can't say that about this person.
And as anybody knows, even if this were a court of law, which it's not, it's an impeachment proceeding, and the technical rules of evidence don't apply, but in any event, even in a court of law, the statements by the defendant, in this case, the putative defendant would be Donald Trump, statements by the person who is being held accountable are admissible in a court of law.
So it satisfies not only a low burden and threshold you have impeachment inquiries, basically whatever the majority decides it should be, but also satisfies even the more rigorous requirement under the federal rules of evidence.
And it's devastating in a lot of ways, for some of the reasons that John King was saying, but also because it's yet another example, beyond the July 25 phone call, of the president's single-minded obsession with making sure that these investigations were done, and not just done, but announced that they were going to be done, because that's the reason why he wanted to withhold the military aid.
So every additional example of President Donald Trump saying in his own words that he cared about an announcement of investigation of the Bidens is incriminating with respect to him, and further leads us down the road to impeachment.
BLITZER: It certainly does.
Josh Campbell, as we're listening to these dramatic developments, when we say this is breaking news, this is potentially devastating information for the president of the United States.
JOSH CAMPBELL, CNN LAW ENFORCEMENT ANALYST: It is.
I mean, as you look through it, you hear more and more, we start to glean information about why the security assistance was on hold. I mean, one of the striking statements that we see here in the statement is he says that: "Look, by this point, my clear impression was the security assistant hold" -- talking about Ukraine -- "was likely intended by the president either to express dissatisfaction that the Ukrainians had not yet agreed to the Burisma-Biden investigation or as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so."
Again, as you talk about moving closer to the source, someone who's saying, this is why the security assistant was on hold, at least his impression, that's very damning. DANA BASH, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: And just the context
here is really, really important.
Preet said beyond the call. It wasn't very much beyond the call. It was the next day. The president has this phone call with the Ukrainian leader.
BLITZER: On July 25.
BASH: July 25.
His man on the case, Gordon Sondland, who, by the way, should have nothing to do with Ukraine, because he's the ambassador to the European Union. Ukraine is not a member of that. Put that aside.
The man who he tasked with filling out or carrying out this quid pro quo, apparently, is there meeting with the president, and then reporting back to the president the very next day, saying, he will do what you want.
I mean, that is significant. It is one, and then the other.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, it also -- the president could say, well, when I said investigations, I mean corruption generally.
But as you continue in this opening statement, when Gordon Sondland is talking about, well, the president only cares about the big stuff -- and I'm presuming he meant that sarcastically -- Mr. Holmes says, well, there's a war in Ukraine, et cetera, et cetera.
And then the president -- and then someone apparently says, "No, like the Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani is pushing."
So that was the big stuff. It wasn't the war in Ukraine. It wasn't getting the military aid over there. It was about his obsession with this political investigation -- or this political announcement that he wanted made by the president of Ukraine and wanted -- wanted that to be the key to getting the military assistance released.
So this is important. I will make a prediction now, which is that it'll be only a few minutes until the president throws Sondland under the bus at some point. And he will say, he completely misinterpreted what I was talking about, et cetera, et cetera.
BLITZER: David Holmes, Sara Murray, he has a lot of credibility. He's a career Foreign Service officer. He's in charge of the political affairs unit. He's the counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev in Ukraine.
And he listens in and he describes as Sondland, the ambassador to the E.U., takes his cell phone, moves it away from his ear, puts it on speaker so they can hear -- it's a little noisy at that terrace restaurant in Kiev -- and all of them are listening to the president's voice. SARA MURRAY, CNN NATIONAL POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right,
which is alarming for a number of reasons, including what we previously talked about, that it's not just the people in the restaurant who were probably listening to that call, but a number of foreign governments, including the Russian government, were probably listening into that as well.
But it also cuts at the heart of what Republicans have been using as their defense this week, which is to say, did you talk to the president directly about this?
Well, David Holmes did not talk to the president directly about this, but he did hear the president speaking directly about it with the guy the president thought he could trust, Gordon Sondland, the guy he thought he could check in with the day after this call, who would make sure that these investigations were being carried out.
And I think we need to keep that in mind when we are hearing these responses from Republicans that people don't have firsthand knowledge. This is someone who did overhear this phone call.
But these are also the people who had to answer all of the questions to their Ukrainian counterparts about what was going on, why this money wasn't coming through, what the president actually cared about.
And we get a very clear answer in David Holmes' opening statement about what the president cared about. And it was his own political future.
BLITZER: And, Susan Hennessey, this now sets the stage for Ambassador Gordon Sondland's public televised testimony on Wednesday, which will be potentially very, very explosive.
SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes.
I think one of the critical questions here is how exactly you square this statement not just with Gordon Sondland's original deposition testimony to Congress, but actually even his updated testimony?
I think there are real questions about whether Gordon Sondland has created potential legal liability for himself or some form of legal exposure. And if the only way that he can now clean this up, he said that he had a few conversations with the president. He doesn't really remember how many.
He certainly doesn't describe anything that sounds anything like this president -- anything like this kind of call, the president following up the very next day and saying he's going to do the investigations, Sondland responding, he's going to do it.
It's very hard to square that with his testimony that's on the record now. And so if Gordon Sondland feels that he's in a position of personal vulnerability, he might be more inclined this time on the third try to finally come out and tell the full and complete story about what he knows.
BLITZER: Well, let me ask Preet about liability and potentially a criminal act.
Gordon Sondland is going to be testifying openly, open session, television cameras there on Wednesday. He's got version one, version two. Now we are learning about a whole new version.
And let's not forget, Preet, this is not a career diplomat. This is a political appointee by the president, a guy who owns hotels, a very wealthy guy from Portland, Oregon, who gave a million dollars to the Trump inaugural committee and, as a result, was named U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
So, to the extent he's not as credible as some of these other folks who have been lifelong public servants in the diplomatic corps, I think that's correct.
Look, there will be some arguments that I think the Republican side, supporters of Trump will make. I don't think they go very far, but they will say, for example, with respect to Mr. Holmes, he didn't sound like he made a contemporary note at the time. It doesn't sound like he told Bill Taylor about this at the time.
Bill Taylor, as you know from testimony this week, said he had just heard the story in the last few days. But it will matter if there are other staffers who come forward -- and I there's been reporting that there's at least one, maybe two others.
And if those stories are all consistent, and Sondland says something different, then people will have, depending on what their point of view is, something to work with.
But I think that Sondland clearly has, in his mind, a worry about being seen to be inconsistent and about being untruthful, because that's the reason why he corrected his testimony the first time.
It is not a good look to correct your testimony once. It's a worse look to correct your testimony a second time, but even worse than correcting your testimony a second time is not doing it and being found out to be a liar and having lied to Congress.
So, right now, he should be probably holed up with lawyers trying to figure out, what is his best recollection and how he can square the testimony that sounds very credible from David Holmes with what he himself experienced.
It's hard to believe that you don't remember a telephone call from the president of the United States in a restaurant where you had to hold the phone away from your ear after such a momentous thing like the July 25 call, when he was helping to spearhead all of this and, as Dana Bash said, even though it was sort of outside of his wheelhouse, because he was the ambassador to the E.U.
BLITZER: Yes, it's a really, really powerful, dramatic development we're watching, Preet.
Everybody, stand by. We're going to continue our coverage of the breaking news. And it is very significant. We will do that right after a quick break.
BLITZER: The breaking news, CNN has just obtained the bombshell 10- page single-spaced opening statement from the U.S. official who overheard the phone conversation between the president of the United States and the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, over at a restaurant in Ukraine.
Joining us now, Congressman Jamie Raskin, a Democrat on the Oversight and Judiciary committees. He was inside this closed-door deposition.
Congressman, thanks very much for joining us.
I'm going to read one little paragraph from this 10-page document, this opening statement from David Holmes, the U.S. counselor for political affairs at the embassy.
He was at the table when they were -- when the conversation between the president and Ambassador Sondland was taking place.
"I heard Ambassador Sondland greet the president and explain that he was calling from Kiev. I heard President Trump then clarify that Ambassador Sondland was in Ukraine. replied, yes, he was in Ukraine. And he had just" -- sorry, Wolf, trying to go through the entire details of this right now.
Ambassador Sondland -- "President Trump clarified that Ambassador Sondland was in Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland replied, yes, he was in Ukraine, and went on to state that President Zelensky -- quote -- 'loves your ass.' I then heard President Trump ask, 'So, he's going to do the investigation?' Ambassador Sondland replied that 'He's going to do it,' adding that, 'President Zelensky will do anything you ask of him.'
"Even though I didn't take notes of these statements, I have a clear recollection that these statements that were made. I believe that my colleagues who were sitting at the table also knew that Ambassador Sondland was speaking with the president."
All right, you're there. You heard him read this statement. Tell us the significance of what we have now learned.
REP. JAMIE RASKIN (D-MD): Well, Wolf, I don't know whether the statement you just read has been released or whether a statement presented by the witness has been officially released, so I can't confirm or deny the specific text there.
I will tell you that everything that I heard in that room confirms and corroborates everything we have understood up until this point, which is that the president was the one who was executing this campaign of extortion, shakedown against the Ukrainian government.
And Ambassador Yovanovitch's testimony today, I think, was absolutely devastating to the president and his defenders. She demonstrated very clearly, a 33-year veteran of the State Department, Foreign Service, an ambassador who served four Republicans and two Democrats, totally nonpartisan, and she was able to essentially show that Trump doesn't care about the State Department, he doesn't care about American values, he doesn't care about the Ukrainian people.
Of course, he cared about one thing, which was to extract from President Zelensky this statement about the Bidens, that, and then also to confirm the Russian disinformation theory about the 2016 campaign, that it was the Ukrainians, and not the Russians, that interfered in our elections.
So I think that, when everything comes out from this evening's testimony, I think it will be a very important addition to the specificity of the evidence. But it confirms everything that the majority has been explaining here.
BLITZER: Some of your Republican colleagues, as you know, they have insisted the account of this phone conversation between the president and Ambassador Sondland was simply hearsay.
But now we have heard directly from David Holmes. How credible do you finding his account?
RASKIN: Well, I found this witness absolutely credible, again, a complete professional who's devoted his career to the State Department and the Foreign Service. He's been all over the world. He's high- ranking. He's a graduate of the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton.
And he was just a completely credible witness with no incentive to lie, like all of these other State Department and military officials who are coming forward to tell the truth.
This is a moment of great heroism and patriotism for people who work for the United States government. I know that our colleagues across the aisle have been slandering them as the deep state.
They are not the deep state. They are the servants of the American people. They are democratic government, when democratic government is working properly. And what the president did was to set up a rogue operation under Rudy Giuliani to attack the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Ambassador Yovanovitch, and to undermine what America's real priorities and values were in dealing with that country.
BLITZER: And, remember, this phone conversation that Ambassador Sondland had with the president took place on July 26, the day after the president's phone conversation with President Zelensky of Ukraine.
And in his statement -- I will read another sentence to you, Congressman. This is David Holmes, the U.S. counselor for political affairs, U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. "My clear impression was that the security assistance hold was likely
intended by the president either to express dissatisfaction that the Ukrainians had not agreed to the Burisma-Biden investigations or as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so."
So, basically, what he's saying is, this was the quid pro quo. The $400 million in security assistance to Ukraine was being withheld until the Ukrainians launched this investigation of the Bidens.
RASKIN: Well, look, the same president who's converted the presidency into an instrument of self-enrichment through his hotels and resorts and tried to have the G7 at the Doral National Trump resort in Florida went on to convert the presidency into an instrument of reelection, and essentially put the whole government of the United States and the hundreds of millions of dollars of aid that we voted for Ukraine to the service of his political campaign, in order to cook up stories and dirt about the Bidens.
And the story is one that the public understands clearly. And the last-ditch argument of our colleagues across the aisle is going to be, well, he did it, but, well, so what? In the final analysis, he got caught and, therefore, no harm, no foul, all's well that ends well.
Of course, that's like somebody robbing a bank and getting caught right when they're about to exit the bank and saying, oh, well, I never made it outside the door, so everything is OK, you can have the money back, let's start over again.
It's -- the stakes are way too high for the American people and for Congress to let this kind of serious criminal misconduct go.
BLITZER: Congressman Jamie Raskin of Maryland, thanks so much for joining us.
RASKIN: And thank you for having me, Wolf.
BLITZER: All right, we're going to continue our coverage of this very dramatic, powerful breaking news, clearly a significant development that's unfolding right now.
Much more of our special coverage right after this.
BLITZER: We're following major breaking news in the impeachment investigation of President Trump. A diplomatic aide testifies that he heard the U.S. ambassador to the European Union tell President Trump that Ukraine's leader would, quote, do anything you ask him to do.
CNN has now obtained David Holmes' opening statement during a closed- door sworn deposition tonight confirming he overheard that incriminating phone conversation between the ambassador and the president.
Let's go to Capitol Hill right now with Congressional Correspondent Phil Mattingly.
You have a copy of the official statement, ten pages, single spaced, that David Holmes delivered to these members of Congress. Tell us more.
MATTINGLY: Yes. I think one of the interesting things, look, everybody is obviously focused on the lunch between Ambassador Sondland that David Holmes attended where the president called in, and David Holmes makes very clear he heard in real-time clarity what the president was saying.
But when you go deeper into ten-page very detailed statement from David Holmes, a political counselor to the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, you see more, specifically as it relates to U.S. security assistance to Ukraine.
Why this is important, Wolf, I talked to Republicans going into this deposition who said, look, the call may have happened. The call seems like it did happen but the president didn't talk specifically about security assistance. The president may not have spoken about security assistance but it's very clear, as David Holmes continues his opening statement, that security assistance was very much on his mind and also Ambassador John Bolton's mind.
I'll take you into a meeting that occurred on August 27th. Ambassador John Bolton was in Ukraine to meet with President Zelensky ahead of what was scheduled to be President Trump's trip to Warsaw, where the two presidents were supposed to meet together. In that, he says, Ambassador Bolton further indicated the hold on security assistance would not be lifted prior to the Warsaw meeting where it would hang on whether President Zelensky was able to, quote, favorably impress President Trump.
Now, this was Ambassador Bolton talking after his meeting with President Zelensky in between meetings while he's in Ukraine.
Now, it's worth noting that Warsaw trip ended up not happening for President Trump because of the hurricane, he stayed in the United States. But Ambassador John Bolton's impression, at least according to David Holmes, was that meeting in Warsaw that was scheduled was about whether or not President Zelensky could, quote, favorably impress President Trump and that the security assistance, at least according to Bolton or Bolton's impressions of things was, in fact, contingent on that.
Holmes goes on to continue that in the wake of those meetings on August 27th, members of the U.S. embassy, individuals were working on trying to, quote, frame the issue for President Trump on security assistance, so essentially he would come around to releasing that. As he walks through that process, he says, quote, my clear impression was that the security assistance hold was likely intended by the President either to express dissatisfaction that the Ukrainians had not yet agreed to the Burisma/Biden investigations or as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so. So Holmes' impression, at least based on what he saw and what he was involved in, is the hold was explicitly related to the opening of investigations and the president's pressure to do just that.
There's also another element of that. So there's the security assistance, but there's also something we've heard a lot about in the last couple of days, and that is the scheduled interview, television interview with CNN to announce the said investigation, something that had been bandied about between top Zelensky aides and top Trump administration officials as the way to unlock everything, whether it be a presidential meeting or that security assistance.
Now, the security assistance was released on September 11th amid very serious congressional pressure, obviously after the initial whistleblower complaint had been filed. But what Holmes says here is interesting. Ambassador Taylor, in his Wednesday testimony, got to this a little bit.
He says, quote, on September 13th, remember, the assistance was released September 11th. Following a meeting with President Zelensky in his private office, in which I took notes, Ambassador Taylor and I ran into Mr. Yermak, the close adviser to President Zelensky, on the way out. When Ambassador Taylor, again, stressed the importance of staying out of U.S. politics and said he hoped no interview was planned, Mr. Yermak shrugged in resignation and did not answer, as if to indicate he had no choice. In short, everyone thought there was going to be an interview and just -- and they also thought that Ukrainians believed that they had to do it.
Again, the importance of this, obviously, everybody is focused on the meeting and rightfully so where President Trump could be heard at that lunch. But also getting the on the ground details from diplomatic officials in Ukraine, what they were seeing from the Ukrainian perspective.
And Holmes, while one individual is making clear, he believe the Ukrainians felt they were being pressured and that even after the security assistance was released, Wolf, they still felt like they had to go through with that interview. They ended up not because U.S. officials told them not to. But, clearly, the pressure was there, Wolf.
BLITZER: It certainly was dramatic developments indeed. Kylie Atwood, you're getting new information as well. We're following up on this bombshell information, including information involving the fired national security adviser, John Bolton.
KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes. So as Phil was saying there, the key here is that there is a new detail with regard to what Ambassador Bolton knew, what he was telling folks about the conversations with regard to the security assistance. Because the problem is that when he was at the embassy in late August, this statement says that he indicated that security assistance would not be lifted before the Warsaw meeting.
Now, they were expecting for President Trump to meet with President Zelensky. Obviously, that ended up being the vice president meeting with President Zelensky, but how did Ambassador Bolton know that that aid wasn't going to be lifted? And what we're told here is that the indication is that something had to come that would favorably impress President Trump. That is in the words of this statement here.
Now, the question there is what does that mean, to favorably impress the president? And we are not going to be hearing in this impeachment inquiry from the former national security adviser, John Bolton, who said this stuff. So then we focus more on those who are going to be going to Congress and talking to them and had contact with the president. And Ambassador Sondland is one of those folks who will be able to describe to the best degree possible what it meant to favorably impress President Trump.
And we know that during that conversation in that restaurant in Ukraine, he said that President Trump was focused on the big things, which were those investigations of Biden. And so we -- reading between the lines here, but there are a lot of key questions that Ambassador Sondland is now going to have to answer because we're not going to hear from Bolton and we won't hear from Mulvaney.
KING: And as the building blocks, Wolf, as Democrats try to make their building block case and the Republicans try to challenge that, part of their challenge that this was a politicized bureaucracy. These were State Department people who may have disagreed with the president's policy, therefore, worked to undermine the president.
EVAN PEREZ, SENIOR JUSTICE CORRESPONDENT: The president has the right to change policy.
KING: The president has the right to change policy.
To back up Kylie's point, the same point about Bolton, that the idea that this was a politicized bureaucracy, no.
Between meetings that day, I heard Ambassador Bolton express to Ambassador Taylor and National Security Council Senior Director Tim Morrison his frustration about Mr. Giuliani's influence with the president, making clear there was nothing he could do about it. Meaning, he can't overrule the president.
Another is, just last week, the president ,when asked about Gordon Sondland, said I hardly know the gentleman. In this meeting here, I hardly know the gentleman. Here, David Holmes is telling Congress, quote, he made clear that he had direct and frequent access to President Trump and Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and portrayed himself as the conduit to the president and Mr. Mulvaney for the group, the group being the three amigos who were put in charge of Ukraine policy after Ambassador Yovanovitch, the key witness today, was pulled home.
CAMPBELL: And there's -- if I just to John's point on Rudy Giuliani, there's a pretty damning portrait of Giuliani that you find in this statement. I mean, just one of the sentences here in a paragraph. It says, it became apparent that Mr. Giuliani was having a direct influence on the foreign policy agenda and that the three amigos, which is Secretary Perry, Ambassadors Sondland and Volker, were executing on the ground in Ukraine.
In fact, at one point during a preliminary meeting of the inauguration delegation, someone wondered aloud why Mr. Giuliani was so active in the media with respect to Ukraine. And according to Mr. Holmes, Ambassador Sondland actually said that every time Rudy gets involved, he, and I won't say this word, he Fs everything up.
We heard the other Ambassador Taylor talking about these two channels, the formal channel, the informal channel. We're getting some insight about what these career diplomats thought about this backchannel with the foreign policy.
BLITZER: We're continuing to go through this ten-page document, single spaced. There's a lot of information in this opening statement from David Holmes, the U.S. Counselor, official -- the counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine.
We're going to continue our breaking news coverage on all these dramatic developments, and they are very, very significant, potentially devastating information for the president of the United States.
We'll be right back.
BLITZER: We're following the breaking news. A very, very significant statement, this opening statement, a copy of which CNN has obtained by David Holmes, the U.S. counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine. He was having lunch at a restaurant with the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., Gordon Sondland, when Gordon Sondland phoned the president of the United States on his cell phone.
The president, of course, spoke to Gordon Sondland, said some potentially very incriminating things about wanting to make sure that the Ukrainians launched a political investigation into the Bidens and that was seen as something that would lead to a lifting of U.S. military assistance to Ukraine.
Preet Bharara, this is potentially, potentially so significant in this overall impeachment inquiry.
BHARARA: I think it's a really big deal. I've been reading it again after looking at very quickly initially. And I think it's a big deal.
Look, part of what this impeachment proceeding is about is whether or not these public hearings are not only constitutionally significant but optically compelling because public sentiment is important. It's a political process in part. So we now have this testimony from David Holmes that's leaked out. He will no doubt come before cameras at some point and repeat the story. For those folks saying there is not enough pizzazz, this has got some
pizzazz. You'll likely have a second staffer testifying to the same thing, I think possibly a third. And then even before that happens, we have to see how Gordon Sondland does.
And when he's in the hot seat on Wednesday, it seems to me there's no way that he can deny there was a conversation by phone. There's no way that he can deny he had fairly easy access to the president. And the language he uses, the colloquialism, you know, Zelensky loves your ass is not something that a distant official in the administration I think probably says to the president of the United States.
So there's a closeness there that seems to have been hidden. The president says, I hardly know the guy. And he will have to admit, I think, that this call happened and how he characterizes it. If he characterizes it in a materially different way from David Holmes and others, that will be an interesting battleground.
But it's also possible that he has this revelation, corroborates what David Holmes says. This is someone the president has relied upon in favor of him. If he changes his tune on that combine wed what we're learning tonight, I think that's really devastating on top of the July 25th call. I think it's a really big deal and I don't say that too often.
BLITZER: I totally agree. Preet, stand by.
You know, Susan, I want to read to you a paragraph from the opening statement from David Holmes, the U.S. embassy official, in response to the criticism that Republicans have levied, all these accusations are simply hearsay, second, third-hand, no direct information.
Here's someone who hears the voice of the president on the cell phone conversation with the U.S. ambassador to the E.U. I'll read this.
As the current impeachment inquiry has progressed, I have followed press reports and reviewed statements that Ambassador Taylor, Ambassador Yovanovitch based on my experience in Ukraine, my recollection is generally consistent with their testimony and I believe the relevant facts were, therefore, being laid out for the American people.
However, in the last week or so, I read press reports expressing for the first time that certain senior officials may have been acting without the president's knowledge in their dealings with Ukraine. At the same time, I also read reports noting the lack of firsthand evidence in the investigation and suggesting that the only evidence being elicited at the hearings was hearsay. I came to realize that I had firsthand knowledge regarding certain events on July 26th that had not otherwise been reported and that those events potentially bore on the question of whether the president did in fact have knowledge that those officials were using the levers of our diplomatic power to induce the new Ukrainian president to announce the opening of a particular criminal investigation. And he makes it clear that investigation is Burisma and the Bidens.
HENNESSEY: Yes. So, first of all, of course, the way Republicans are describing hearsay is not accurate and they're aware of this larger scheme that was going on, but this is an individual who is saying I had a small piece of the picture, but I didn't understand that piece and now that I see it in a broader context, I realize that I do have first-hand believe of something that is significant here.
And so, he's coming forward to go on the record and say this is what I know. I think that that's a warning to other witnesses who might come forward. People like Gordon Sondland, any other individuals who might be tempted to not tell the complete truth here that there are other people who have more information that might actually corroborate or contradict their statements and that's significant.
And it's a sign to Republican members of Congress there are more shoes to drop here. We do not yet know the full story. Each new piece of the picture moves all in the same direction, but it gets worse and worse and worse for the president.
MURRAY: And it's a small piece, but it's an important piece because it is the president following up a day after this phone call with Zelensky to check on the investigation that tells you exactly where the president was and what he cared about.
PEREZ: And it's more than that. But he's -- what they're doing is they're checking on an announcement of an investigation. I think it's very important for us to remember that these guys weren't really interested in an investigation, because under normal circumstances, if you want an investigation, you do it through official channels and you do a quiet investigation so you can do a legal, defensible investigation. What they wanted was for the new president of Ukraine to go to a microphone, to go to CNN, a mainstream organization to announce this because that's what would suit the political goal here.
MURRAY: That's right.
BLITZER: Jim Baker is with us, the former FBI general counsel.
I want your thoughts on all of this, but a specific question that I keep asking and I don't have a good answer. Do you know if the president of the United States ever asked the FBI or the Justice Department to investigate the Bidens as opposed to asking the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens?
JIM BAKER, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: To my knowledge, the FBI was -- the president never asked the FBI to do that, not that I can recall sitting here now, Wolf. I think I would have said something at this point in time, but I don't remember that coming up as a topic. No is the answer to that.
BLITZER: So what do you think of these new revelations we're getting from this U.S. embassy official who overheard listening to the phone conversation between the president and the E.U. ambassador? BAKER: Yes. This is a very bad development for the president, for
Ambassador Sondland, and it really blows a hole, in the defenses that the Republican supporters of the president have been trying to construct as others have been saying with respect to the hearsay question and so on. I think it really blows a hole in that.
I think this is a very significant statement, it's extremely detailed, and it is very well written and I think addresses and -- preemptively addresses some criticisms that people might have of it, and I think it is a very well done statement and he's going to be a very difficult witness to attack.
Can I just throw one thing on Ambassador Sondland that is probably worth considering? He and his attorneys, I think, at this point in time are doing some very tough thinking about what to do next week, and I would not be shocked if he shows up. I believe he's under subpoena. So, he would have to show up.
I wouldn't be surprised if he doesn't take the Fifth Amendment because he now has exposure with respect to all these details that he seems to have not either remembered or said and so, we may go down the path where he may either claim the Fifth Amendment or ask for immunity and that would be a whole different thing. But I think he has some significant exposure that he and his attorneys are really going to have a tough weekend sort of sorting through.
BLITZER: Yes, that would be a bombshell development, indeed, if the U.S. ambassador to the E.U. took the Fifth Amendment, John King.
KING: It would be a huge development both for Ambassador Sondland's exposure and for the impeachment dramatics. And remember, we'll put this in the context of the politics here and legally that would be a giant thing, put in the context of politics.
What the Republicans were hoping for today was that you would have two witnesses the other day and Ambassador Yovanovitch comes in today and that the American people lose interest in this and that's what the Republicans woke up this morning hoping.
What happened today? The ambassador was a compelling witness anyway. She was a compelling witness before the president tweeted. She was saying dramatic things about corruption, her own story was compelling, and then the president tweets and intimidating in the middle of it, the Internet explodes and the politics on Capitol Hill explode and the president himself blew up his own strategy and the Republican Party's strategy to make this come down.
Now we have this. Someone who says he heard the voice of the president of the United States which tees you up to next week to Jim's point right there about Ambassador Sondland, to Mr. Holmes eventually going before the cameras, and then the Republican woke up today thinking they could turn this down, and it went way up.
BLITZER: Hold on a second, I'll go back to Jim Baker for a moment. If he does plead the Fifth, is there any way you think he would get immunity for prosecution in exchange for his full and honest testimony?
BAKER: So what would likely happen would be Congress would give him immunity for the statements that he would make in front of them and then that would make it extremely difficult for there to ever be a criminal prosecution down the road for any false statements that he may or may not have made. I'm not accusing him of false statements and I'm just saying there's a significant risk that he may have some legal exposure.
So that was something that we went through, we as a country went through in the Iran-Contra times and it's just very messy when Congress starts to give immunity. But in this case, they might do it. They might do it. They might -- usually the prosecutors are there trying to argue please don't do it because you'll screw up our criminal case, but in this instance, the interests of Congress are so huge that they might just be willing to do that.
BLITZER: You know, Evan, I know you're working on the Rudy Giuliani angle, as well. We know he's been under investigation by federal authorities. You're getting some new information as we speak?
PEREZ; Well, look, I mean, I think one of the things that we can see from what's been happening on the Hill this week is, Wolf, is that prosecutors in New York are paying close attention to exactly what these witnesses are saying. These people have -- some of them first- hand knowledge of what Rudy Giuliani was up to.
Certainly, they were interacting with Ukrainians that were interacting with Giuliani's operation. And so, I think this week is hugely important from a legal standpoint, from a criminal investigative standpoint to whatever comes of that investigation. Again, we don't know and we don't know the breadth of it, but certainly, what Rudy Giuliani was doing and today, the witness, the important witness today was the ambassador and her removal could potentially be a big part of a criminal case because if you were interfering with the conduct of the State Department and what she was doing essentially fighting corruption, there are U.S. laws that have to do with that, and you know, potentially Rudy Giuliani and the people who he was working with may have violated those laws.
So, again, this week is hugely important for that investigation simply because whatever these witnesses have to say, you can bet the prosecutors in New York will want to hear more about what they knew.
BLITZER: Kylie, you're getting more information, as well?
ATWOOD: Yes. What I'm learning is the White House essentially today put out this statement trying to defend against the fact that their readout of the call between President Zelensky and president Trump and that first call didn't exactly match up with the transcript that they put on out.
BLITZER: Hold on one second. Jim Acosta is at the White House and he's getting news over there, as well. Jim, what are you learning?
JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, a White House official, I just got off the phone with a White House official a few moments ago about the testimony you've been talking about over the last hour, this aide who overheard the president and Gordon Sondland talking about what was going on with the President Zelensky of Ukraine. And, Wolf, according to this White House official, they're not very concerned about what this aide has been testifying to behind closed doors. According to this White House official, I don't know what this witness does besides reflect what the president talked about the day before in the phone call with the Ukrainian president.
What this official is saying that essentially this aide is repeating behind closed doors to lawmakers essentially what he heard on a phone call between the president and Sondland after the phone call between the president and Zelensky. So this official is asking, what's the big deal when it comes to that?
But I will tell you, Wolf, that the aides of the president are not happy that Gordon Sondland apparently held the phone up so other aides could hear and allowed other aides to hear what was going on. In the words of this source familiar with the conversations inside the White House, the president speaks loudly. Sondland should know that.
And so, there is some consternation inside the White House, Wolf, that aides heard this conversation that was supposed to be going on only between the ambassador and the president, Wolf.
BLITZER: Yes. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador of the E.U., he could be in big trouble with the president of the United States and his aides, but also in big trouble potentially legally, as well.
Jim Acosta at the White House, thanks very much.
We're going to continue our special coverage of all of the breaking news right now with "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT."