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THE LEAD WITH JAKE TAPPER
Blockbuster Testimony in Impeachment Inquiry; Sondland: I Pressured Ukraine at "Express Direction" of Trump; Trump Legal Team: Sondland Testimony "A Draw". Aired 4-4:30p ET
Aired November 20, 2019 - 16:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: That is what today -- that is why today is important, that the central allegation against Donald Trump has been proved by one of Donald Trump's own supporters.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: And we should note -- and I'm going to ask for sound bite five here -- the Republican lawyer asked Gordon Sondland, Laura, how do you know that what Giuliani was asking for with what you say was a clear quid pro quo was what President Trump wanted? Take a listen.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
STEVE CASTOR, REPUBLICAN COUNSEL: You testified that Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president, correct?
GORDON SONDLAND, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE EUROPEAN UNION: That's our understanding, yes.
CASTOR: But how did you know that? Who told you?
SONDLAND: Well, when the president says, "Talk to my personal attorney," and then Mr. Giuliani, as his personal attorney, makes certain requests or demands, we assume it is coming from the president.
Our conclusion and the conclusion of the three of us was that, if we did not talk to Rudy, nothing would move forward on Ukraine.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: Now, the White House is attacking this, Laura, as saying, well, he's making a bunch of assumptions, but that's not a fact.
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: It is not a fact.
To distill down what they are actually saying, for the better part of two-and-a-half, three weeks, we've been hearing, unless you hear it from somebody who had direct knowledge of the president, it is all hogwash, it's all inadmissible hearsay, even in an impeachment inquiry. And now you have somebody who is saying, let me break down for you what you're calling a presumption. I'm giving you evidentiary basis for what my thought process was, giving dates, giving receipts, about the conversations I have, what led me to conclude that, if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it, in fact, is a duck.
And now the only viable strategy they can have is to say, well, actually, you're basing this on an assumption of what the mental state of the president was, using his own mouthpiece, which is, of course, what one would surmise.
And what I was shocked by was the real analogy that was here, it reminded me a lot of what was the defense to the Mueller probe, which is, let's attack the origins of the actual probe, as opposed to the substance of what is actually coming out.
This tracked almost identically. Let's look at the origins of it about what would lead you to investigate the whistle-blower, et cetera, the idea of the mental state, when you do not have, because of the president's own actions and his team, actual definitive statements about what he meant through his own testimony, people that knew him or talked to him.
You have this track. And I think they thought, it was successful then, let's use it again now. And you know what? It's hard to say how it will ultimately come out if there is a Senate trial, but the idea that we're going to now say, OK, even though you have heard this clearly, even though it is, in fact, a quid pro quo, that's still not good enough to actually define it as a quid pro quo is laughable.
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: And the idea -- the question they were trying to raise today, how do you know Giuliani was acting with the president's assent, for several weeks, the president and his allies have told us to read the transcript, meaning the memo of his July 25 call.
Their new strategy is now don't read that transcript, because, on that transcript, the president tells the president of Ukraine, Rudy's my guy, talk to Rudy. And he mentions the Biden, so this idea being that...
TAPPER: Investigate the Bidens.
KING: Yes, investigate the Bidens.
So this idea that you couldn't -- how do you -- well, if he said Burisma, how do you know he means Biden? We could take the president's advice and read the transcript. It's very crystal clear there.
One other quick point I want to make about what we saw afterwards, I get it politically. Where's Hunter Biden? Why can't we have Hunter Biden?
The Republicans were in the majority when Hunter Biden took his job in Ukraine through January of this year. They had plenty of opportunity. If serious Republicans in the leadership would have supported a hearing, they could have called Hunter Biden in when they were in the majority.
They are currently in the majority the United States Senate. If Lindsey Graham or any other chairman wanted to do it, they could do it tomorrow. But they would have to sell it to their leadership as a credible hearing that won't embarrass the party.
See if that happens.
TAPPER: Yes. Devin Nunes, who's been complaining about this, his question not being answered about what was Hunter Biden being paid for -- and, by the way, that's a perfectly legitimate question -- he was chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. Called zero hearings on this.
TAPPER: Tell us, Jen Psaki and Amanda -- we haven't heard from you today -- your overall impression about this blockbuster day?
JEN PSAKI, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I mean, it was -- we expected it would be a blockbuster. It was a blockbuster, as everyone on the panel has already outlined.
The key here is, it tied President Trump directly to these accusations. And that was one of the defenses the Republicans had for most of last week. They said, well, yes, this happened, but he didn't know about it. It was this rogue operation by Giuliani.
But by saying, he followed the president's orders, it was the desires of the president, at the express direction of the president, that blows that up.
The other thing I thought that was interesting is, it brought a number of other senior people very close to the president's inner circle into this. There was the accusation -- there was the story that he told about having the meeting with Vice President Pence. Obviously, there were other people in the meeting, as they said.
Vice President Pence's office put out that carefully worded statement that didn't deny that he was told it, and it didn't deny that he knew. It just said he didn't have a meeting by himself, and he didn't have a conversation.
Also, Secretary Pompeo, who now we know -- and we all suspected -- has known about this all along, approved to the activity -- approved of the activities, approved them as they were happening, even if he was annoyed by them.
So that makes it clear that it is not a rogue Giuliani, Wild West cowboy activity that's happening around the world. Parts of President Trump's inner circle were also directing this operation.
TAPPER: Amanda Carpenter, I have known you for a number of years now. You're a very conservative Republican.
What are your -- what goes through your mind when you listen to Congressman Jordan and Congresswoman Stefanik give their assessment of the hearing, which almost sounds like they watched an entirely different hearing?
AMANDA CARPENTER, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think we're seeing what happens when a president gets caught up in the conspiracy- driven, Giuliani-fueled, John Solomon at "The Hill," who I used to work for at one time at the "Washington Times," dreamland.
And they have drugged the entire nation into it. I think, yes, we can talk about abuse of power. Yes, we can talk obstruction for justice, but I think we need to talk about the president's fitness for office.
He has gone so far down this rabbit hole, consuming weeks of government time and resources, that -- to pursue this agenda. He has to smear the Bidens and also, for some reason, take the responsibility off Russia for meddling in the 2016 election, that he has undermined consensus positions by the United States Congress that Ukraine should get funding, the U.S. diplomatic, intelligence and other security communities.
I mean, he's thrown that all out the window for this narrow-minded focus that he has that only benefits him personally.
And so I just find that deeply troubling. And to watch everyone go down this rabbit hole so ham-handedly. I mean, I have got to think other Republicans are embarrassed to have Devin Nunes lead these hearings.
And maybe they didn't want to. Nobody else wanted to step up. But no one can objectively look at his handling and the counsel's handling of the question -- sometimes, they don't even use their time -- and think that was done in any competent manner.
TAPPER: If you're looking right now, you see Laura Cooper.
She's, I believe, an undersecretary of defense, or some sort of a Pentagon official, with expertise in Russia. She's going to be testifying this afternoon as well, as well as David Hale, who's with the State Department.
John Dean, you more than anybody here, in fact, only -- the only one here at this desk, know what it's like to testify before Congress. Obviously, Watergate was very different. You testified for days, not hours.
What was your assessment of Gordon Sondland?
JOHN DEAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: Well, I saw -- I noticed on my Twitter account that George Conway had a John Dean moment trending for a while, and I thought about that.
And we talked about it earlier. And there was another term from Watergate. It was called the modified limited hangout. And I think today we saw a modified limited hangout.
TAPPER: Define what that is.
DEAN: The difference between what -- when I testified, I had to turn on all my colleagues to really tell the story.
Most people don't understand that Watergate wasn't really about the bungled burglary for Nixon. It was about the fact that the same people involved in Watergate worked at his White House and had undertaken similar activities for his White House.
And that's what they were really covering up. So I had to open that door and lots of other doors and explain the context in which this has all happened. That was much broader testimony, and much more incriminating for many more people.
TAPPER: And you feel like Sondland was pulling his punches and...
DEAN: He did not -- he did not talk about the full scope of what was going on.
He's an intelligent man. He knew this was wrong activity. He knew they were really not in channels when they were doing this, while they tried to paint it back in. So I -- as I say, I think it's a more modified limited -- important testimony, yes. It's changed the dynamics. It's a key day in the Trump presidency.
But it is not necessarily the end.
TOOBIN: John makes a very important point, that Sondland knew what they were doing was wrong.
But as we have seen over this past week, they all knew it was wrong.
TOOBIN: Volker knew it was wrong. Morrison knew it was wrong. They all knew it was wrong to condition aid, to condition a White House meeting on getting dirt on Joe Biden.
Now, some of them convinced themselves, well, that's not really what's going on.
But who's kidding whom here? Does anyone believe -- remember -- remember -- I remember way back in the day, like last week, when...
TOOBIN: When one of the defense's here was that the president really was upset about the other countries who weren't stepping up to the plate.
Look at the e-mails and the texts. There's not one reference to that. There's no reference to any other issue, except Burisma -- that is the Bidens -- and this fantasy about 2016. That's the only thing the president cared about. [16:10:02]
TAPPER: And, in fact -- just a quick fact-check, not on you, but on that claim by President Trump.
Actually, Europe has given more money to Ukraine than the United States has. But that's -- I mean, why bother with facts at this point?
TAPPER: Our coverage of today's pivotal impeachment hearings is just getting started.
One of the key phrases that Ambassador Sondland kept saying during his testimony, and why it could be key, that's next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
GORDON SONDLAND, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE EUROPEAN UNION: At the express direction of the president of the United States. I followed the directions of the president. The president directed us to do so. President Trump directed us. Nonetheless, based on the president's direction --
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: That was United States ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testifying today, claiming that everything he did in regards to Ukraine was on President Trump's orders.
And, Jeffrey, Sondland said multiple times he was acting on the president's direction but he also said that -- he said the quid pro quo White House meeting for investigations, that's established, that was from Rudy, President Trump told him to do it. But he said the military aid quid pro quo, he presumed but he didn't know that for a fact.
TOOBIN: That is right. And the Republicans quite appropriately begin their political strategy focused on that and they said it was not proven in any sense. It was just an assumption.
Now, if you look at the surrounding circumstances, it's a pretty good assumption. You know, it is funny, again, way back last week one of the things that the Republicans were saying was read the transcript, which is like read -- it is now a summary, partial transcript of the phone call between the president of the United States and the president of Ukraine.
That transcript lays out the quid pro quo pretty well. I'm breaking my vow to speak only English. But today, the Republicans who were asking Sondland questions pretended the transcript didn't exist. They thought the only evidence was the -- the conversations between Sondland and --
TAPPER: Well, one conversation. The September 9th conversation.
TAPPER: Specifically where Sondland says --
TOOBIN: What do you want me to do?
TAPPER: What do you want me to do, and the president -- actually President Trump wrote down what Sondland says if we want to show the photograph, President Trump, I want nothing, I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.
That that is the final word from President Trump on the matter. Now we should point out that that was September 9th, supposedly, that he said that. At least according to Sondland and what do we know about what was going on on September 9th?
TOOBIN: That the whistle-blower's complaint had reached the White House. So, not --
TAPPER: It had reached Congress.
TOOBIN: Not only did the president discover that quid pro quos were inappropriate, he also released the money. Again a Republican talking point.
TAPPER: September 11th, two days later.
TOOBIN: That period.
TAPPER: Right, yes.
TOOBIN: But this idea that there is no harm to the Ukrainians, that this whole thing, there's no big deal because they released the money any way, the only reason they released the money is they got caught. They got caught by the whistle-blower and they were busted.
That's why they released the money not because they had an attack of conscience.
TAPPER: And, Laura Coates, one of the points made was that the question that Sondland said he asked President Trump was not, is there a quid pro quo? The question was, what do you want from Ukraine? And President Trump answers no quid pro quo. And that to house Democrats was significant.
LAURA COATES, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I also find that to be a little bit disingenuous that out of nowhere this discussion of how to really exculpate yourself and have the perfect language to say, oh, no, here is what I actually meant. That it was automatically a knee- jerk reaction to saying, I didn't say anything illegal. You must have misconstrued.
That to me feels a little bit like maybe a lawyer had their hands on it. But you mention this notion, you heard Representative Jim Jordan get up there with Manu Raju asking the question, are you saying it is purely coincidental this aid was released after the sirens were heading into your direction? He said, oh, no, people and top officials noticed that the new kid in town, the new kid in town, President Zelensky, was actually legit and that is the reason for all of this.
And you hear all of this information and you think to yourself, either people believe that nobody had the sound on during the actual hearing or for the last two weeks or that the talking point of a way to try to undermine what is very obvious, this is the last-ditch effort.
And final point on this. When you think about whether there were any real cuts to this administration today or Donald Trump about the actual impeachment inquiry, think of the overall strategy. If you know this is your first bite of the apple and in a Senate trial is probably looming at this point in time, who else can you call to shore up and beef up the claim to prove the points they're telling you they failed to do so? The people who are left on that list are the very people who refuse to appear.
And so, you create a self-fulfilling prophecy of, oh, you can't prove your case and I wouldn't give you who might be able to prove that case.
Is that really how impeachment should work?
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: The people who could say, no, the president didn't tie the aid to the investigations, if you want to follow the Republican argument, he's skeptical about foreign aid, you want to know if Zelensky was the real deal, well, Mick Mulvaney was key to do that. His deputy, Russ Vought, at OMB was key to that. His chief of staff, Mr. Blair, was key to that.
And to Laura's point, all have been subpoenaed to testify and all have refused. So, the White House -- if the White House has a story to tell to refute what we've heard over the last five days which is, have very, very, damning and the people they have to send up and the answer is not only no, but hell no go away.
PSAKI: I should also say, you know, people like David Holmes should be a warning to the White House because you don't --
KING: Remind people who David Holmes is.
PSAKI: David Holmes who is an aide to Ambassador Bill Taylor. He's the person who was at lunch on the day with Ambassador Sondland and kind of was broke open this story.
KING: He overheard the conversation. PSAKI: Overheard the conversation that he was having with President
Trump. He's not somebody people would know. He is not a household name. And there were people involved, I worked in an administration, as you know, for eight years who are involved in decisions to put holds on the aid, who had to physically put the holds on the aid, they don't say, OK, and they ask questions as to why. People are intellectually curious. They ask questions.
The information doesn't have to come from the top. It come from people who would know the information because of the job they're doing.
KING: And one of the witnesses we're going to hear from later raised questions about whether it was illegal.
TAPPER: We're going to squeeze in a quick break.
President Trump did not wait until Ambassador Sondland was finish testifying to respond. His strong reaction, next.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Thank you very much. We're going to Austin, Texas.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: I don't know him very well. I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well.
Seems like a nice guy, though. But I don't know him well. He was with other candidates. He actually supported other candidates. Not me. Came in late.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
TAPPER: President Trump reacting to today's testimony by claiming he doesn't know well the United States ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland. Sondland said they talked about 20 times and gave to the inauguration for Trump about a million dollars when told about the change of tune from President Trump in terms of effusive praise to what he said, Sondland said, easy come, easy go.
I want to go to CNN's Pamela Brown live at the White House.
And, Pamela, you've got some new reporting out about how the president's lawyers are looking at today's testimony.
PAMELA BROWN, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right, Jake. According to a source close to the president's legal team, the view among lawyers working on this impeachment case on behalf of the president is essentially today's testimony by Sondland was a draw. In their view, the cake is baked, that what he said today would not really move the needle for the public.
But I could tell you, in talking to sources, Jake, there was concern early on among the lawyers but other officials here at the White House and in the Trump campaign about Sondland's open testimony where he drew the direct line to President Trump saying everything he did and other officials did regarding Ukraine came at the express direction of the president through Rudy Giuliani who, of course, Sondland has testified the president told him to work with.
And also, of course, Sondland saying that, yes, there was quid pro quo. That Rudy Giuliani had directed him that Zelensky, the president of Ukraine, needed to announce those investigations the president wanted in order for the White House meeting to happen. So, very early on, there was a lot of concern here at the White House that Sondland's testimony could be very damaging to them.
But at the end of the day, the view point is, it's a draw. And you saw the president also today, he was leaving the White House, really hone in on the phone call he had with Sondland in September when Sondland testified the president told him there was no quid pro quo, that he didn't want anything from Ukraine. But he also said on that call, Jake, that he wanted Zelensky to do the right thing. And based on Sondland's testimony, that was what Giuliani was expressing he wanted him to do. Of course, this White House meeting for the opening of these investigations -- Jake.
TAPPER: All right. Pamela Brown, thank you so much. Appreciate it.
John Dean, let me go to you. It just occurs to me as we hear about the White House talking about how everything is going even though witness after witness is painting a picture of a -- as what Gordon Sondland called a continuum of insidiousness in terms of what Trump through Rudy was pushing the Ukraine team to do.
What happened during Watergate? Did the White House continually say that everything was great and the witnesses were not hitting their mark at all?
DEAN: Not really. They constantly had talking points they put out. Nixon locked in on a defense very early. That he knew nothing about the cover-up until I had told him in March of 1973 and said before that I knew nothing. It was, of course, an outrageous lie and when tape came out showing he was in on week one, that blew all of his defense. So, they stuck with that defense.
More importantly, during the Clinton impeachment, the Republicans were incredibly well-organized. I happened to be sitting on a panel like this with Barbara Olson on one side, the late Barbara Olson, and she would constantly pick up her phone during every break and finally, she told me what -- I said, why are you talking every break and she said, well, we have an organization that --