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Gordon Sondland Testifies Today; Democrats Debate Tonight; Epstein Guards Charged; Small World, Relatively Speaking. Aired 4- 4:30a ET

Aired November 20, 2019 - 04:00   ET



CHRISTINE ROMANS, CNN ANCHOR: He's the ambassador with firsthand knowledge of the president's actions. What will Gordon Sondland say about the Ukraine pressure campaign? Would he testify publicly today?

DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: Ten Democrats on stage for their fifth debate tonight. How this showdown is different less than 11 weeks to the Iowa caucus?

ROMANS: Two guards now facing charges for lapses the night Jeffrey Epstein died on their watch. What they're accused of doing instead.

BRIGGS: The resemblance uncanny and there could be a good reason. Are Tom Hanks and Mr. Rogers related?

Welcome to our viewers in the United States and around the world. Hope it's a beautiful day in your neighborhood. This is EARLY START. I'm Dave Briggs.

ROMANS: And I'm Christine Romans. Nice to see you. It is Wednesday, November 20th. It is 4:00 a.m. in New York.

And he is the man with the most firsthand knowledge of events that brought us to this historic moment, to impeachment hearings. His name is Gordon Sondland. And he faces Congress this morning wit the president's future possibly in his hands. Evidence so far all points to Sondland as the witness who could tie President Trump directly to the campaign pressuring Ukraine to investigate 2020 rival Joe Biden.

BRIGGS: The E.U. ambassador's testimony follows a long day of hearings that culminated in one of the Republican's own witnesses essentially turning on them. Former Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker acknowledged some of his closed-door testimony has been less than fully informed. What he didn't realize then, he does now.


KURT VOLKER, FORMER SPECIAL ENVOY FOR UKRAINE: Since I gave my testimony on October 3rd, a great deal of additional information and perspectives have come to light. In hindsight, I now understand that others saw the idea of investigating possible corruption involving the Ukrainian company Burisma as equivalent to investigating former Vice President Biden. In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections.


ROMANS: One key change in Volker's recollection was connected to Sondland. Last month, Volker denied investigations ever came up at the July White House meeting, but yesterday, Volker recalled Sondland did bring up investigations with a top Ukrainian official, which Volker says everyone thought was inappropriate.

BRIGGS: Multiple Republican sources tell us they're most worried about what Sondland will say today and whether he'll turn on the president.

Here's Phil Mattingly on Capitol Hill.


PHIL MATTINGLY, CNN CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Christine and Dave, if you paid close attention to Tuesday's testimony, you may have heard one name come up repeatedly who wasn't actually testifying, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the E.U. He has been at the center of much of the impeachment investigation up to this point. He testified behind closed doors in a deposition then had to amend that testimony. That amendment seeming to make very clear that not only did he tie U.S. security assistance to Ukraine to the idea of investigations into the president's opponents, but he actually presented that to Ukrainian aids at his side bar meeting on September 1st, when the vice president was in town.

Then you actually pay attention to the other depositions that were going on. Multiple administration officials talking about how Sondland had repeated contacted with President Trump. How Sondland touted his ties and close contacts with White House acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. And you recognize that in terms of witnesses, there may be no one bigger than Gordon Sondland. He was at the center of everything the administration was doing through their quote/unquote irregular channel, outside of the normal channels.

Now, there have been questions about his testimony, there have been contradictions in his testimony, at least the depositions behind closed doors. All of those are going to be have to be answered. The real question, though, is, what is he actually going to say when he gets in front of cameras?

I've talked to members on both sides of the aisle, and the reality is, nobody really knows. That's unsettling for Republicans who are hoping at some point he would be a big defender of the president. They don't know what's coming. Democrats feel like he could be a big witness for them. But based on his closed door deposition and the changes to that, they don't know what's coming either.

It will be a nail-biting moment, not just for the White House, not just for Republicans, not just for Democrats, but pretty much everybody watching, because this is an individual that knows what happen and can say explicitly whether or not he was operating at the direction of the president and whether or not anybody else was, as well.

So, this will be a big day -- guys.


BRIGGS: Indeed, it will. Phil Mattingly, thank you.

Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman testified in the morning impeachment session on Tuesday. The director of European affairs for the National Security Counsel says he went straight to NSC lawyers to report the Trump/Zelensky call. He told lawmakers he considered President Trump's demands, quote, inappropriate. In one tense exchange, it appeared the Republicans were trying to unmask the whistle-blower.

Watch what happened when Vindman was asked if he spoke to anyone about the Trump/Zelensky conversation.


LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL'S EUROPEAN AFFAIRS DIRECTOR: Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent and an individual from the office of -- an individual in the intelligence community.

REP. DEVIN NUNES (R-CA): What -- as you know, the intelligence community has 17 different agencies, what agency was this individual from?

REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA): If I could interject here. We don't want to use these proceedings --


NUNES: It's our time.

SCHIFF: I know, but we need to protect the whistle-blower. Please stop --


ROMANS: All right. The White House using a taxpayer-funded Twitter account to attack Vindman, the West Wing slamming the decorated Iraq war vet while he was testifying. The account quoted the lieutenant colonel's former boss, Tim Morrison, who testified, he had concerns about Vindman's judgment.

And then the president retweeted a misleading post from his social media director. It questioned Vindman's loyalty to the U.S. The president said this yesterday.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Vindman, I watched him for a little while this morning, and I think he -- I'm going to let people make their own determination, but I don't know Vindman. I never heard of him. I don't know any of these people.


ROMANS: In his opening remarks, Lieutenant Colonel Vindman delivered an emotional message to his father, who brought his family to the United States from the Soviet Union decades ago. Vindman told his father, do not worry, I'll be fine for telling the truth.

A reminder, Vindman is a decorated war veteran who carries shrapnel in his body.

BRIGGS: Right.

To 2020 now, Democrats candidates fight face to face to hold or take the lead at the fifth Democratic debate tonight in Atlanta. High stakes even higher with less than 11 weeks to go before the Iowa caucus. Safe to say, there will be greater focus on Mayor Pete Buttigieg who's now leading the race in the latest CNN/"Des Moines Register" Iowa poll. This will be the first debate since Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled her plan to pay for Medicare for All, a plan Biden called mathematical gymnastics.

ROMANS: Former Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein is hitting back at Senator Elizabeth Warren for this.


SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-MA), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: It is time for a wealth tax in America!


I've heard that there are some billionaires who don't support this plan.


ROMANS: That ad trolling billionaires appeared on CNBC last week. Warren says billionaires like Blankfein and Leon Cooperman don't pay their fair share. They can afford to pay a 2 percent tax on fortunes over $50 million and 6 percent tax on fortunes over $1 billion. She doubled that number to help pay for her Medicare for All.

In an interview with CNBC, Blankfein criticized Warren's ongoing battle with the billionaires.


LLOYD BLANKFEIN, FORMER CEO, GOLDMAN SACHS: It used to be -- I used to be kind of a moderate Democrat. Now I'm -- now, without having moved anything, I've become like a, you know, like -- in their eyes, kind of a right-winger, because I don't want to blow up the financial system.


ROMANS: Well, Blankfein believes the economic system should be fair, he criticized her wealth tax.


BLANKFEIN: We can modify our estate tax, but we shouldn't have unworkable, demotivating kinds of taxes that will achieve equality by reducing everybody's level of wealth.

ROMANS: Blankfein also accused Warren and others of moving from populism to a kind of demagoguery.

All right. Two prison guards have been charged with covering up their failures the night Jeffrey Epstein died at a New York correctional facility. Tova Noel and Michael Thomas are accused of falsifying prison records. Court documents show the two repeatedly failed to complete required counts of prisoners. Prosecutors say they were shopping online and napping, napping, when Epstein took his own life. Both officers pleaded not guilty and were released on bond.


JASON FOY, TOVA NOEL'S ATTORNEY: It is our hope that we'll be able to reach a reasonable agreement in this case. If we cannot, after we review the evidence, we'll be prepared to defend them in this case moving forward.


BRIGGS: Epstein was being held at the Manhattan jail while awaiting trial on federal sex trafficking charges. Officials ruled his death a suicide.

ROMANS: Breaking overnight, two U.S. service members killed in a helicopter crash in Afghanistan. According to a statement from U.S. forces Afghanistan, the cause of the crash is under investigation. But preliminary reports do not indicate it was caused by enemy fire. The names of the fallen service members have not been released. The U.S. has about 12,000 troops remaining in Afghanistan.

BRIGGS: Is ISIS regrouping after Turkey's attack on Kurdish forces the U.S. left behind. New concerns from the Pentagon, next.



ROMANS: The Pentagon says Turkey's attack on Kurdish forces after the U.S. pulled out of Syria has allowed ISIS to regroup and potentially launch new attacks abroad. A new report from the Defense Department inspector general paints a damaging picture of President Trump's decision to abandon America's Kurdish allies. The I.G. says Turkey unlikely to fight ISIS, despite its public pledge to do so.

A Pentagon spokesman tells CNN that training for Kurdish forces was suspended, but has now resumed. The I.G. also says the recent death of ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi will have little effect on the group's ability to make a comeback. BRIGGS: The FBI accused of posing a security risk with the way it

handles confidential sources. An audit by the Justice Department's internal watchdog has uncovered significant problems. Among other issues, the I.G. notes FBI sometimes use work phones to contact confidential informants, calls that could be traced back to the government.

The I.G. criticizes the FBI's ineffective management and oversight of confidential sources, says those problems can result in jeopardizing FBI operations and placing FBI agents, sources, subjects of investigation, and the public in harm's way.


ROMANS: A white Georgia teen now faces attempted murder charges after police say she planned a racially motivated attack on a black church. They say the 16-year-old took significant steps over several weeks as she planned a knife attack on bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Gainesville, Georgia.

Police say it was thwarted Friday when a student overheard her talking about the plan and alerted school officials.


JAY PARRISH, CHIEF OF GAINESVILLE POLICE DEPARTMENT: She's a racist. I can promise you, we have valid evidence now that, I don't know how she's felt in the past, but that's somehow she feels at this point. Reading those details, they're just sickening. It's just very sickening.


ROMANS: Police believe the girl acted alone and that no other churches are at risk. They say they're not aware if she has an attorney.

BRIGGS: More damaging e-mails from senior White House adviser Stephen Miller. They say he coordinated with editors at far news website Breitbart to shape its immigration coverage and push criticism of Republican Senator Marco Rubio. Those e-mails from 2015 were released Tuesday by the Southern Poverty Law Center. They were leaked to the organization by a fired Breitbart editor. Earlier email releases indicate miller promoted stories from white nationalist and fringe media organizations to Breitbart staffers.

Miller and the White House have not responded to CNN's request for comment.

ROMANS: The state of California cutting business ties with some leading automakers. We'll tell you who and why.


[04:21:20] BRIGGS: North America's economy is the most resilient in the world for withstanding the climate crisis. That's according to a report from the economist intelligence unit. Climate change will shrink the U.S. economy 1.1 percent by 2050, compare that to Western Europe's 1.7 percent decline and the 3 percent globally.

The report says preparation for the climate crisis is strongest in North America, making its economy more durable. The developing world will bear the brunt of the economic impact.

ROMANS: A fight over emissions rule is pitting California against major automakers. The state says of January, it will no longer buy government vehicles from GM, Chrysler, Nissan, Toyota or other carmakers who side with the Trump administration in the state's battle over greenhouse gas emissions. Now, the administration and the EPA, they are seeking to strip California's right to set tougher emissions rules for itself and 13 other states that follow California rules.

California Governor Gavin Newsom says in a statement, carmakers who have chosen to be on the wrong side of history will be on the losing end of California's buying power.

BRIGGS: The Miami Dolphins have cut second year running back Mark Walton after police say he punched a woman who was pregnant with his baby. Walton remains in jail. A bond status hearing is expected today. Walton's attorney denies his client is guilty of the charges.

He was drafted by Cincinnati Bengals in 2018 but was cut after being arrested three times during the 2019 off-season.

ROMANS: Boeing needs to make engine fixes on nearly 7,000 jets to prevent a repeat of a fatal accident on a southwest flight last year. A passenger was killed when a fan blade broke, causing part of the engine covering to fly into the plane, breaking one of the windows, and killing a woman in the window seat.

The National Transportation Safety Board is recommending Boeing retrofit the engine covers on all of his 737 next generation series planes.

BRIGGS: Tom Hanks' new movie role hitting closer to home than he ever imaged.


TOM HANKS, ACTOR (singing): It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor, would you be mine?


BRIGGS: Hanks plays the iconic Mr. Rogers in the upcoming film "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." It turns out the actor and the late children TV's star Fred Rogers are actually related, according to a discovery made by, something Hanks and wife Rita Wilson were surprised to learn at the film's New York premiere this week.


HANKS: All of this just comes together.

RITA WILSON, ACTRESS: This is crazy!

REPORTER: Did you have any idea?

HANKS: Well, I would like to see if Johnny Depp is related to Fred Rogers. Can you find out from


BRIGGS: According to Ancestry, Tom Hanks and Fred Rogers are sixth cousins. They share the same great, great, great, great, great, that's five greats, grandfather who came from Germany to America in the 18th century.

ROMANS: All right. A Massachusetts teacher has opened her home to one of her students after his mother recently died of cancer. Jake Manning has Down syndrome. Kerry Bremer met Jake and her single mother Jean more than four years. And she says she fell in love with him instantly. Knowing Jean had terminal breast cancer, Kerry spoke to her husband, spoke to her two kids, and then made Jean this offer.


KERRY BREMER, JAKE'S GUARDIAN: If you need a backup plan for Jake, then our family is happy to make him part of our family. And she said, I'll sleep better tonight than I've slept in a long time.

JAKE MANNING, STUDENT: My mom went to heaven.

BREMER: She's your queen angel mom.

MANNING: Always in my heart. She meant so much.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: She did. Do you love her so much? Yeah.

Thank you.


ROMANS: On Wednesday, Jean Manning passed away and Jake joined his new family. Friends of Jean Manning have set up a GoFundMe page to help support Jake and the Bremer family.

I'm sorry! That one gets me! It's just so important to take care of each other and what a wonderful family. What a wonderful kid.

BRIGGS: What a wonderful story.


BRIGGS: Ahead, John Dean, Monica Lewinsky, Gordon Sondland, the E.U. ambassador joins a list of witnesses with firsthand knowledge in impeachment probes. What will Sondland say when he testifies publicly today.