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Key Witness Confirms Hearing Phone Call, Says President Trump Asked About Ukraine Investigations; Newly Released Transcript Of First Trump-Zelensky Call In April Makes No Mention Of Corruption; Former U.S. Ambassador To Ukraine Says, Trump Attacks Very Intimidating. Aired 12-1a ET
Aired November 16, 2019 - 00:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: Hello, and thank you for joining us again this evening. This is CNN's special coverage of the public impeachment proceedings. I'm Poppy Harlow.
JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: And I'm Jim Sciutto.
While this was the week the American people met some of the key players in this investigation for the first time, the day ended with significant testimony from behind closed doors. CNN obtained the opening statement from that official who overheard a phone call between President Trump and his ambassador to the E.U.
Diplomat David Holmes told lawmakers he personally heard Trump demand an investigation of Biden and, quote, Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not give an expletive about Ukraine. And we asked, why not, Sondland told him the president only cared about, quote, "big stuff." That is stuff that benefits the president, president, such as the Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.
HARLOW: On Wednesday, Ambassador Gordon Sondland will have to answer questions under oath, even more questions about that conversation, because he is set to testify in public. This, as Holmes has revealed at least two other people in that restaurant during that phone call heard the comments from the president through the phone.
Also, the White House released a rough transcript of President Trump's first call with the Ukrainian president, President Zelensky. In that call, there is no mention of corruption despite White House readout of the call on that day saying the two leaders specifically discussed corruption. That makes this is newly released transcript of the call at odds with the White House's own readout from real-time.
So there's a lot today, needless to say, all of this as the former Ukraine ambassador testified publicly about the smear campaign waged against her when the president tweeted another fake smear while she was testifying on live television this morning.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) DANIEL GOLDMAN, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE DIRECTOR OF INVESTIGATIONS: He said, well, she's going to go through some things. What did you think when President Trump told President Zelensky when you read that you were going to go through some things?
MARIE YOVANOVITCH, FORMER U.S. AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: She's going to go through some things. It didn't sound good. It sounded like a threat.
GOLDMAN: Did you feel threatened?
YOVANOVITCH: I did.
REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): As we sit here testifying, the president is attacking you on Twitter. What effect do you think that has on other witnesses' willingness to come forward and expose wrongdoing?
YOVANOVITCH: Well, it's very intimidating.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCIUTTO: The testimony of career Foreign Service Officer David Holmes is raising other new questions. Holmes spoke about overhearing, firsthand, a newly revealed call between Ambassador to the E.U. Gordon Sondland and President Trump.
HARLOW: That conversation took place at a restaurant in Kiev in July, July 26th, to be precise. Holmes testified that the president asked Sondland directly if the Ukraine president would give him the investigations that he wanted. Sondland gave him the good news that, yes, indeed, Zelensky would do anything that President Trump asked.
SCIUTTO: And the use of choice language to get that across.
Joining us now to discuss their insights and reporting, Samantha Vinograd, former senior adviser to the National Security Adviser, this under President Obama, Elaina Plott, White House Correspondent for The Atlantic, and former federal prosecutor, Michael Zeldin. Thanks to all of you.
I have to draw attention to a key exchange, and this is from David Holmes' account of this phone call between President Trump and Gordon Sondland, because this gets, in my view, to the root of what the whole Ukraine investigation is all about. Let me just read from it.
I asked Ambassador Sondland, this is David Holmes speaking, if it was true that the president did not give an expletive about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not give a expletive about Ukraine. I asked, why not? And Ambassador Sondland stated that the president only cares about big stuff. I know that there was big stuff going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia. And Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant big stuff that benefits the president, like the Biden investigation, quote, that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.
This is, Samantha Vinograd, the key question here. Was the president putting his own political interests above U.S. national security interests regarding Ukraine and Russia? And his own appointed ambassador to the E.U. described it in exactly those terms. Tell us the significance of that.
SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: If this is not the definition of self-dealing, I don't know what is. I worked with David Holmes at the White House, in fact. He is thoughtful and he is very careful and detail-oriented. What he has documented in his sworn testimony is a man who claims to have direct channel to President Trump, who is able to just call up President Trump and get him on the phone, indicating that the president didn't care about Russian aggression in Ukraine, the anti-corruption in Ukraine. He was singularly focused on one thing, his personal needs.
And at this point, we obviously have to wait and hear what Ambassador Sondland says, but this is a firsthand account from a career foreign service officer, David Holmes.
And, Jim, it's worth noting, ambassadors don't typically have a direct line to the president of the United States for many reasons, not only because, typically, their analysis, even when they're well-briefed, unlike Ambassador Sondland, is vetted by the secretary of state, by the White House, and goes through a kind of process.
Ambassador Sondland, a man who used very undiplomatic language, in the same call with the president, was able to just pick up the phone, talk to the president of the United States, and in quite a cavalier way, in an open setting, really showcase and said explicitly that the president is only focused on himself.
HARLOW: Michael Zeldin, doesn't the argument from the administration, from many Republicans, that none of the testimony thus far has been firsthand knowledge, doesn't that go away now with David Holmes in this testimony?
MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. Well, it went away when they released the transcript of the July 25th call, because out of the mouth of the president came the explicit request for the quid pro quo.
The second thing, of course, is that Sondland will testify to it if he's truthful, and Holmes is testifying. So you've got three people, including the subject of the inquiry, Trump, who seemed to be firsthand admitting to what was going on here.
SCIUTTO: I want to look at some of this account again from David Holmes. Because, again, it gets to a conversation, he's listening to a conversation between the sitting U.S. president and his ambassador to the E.U., and describing how the president of the Ukraine, a U.S. ally at war with Russia, views the president.
And just the way Elaina Plott discussed it, and kids may be watching at home so I'm not going to quote it exactly, while Ambassador Sondland's phone was not on speakerphone, I could hear the president's voice through the earpiece of the phone. I heard Ambassador Sondland greet the president, explaining that he was calling from Kiev. I heard President Trump then clarify that Ambassador Sondland was in Ukraine. Sondland replied, yes, he was in Ukraine, and went on to state that President Zelensky 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 the President Zelensky will do anything you ask him to.
It's an interesting way to have an ambassador describe a sitting president of a foreign country, how he views the U.S. president. But tell us what this tells you about the relationship and what was important to the president in this relationship.
ELAINA PLOTT, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, here is why I think, Jim. I mean, from the beginning of this, Republicans have said to me, they've said to you guys on air, that, as with so many, quote, unquote, scandals in the Trump administration, it's not Trump himself who is involved. It's people below him who are doing the dirty work, and he doesn't know about it, and he can keep his hands clean.
One of the reasons I think this opening statement is so devastating for that defense at this point is because Trump is making quite clear that he was very intimate in terms of his demands and pushing this, and that he was quite aware of what Rudy Giuliani was doing, of what those below him are doing.
So, at this point, yes, the firsthand knowledge defense is crumbling. This idea that, I don't know these people, I can't speak to what they were doing, that's falling apart as well.
HARLOW: Just to build on your reporting that you had, I mean, you spoke to Rudy Giuliani especially a lot in the lead-up to that planned trip that he had to Vienna that was then cancelled all surrounding this. Is anything more clear to you now as it ties to Rudy Giuliani, the president, this effort in Ukraine given what we heard today?
PLOTT: I think today, for me, just highlighted how far back this goes. Again, this is not something that President Trump just became aware of on behalf of Rudy Giuliani in the last couple of months at the same time we were. It's that a CNN reporting showed Trump had met with Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman as recently or way back, excuse me, as December.
I mean, this is not something that for the president as unfolding just as it is for the public. It goes deeply with him. And it's going to be interesting to see if Gordon Sondland now affirms that in many ways, if he testifies next week.
HARLOW: If he testifies.
PLOTT: If he testifies.
VINOGRAD: Can I just add on this, and sorry, mom, loves your ass comment, but why it's so dangerous for a diplomat to be saying this to the president of the United States?
Back in the day, diplomats got the president's support for doing their jobs. Gordon Sondland retains the president's support, unlike Ambassador Yovanovitch, because he does things like tell the president what he wants to hear. This comment is obsequious and it's slightly inaccurate. Yet this is what gets the president's favor.
And it's very clear that ambassadors actually do their jobs, like advancing anti-corruption, are recalled based upon very transparent revenge campaigns, whereas someone who just flatters the president and, again, tells him what he wants to hear retains his favor.
SCIUTTO: Yes, and in an open line in a restaurant on the -- the veranda of a restaurant in Kiev where --
VINOGRAD: That anyone else can hear.
SCIUTTO: Well, there are many Russian ears and eyes, I'm sure, to that call.
I do want to ask you, Michael Zeldin, as our legal pro here. The Democrats are trying to build a legal case here, right, of the president's involvement, et cetera. He was listening to a phone call, David Holmes. From a legal perspective, how important is that kind of evidence, you know, assuming that Sondland, in his testimony, we don't know that, confirms this description.
ZELDIN: Well, it's direct evidence of a conversation that this individual is able to relay that he heard the president of the United States say that he wanted these investigations conducted before anything would go forward.
And the thing that's interesting, in the Holmes statement is that he says, by March of 2019, the White House's political agenda overshadowed U.S. foreign policy interests in addressing endemic corruption in Ukraine.
So by March, long before the July phone call, the State Department representatives in Kiev understand that this personal political agenda is overshadowing public policy agenda of the State Department. I think that's compelling evidence.
And the fact that Holmes and, hopefully, Sondland will tell the truth, and we'll hear it from, as I said, the president himself on the July 25th call is a pretty strong statement of liability with respect to abuse of power.
HARLOW: Michael, I think it's worth a moment tonight to ask you, and all our legal minds on the program, if you were representing Gordon Sondland, which you're not, at this point, given all of this, would you recommend that he take, you know, the oath and testify in public on Wednesday?
ZELDIN: So, he has a good lawyer in Bob Luskin. He's a friend, and I think highly of him. And I think at this point, Sondland has no real choice but to testify. I don't think he has a Fifth Amendment claim about self-incrimination. He has not done anything that's criminal here. He's carried out the personal political agenda of the president of the United States.
And I think if he doesn't testify, history will hold him in contempt, and potentially Congress will hold him in contempt and move to the U.S. Attorney's Office District of Columbia to force his testimony. I don't think that's where he wants to be. I think he wants to be forthright and show up and take it on the chin, if he has to, from the president.
SCIUTTO: We'll see. I mean, we did see the president disparage at least a witness during live testimony today.
SCIUTTO: You can imagine if there's some pressure behind the scenes on Gordon Sondland, who still serves in his post, by the way.
ZELDIN: But it's worse for Sondland to not tell the truth, because we saw in the conviction of Roger Stone, what happens when you lie to Congress.
ZELDIN: So I think he's got no choice but to come forward and be truthful and take whatever political hits the president has to dish out.
HARLOW: All right. Don't go anywhere, all of you. Please stay with us. We have a lot ahead this hour.
Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch warns that the chaos in Ukraine could have much bigger implications beyond what we have already seen play out, her concerns for American foreign policy in the entire region.
SCIUTTO: Plus, Democrats now accusing the president of witness intimidation, this after Trump tweeted attacks on Yovanovitch, as we mentioned, while she testified, that she felt threatened by the president by previous comments.
HARLOW: And we're getting a look at the first phone call between President Trump and Ukraine's president right after he was elected. The White House has said it was about corruption. They said that right after the call happened. But now, with the transcript, no mention of corruption, why?
SCIUTTO: During her testimony, the ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine testified that she had been pulled from her post after a, quote, campaign of disinformation headed by the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. As Marie Yovanovitch described how she was shaken by the character assassination she head home at the point that her removal had much bigger implications. (BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
YOVANOVITCH: Our Ukraine policy has been thrown into disarray. And shady interests, the world over, have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want.
After these events, what foreign official, corrupt or not, could be blamed for wondering whether the U.S. ambassador represents the president's views?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: All right. Our experts are back with us.
So, guys, let's listen to how Democratic Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi characterized the time between Ambassador Yovanovitch's removal and the arrival of the new top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, Bill Taylor. Listen to this.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL): During that time on May 20th, Ambassador Sondland, Rick Perry and others came to the inauguration of President Zelensky, right?
KRISHNAMOORTHI: And during that gap in time, Ambassador Sondland visited the White House, along with others, and got directions from President Trump to talk to Rudy. Those were his words, talk to Rudy, about what to do in Ukraine, right?
YOVANOVITCH: That's my understanding.
KRISHNAMOORTHI: In other words, isn't it the case that your departure and the one-month gap between the time you left and when Ambassador Taylor arrived provided the perfect opportunity for another group of people to basically take over Ukraine policy, isn't that right?
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCIUTTO: Sam is someone who has worked very close to all of this and how diplomacy actually should work. What do you make of that, and, really, what happened in the three months between the two phone calls in terms of Giuliani inserting himself there?
VINOGRAD: Well, just start with Yovanovitch. Perhaps Ambassador Yovanovitch wasn't just recalled from her post, and she spoke about this in the testimony today, it was why and how.
The Republicans are circulating the narrative that the president should have ambassadors that he believes in. He can recall ambassadors at will. That is certainly true. Ambassador Yovanovitch was recalled with almost no notice. HARLOW: At midnight, she talks about getting that call at midnight saying, we're concerned about your safety or your security, I believe, the word was. And she said, physical? No, we're concerned about your security, get on the next plane to Washington.
VINOGRAD: Correct. And there was almost no transition period. Typically, when ambassadors cycle out, they hand off their responsibilities, their information to their successor so that there is no interruption in U.S. foreign policy. That's point number one.
Second, Ambassador Yovanovitch's recall signals to all of the wrong kind of people, that if they have a revenge campaign or a conspiracy theory, all they have to do is get Rudy Giuliani to talk about it on television and they'll be recalled.
That makes every American diplomat today and tomorrow a target for corrupt officials overseas or for anybody that has an axe to grind with the United States. That is going to have a long-term impact on our diplomats going forward, not only for Marie Yovanovitch.
SCIUTTO: Listen, and the reason she was removed, right, she wouldn't pursue this shadow foreign policy, she wasn't playing ball with the president's personal lawyer, et cetera, to do things like pursue the Ukraine conspiracy, that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the election.
I want to play an exchange between her and Daniel Goldman, a lawyer asking questions for the Democrats.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GOLDMAN: Now, are you familiar with these allegations of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election?
YOVANOVITCH: I mean, there have been rumors out there about things like that. But, you know, there was nothing hard, at least nothing that I was aware of.
GOLDMAN: There was nothing based in fact to support the allegations?
GOLDMAN: And, in fact, who was responsible for interfering and meddling in the 2016 election?
YOVANOVITCH: Well, the U.S. Intelligence Community has concluded that it was Russia.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
SCIUTTO: I mean, here's the thing, Elaina, is that we know it was Russia. But a conspiracy theory that's captured the attention of the U.S. president, who, by the way, repeatedly has questioned whether Russia was behind that interference, found its way, infected U.S. policy towards Ukraine here. It's remarkable. PLOTT: And it's not even entirely complicated as to how it happened, as Sam was mentioning. I spoke about this with Rudy Giuliani, I think it was two months ago, about how he and others are convinced that Marie Yovanovitch is a pawn of George Soros. They have written multiple paragraphs in what they call outlines that made its way to the very top levels of the State Department.
So at this point, it's not even just that Donald Trump sort of is captivated by these conspiracy theories and direct subordinates to act upon them. I think at this point, you also have State Department officials who feel it's safer just to acquiesce in the exploration of them rather than push back. There are so few officials at this point like, say, Don McGahn, who are willing say no to this president.
SCIUTTO: And that's by design because of the folks who say no are showing the door.
HARLOW: And to your point about how Giuliani was pushing this completely unfounded conspiracy theory, David Holmes, in that behind closed doors testimony, that was so important on a number of levels today, also in his opening statement, talked about how officials were raising red flags and like alarm signs about Giuliani's role. Let me read just a little bit of that.
Quote, at one point during a preliminary meeting of the inauguration delegation, someone wondered about why Mr. Giuliani was so active in the media with respect to Ukraine. My recollection is that Ambassador Sondland stated, damn it, Rudy. Every time Rudy gets involved, he goes and Fs everything up.
So, I mean, even Sondland is saying that, Michael Zeldin.
ZELDIN: That's right. And I think that one of the things that the ambassador said today, to me, which I can read, is that she said, Ukrainians who prefer to play by the old, corrupt rules sought to remove me. What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them. And working together, they apparently succeeded in orchestrating the removal of a U.S. ambassador.
And then she asks sort of plaintively, how can our system fail like this? How could it be that foreign corrupt interests can manipulate our government?
And I think that really pretty much says it all and it speaks to her as a victim of what is the allegation of abuse of authority by the president.
So she was not so much a witness today, as were Kent and Taylor Wednesday, she was more a witness of, I was the victim of this campaign, and this is what happens when people abuse their powers. The priorities of the United States take second seat to the political personal priorities of the president.
SCIUTTO: Yes. And it also it blows up this idea that the president was truly interested in corruption. Because the reason many Ukrainian officials didn't like Marie Yovanovitch was that she was pursuing corruption very aggressively there. And it appears that they kind of undermined her and that Trump's cronies were willing to swallow it up.
Listen, guys, great to have you on tonight.
Still to come this hour, the president is accused of witness intimidation after blasting Ambassador Yovanovitch on Twitter. Wow, she was sitting there testifying on Capitol Hill. What lawmakers on both sides had to say about that, next. As you would imagine, there were differences of opinion.
HARLOW: But as we take a quick break, the memorable and unusual end to today's testimony, this standing ovation.
HARLOW: Democrats are accusing the president of witness intimidation. And even some Republican lawmakers don't like at all what they heard and saw from the president today.
As career diplomat Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was testifying on live television, the president attacked her on Twitter, writing, quote, everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad.
SCIUTTO: House Intel Chairman Adam Schiff read that Tweet live during her hearing. And the president was asked about the intention of his tweet.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I have the right to speak. I have freedom of speech, just as other people do.
REPORTER: Sir, with your freedom, were you trying to intimidate Ambassador Yovanovitch?
TRUMP: I just want to have a total -- I want freedom of speech. That's a political process. The Republicans have been treated very badly.
REPORTER: Do you believe your tweets or words could be intimidating?
TRUMP: I don't think so at all.
HARLOW: All right. Our experts are back with us.
Michael Zeldin, you have Republicans who didn't like it at all. Congresswoman Elise Stefanik, I disagree with that tweet. Republican outgoing Congressman Francis Rooney, I don't think it was right to be harassing or bearing on the professional diplomatic service. Congresswoman Liz Cheney, another Republican, called it wrong. But was it witness intimidation, Michael?
ZELDIN: I don't think so, from a legal standpoint. I think most prosecutors would not want to bring that case. It is more harassing conversation than it is intimidating conversation. And the hard part, I think, in bringing a case like this is that the president speaks normally in a very belligerent manner. He calls people names. He makes up nicknames for them.
And so to single this out and say, it was intended to prevent a person from testifying is a very hard case to bring.
HARLOW: So if you're a bully, you have more of a rope here?
ZELDIN: Well, in some sense, yes, you do because the statute says that you have to make the statement with specific intent to preclude a person from or discouraging a person from or somehow interfering with the person from testifying. Now, the president, I don't think, could be proven to have that specific intent, certainly not as to the ambassador.
Now, whether it has that effect for future witnesses remains to be seen and something that prosecutors would have to keep their eye on. But when you're asking the very technical legal question of me, does this statement by the president on his Twitter account amount to actionable intimidation against the ambassador, I think I would not bring that charge.
SCIUTTO: So that's in isolation. The truth is you have to look at this on a longer line here, don't you, Sam? Because when she was still serving, the president said to another world leader, she's going to go through some things, right, in an almost like mob-like way, right? And, of course, she did and she was removed from her position.
I suppose the question is what is the wider effect on serving diplomats overseas if they, I don't know, provide contrary advice to the president?
VINOGRAD: Well, Michael is a lawyer. But from just a viewer today watching Marie Yovanovitch testify, she said that she viewed the president's words as a threat from the July 25th call. And she said today that she felt intimidated. She didn't want to put words in the president's mouth, but that's coming directly from her.
And it's not just about Yovanovitch. Every witness that has complied with a subpoena and has respected our system of checks and balances, the president has had a tweet about and has tried to denigrate. So, as Michael, this isn't just about Yovanovitch, it's about future witnesses. But let's look at what he's done against all the public servants that, under subpoena, have come forward and testified.
But, Jim, it is very clear, if you're Gordon Sondland and you tell the president that you love his you know what, he will be kind to you, he will say nice things to you. If you do something that he does not find to be favorable for him personally, he will sully your reputation.
And he focused on her record in Somalia as an indication of how effective a diplomat she was, he clearly doesn't understand what diplomats actually do, by the way. They go to those complex environments. So his goal --
SCIUTTO: It was a cheap shot.
VINOGRAD: It was a cheap shot. It was a dangerous shot, Jim, because it discourages everybody from speaking truth and upholding the Constitution and our system of checks and balances.
SCIUTTO: And (INAUDIBLE) because other witnesses coming forward, they have to factor into that decision knowing that this is going to be raining down on their heads from the president. And we know that if you look at the conservative media, they echo it, many of the right- wing media. It becomes a -- you have to factor that and you're going to face that fire if you choose to speak out.
HARLOW: Speaking of the media, I think it was important to hear some of the commentary actually on Fox News, some of it, Elaina. You heard Chris Wallace say, if you didn't feel for Yovanovitch today, you don't basically have a pulse. And then Ken Starr on Fox News called what the president did there with that tweet mid-testimony, quote, extraordinarily poor judgment. Listen to him. Here he was.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
KEN STARR, INDEPENDENT COUNSEL WHO INVESTIGATED PRESIDENT CLINTON: Extraordinarily poor Judgment. The president frequently says, I follow my instincts. Sometimes we have to control our instincts. So, obviously, this was, I think, quite injurious.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: Quite injurious.
PLOTT: Quite injurious. Look, I think that what Wallace said about how could you not empathize in some way with Yovanovitch in that moment, the contrast between the character of this president and the character of a public servant like Yovanovitch, I think, was just so clearly laid bare in that moment. Here, you have somebody who has agreed to testify against all the threats we're talking about. It's not just right-wing media. It's not just what the president might Tweet. I mean, it's just this whole Republican ecosphere at this point.
But you have her right there talking and listening in real-time to these words of the president that were clearly intended to harass, to intimidate, whatever word you want to use. And like it or not, these are public hearings. There's been a lot the element of whether they should have pizzazz or whatnot. But they're public because the Democrats hope that they sway public opinion in some way. They are, in some senses reformative.
And that sort of contrast is probably quite good for Democrats in terms of moving public opinion that this president has not indeed acted in the interests of his country throughout all of this.
ZELDIN: So may I clarify something?
HARLOW: Yes, Michael.
ZELDIN: Sorry. I just don't want to leave the impression that I believe that what the president did was acceptable. It was wrong. I was trying to answer the question of whether you would, as a prosecutor --
HARLOW: Yes, we hear you.
ZELDIN: Bring these charges.
ZELDIN: So -- but I think the more actionable conduct of the president is the fact that he has prevented other witnesses from testifying at all. And I think that is much more actionable, much more an obstruction of justice than his normal bullying conversation, which is wrong but not necessarily illegal.
SCIUTTO: And that's something that you -- a pretty decent chance that ends up in an article of impeachment if the Democrats choose to take that step.
HARLOW: Thank you, guys, very, very much, Elaina, Michael, we appreciate it very much, Sam.
ZELDIN: Thank you.
SCIUTTO: Well, President Trump had made good on his promise to release a transcript of his first call in April with the newly elected Ukrainian president but it was not in the transcript that's raising questions.
SCIUTTO: Just moments before the public testimony of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch began, President Trump briefly grabbed the spotlight and the message, releasing a transcript of his first phone call with then President-Elect Zelensky of Ukraine. That call took place in April before Yovanovitch was recalled as ambassador. President Trump has been promising to release the transcript for a month-and-a-half. Republican ranking member Devin Nunes chose to read the entire choral aloud during his opening statement. Here's a taste.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CA): I think it's important that I read this into the record so that there's no confusion over this phone call that occurred on April 21st with President-Elect Zelensky, and I'd like to read it.
The president, I'd to congratulate you on a job well done and congratulations on a fantastic election.
Zelensky, good to hear from you. Thank you so very much. It's nice to hear from you, and I appreciate the congratulations.
The president, that was an incredible election.
Zelensky, again, thank you so very much. As you can see, we tried very hard to do our best. We had you as a great example.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
HARLOW: According to the rest of the transcript, the president invites Zelensky to the White House, and even brings up his work with the Miss Universe Pageant that he used to own.
But there's one big thing missing in that transcript released by the White House. In it, there is not a single mention of any discussion about corruption. Why does that matter, you ask? The official White House readout of that call distributed to the press at the time of the call says that they talked about corruption.
SCIUTTO: And that was supposed to be, of course, the president's focus in that relationship.
So Sam Vinograd is back with us. Scott Jennings also joins us, former special assistant to President Bush.
And it's interesting, Scott, Hogan Gidley with the White House today responding to reporters' obvious questions about where is the talk about corruption, essentially blamed Col. Vindman for that because he is on the NSC leading all things Ukraine, saying, they're the ones that put this stuff out there.
Is this something that strikes you as important, that there was no mention of it?
SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, yes. I mean, if it was in the readout and it's not in the transcript, I'd like to know where that was.
I mean, it would obviously help the president if they sort of found the rest of the transcript, that it was in there. And if I were the White House, I think I would be talking about the fact that also in the transcript, there's no mention of him pressuring Zelensky for any kind of political favors or whatnot.
I think the White House also wanted to put it out today to sort of force more conversation about them trying to be transparent about the president's conversations with Zelensky. So there were good reasons to put it out, but, obviously, this discrepancy raises some questions and they deserve answers because, obviously, they already noticed the press the first time around and got to have the details now.
SCIUTTO: We learned over the course of the day what happened though here, which is that there was a readout based on the talking points the president was supposed to raise in that, which included -- in that conversation, which included corruption. That readout put out before or sort of done and dusted before the actual call took place, and was shared with the press before they updated it to indicate that the president did not bring up corruption at all, Scott.
I just wonder what this does to the argument that all the president cared about in Ukraine was rooting out corruption. And yet this first call with Ukraine with the president, he doesn't bring it up.
JENNINGS: Yes. Look, I think that -- I mean, look, the people who want to make something out of it will, to me, of everything that happened today --
SCIUTTO: I don't blame (ph) anything about it. The president and his team have said from the beginning that all he cared about in Ukraine was rooting out corruption and his first call doesn't bring it up, and that was in the talking points that his staff had provided to him. I mean, it just -- for you, a smart guy, you look at that, does it raise any questions about whether that was the president's real focus in his relationship with Ukraine?
JENNINGS: Yes. But I guess I would if I were a speaker for the White House, which I'm not. But if I were, I would say, this certainly isn't the only interaction the president had and it's not the only interactions our government has with Ukraine than we do with all of these other things about corruption.
So, yes, I think it raises questions. But, frankly, of all the things that happened today, this will be the least important because so much else happened during the day and in the afternoon that I think are much bigger and frankly worse stories for the White House.
HARLOW: Okay. Sam, but one of the big issues here is that this was or is -- was the talking point from the White House and the president, from the president's allies, from Republicans. They wanted to make sure -- Jim Jordan has said it. They wanted to make sure that this guy, this new president of Ukraine was up to snuff, that he was actually going to root out corruption, that he had the chops for this before we just hand over more aid.
I mean, when you read the transcript of the first call, the president is -- like adores him on the phone call. You guys are great, someone high level is going to go to your inauguration, I can't wait for you to come to the White House, no question of his ability to do this job.
VINOGRAD: Well, just on its face, this initial call was relatively okay. An initial congratulatory call, short and sweet, leaving aside the (INAUDIBLE) of it, okay.
The issue is, as you mentioned, Poppy, the trajectory here. We have to look at the whole picture. If anybody was really interested in saying if Zelensky was up to snuff, they could have invested in our diplomats on the ground in Kiev to talk about how Zelensky was doing on anti-corruption. They would have relied on the Department of Defense and the benchmarks associated with our security assistance, which are part of U.S. law, by the way, NDAA, to see if Zelensky was meeting those benchmarks.
And guess what, he was. Our diplomats on the ground in Ukraine, David Holmes and others, reported back that Ukraine was meeting corruption benchmarks, that Zelensky did pass landmark legislation on corruption.
None of that came up on any the April 21st call. None of that came up on the July 25th call. And we have no indication that any of that came up in the subsequent meetings that the president had with Ukrainian officials.
So I agree with Scott. This initial congratulatory call is just one piece of the puzzle today and every day, but it is part of a pattern of the president not really caring about what Zelensky did on the corruption portfolio more broadly and just been focused on what mattered to him.
SCIUTTO: And that's how Sondland described it in that conversation we learned about today, which is that he was more concerned about things that are interests of him than the national security priorities of Ukraine and Russia, concerning (ph).
Sam Vinograd, Scott Jennings, always good to have you on. We particularly want to thank you for coming on so late.
HARLOW: Thanks. We appreciate you guys. Have a really nice weekend.
Okay. So another big headline today, Roger Stone becomes the latest of the president's associates to be convicted of federal crimes. The verdict, next.
HARLOW: He is a political adviser, a long-time friend of the president, and now, he is a convicted felon.
SCIUTTO: CNN Political Correspondent Sara Murray has more on the stunning conclusion to the Roger Stone trial.
SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: A jury in Washington agreed with prosecutors that truth still matters and found Roger Stone guilty on Friday of seven criminal counts, including lying to Congress.
Stone, a long-time friend and political adviser to President Trump, was convicted of five counts of lying to Congress, one of witness tampering and one of obstructing a congressional committee proceeding. Prosecutors argued that Stone lied about his contact with Trump and other campaign officials about WikiLeaks' 2016 release of hacked Democratic emails, because it would look really bad for his long-time associate, Donald Trump. They told the jury, truth still matters.
After two days of deliberations, the jury agreed. Stone, a veteran Republican political operative known for his flamboyant style offered no audible reaction as the verdict was delivered. His wife let out a sigh of relief when the judge announced Stone could await his February sentencing from home rather than behind bars.
The verdict marks the conclusion of one of Robert Mueller's highest prosecutions. Stone was arrested in a pre-dawn raid at his Florida home in January as Mueller's team was winding down its investigation.
The trial revealed new details that had been redacted from the Mueller report, like how he or the Trump campaign was to get dirt from WikiLeaks in 2016.
TRUMP: WikiLeaks. I love WikiLeaks.
MURRAY: And a number of phone calls between stone and Trump at a time when Stone was claiming he had direct contact with WikiLeaks Founder Julian Assange.
ROGER STONE, POLITICAL CONSULTANT: I have actually communicated with Assange.
MURRAY: A claim Stone now denies.
On one call in July 2016, Trump and Stone apparently spoke about the upcoming release of hacked Democratic emails, according to testify from former Trump campaign official Rick Gates earlier this week. Trump though told Mueller's team, I do not recall discussing WikiLeaks with him.
President Trump, who has weighed whether to pardon Stone in recent months, slammed the verdict, tweeting, so they now convict Roger Stone of lying and want to jail him for many years to come. He called Stone's conviction a double standard, claiming Hillary Clinton, Adam Schiff and even Robert Mueller had lied. Stone declined to comment on a possible pardon.
REPORTER: Mr. Stone, what's your reaction to the verdict?
STONE: No comment.
REPORTER: Will you be seeking a pardon from President Trump.
STONE: No comment.
MURRAY: Sara Murray, CNN, Washington.
(END VIDEOTAPE) HARLOW: All right. We have a lot more ahead on all of the impeachment testimony this week. We'll have all that after a quick break.