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Soon: Ambassador Gordon Sondland to Testify; Volker: Ukraine Investigation Link to Bidens is "Unacceptable". Aired 5-5:30a ET

Aired November 20, 2019 - 05:00   ET



DAVE BRIGGS, CNN ANCHOR: In just hours, Gordon Sondland will testify publicly.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He's going to prove to be one of the most damaging witnesses.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: None of us are out to get Ambassador Sondland. We just want the truth.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: At the time of the call on 25th, how its exposure would play in Washington's political climate. My fears have been realized.

TRUMP: What's going on is a disgrace and it's an embarrassment to our nation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I believe the messages being conveyed by Mr. Giuliani were a problem. They were at variance with our official message to the president was.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This was a very good day for the truth and a very good day for the president of the United States.

ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.


JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome to our viewers in the United States and all around the world. This is CNN's special coverage of the impeachment hearings.


It is Wednesday, November 20th. It's 5:00 here in New York.

And really, this is easily the most anticipated and unpredictable day of the impeachment hearings. Call it the Gordon problem. That is how Trump administration officials, people on the inside referred to the millionaire ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, the Gordon problem.

This morning, the Gordon problem is that witnesses have placed him at the center of the scheme to pressure the Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens or risk losing U.S. meetings and aid. The Gordon problem is that witnesses have testified that he had a direct line, including overheard phone calls with the president. The Gordon problem is that he has already had to reverse his sworn testimony on what he knew.

And finally, the Gordon problem is that no one really knows what he will say this morning. Will he turn on the president?

CNN has learned that people close to the president claim this is the one witness who worries them the most.

ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: I feel like you've really taken to the phrase.

BERMAN: Well, look, it came out of the testimony yesterday, when Kurt Volker -- no, Tim Morrison says, people referred to it as the Gordon problem. That's pretty descriptive.

CAMEROTA: I know. At first, there was a bit of a smirk before he sort of went there. We'll show you all of that.

Meanwhile, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, who was originally seen as one of the Republicans' best witnesses, but on Tuesday, he made important changes to his original testimony. Volker now says the demand to investigate the Bidens was, quote, inappropriate, and that former Vice President Joe Biden did nothing wrong. He says a lot of the blame for the current scandal lies with Gordon Sondland and Rudy Giuliani.

BERMAN: The Gordon problem?

CAMEROTA: The Gordon problem.

Three other officials testified yesterday that the demand to investigate the Bidens was, quote, inappropriate. The White House and Republican lawmakers responded to all of this by attacking a decorated army officer, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

We begin our coverage with CNN's Suzanne Malveaux. She is live for us on Capitol Hill.

Another big day, Suzanne.


Well, John had it right, because that is exactly what I asked a Democratic source this morning on the committee about the Gordon problem. The fact that he went to various diplomats doing the president's bidding, asking for things that they did not feel that they could deliver or they outright ignored. A source saying that it is unclear whose problem it is actually going to be this morning, because they are uncertain whether or not he will be harmful or hurtful to both sides.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) MALVEAUX (voice-over): The pressure is on for Gordon Sondland, as impeachment investigators on both sides of the aisle are ready to grill him about the Ukraine scandal and his contacts with President Trump about it. The Trump mega donor turned U.S. ambassador to the European Union has already reversed course once, submitting a three- page update to his closed-door testimony, admitting the Trump administration used military aid as leverage with Ukraine.

REP. SEAN PATRICK MALONEY (D-NY): Mr. Sondland is a very important witness, because he's, again, directly speaking to the president. And none of us, even want him to say any particular thing. We just want the truth.

MALVEAUX: Both private and public impeachment hearings uncovering a complicated web between Sondland, Trump, and Ukraine.

LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, DIRECTOR FOR EUROPEAN AFFAIRS, NSC: I said that these requests to conduct these meetings was inappropriate.

KURT VOLKER, SPECIAL ENVOY TO UKRAINE: As I remember, the meeting was essentially over when Ambassador Sondland made a general comment about investigations. I think all of us thought it was inappropriate.

BILL TAYLOR, TOP DIPLOMAT TO UKRAINE: Ambassador Sondland told me that President Trump had told him that he wants President Zelensky to state publicly that Ukraine will investigate Burisma and alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.

MALVEAUX: Just last week, matters complicated even further for Sondland, after the revelation of a new phone call between him and the president, one day after Trump's July 25th phone call with Ukraine's new leader. Sondland's testimony extremely worrisome for Republicans. Multiple GOP sources telling CNN, saying they're fearful he could turn on president Trump, but adding they're ready to attack Sondland's credibility to save the president.

Trump's allies using another line of defense.

REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): They're going to stir it all up and say someone said to someone else and here I am. The American people see through it. They know the facts are on the president's side.

MALVEAUX: Meanwhile, some House Democrats are hopeful Sondland will tell all he knows.

RAP. RAJA KRISHNAMOORTHI (D-IL): We've got to get to, you know, the events in question and, you know, what happened, who said what and who directed it? And I think that he's really at the epicenter of this.


MALVEAUX: So, it's obviously going to be a full morning, but also an afternoon, as well. There'll be two more diplomats will be testifying. Laura Cooper, she is from the Pentagon. She's going to be in a position, potentially, to talk about when, where, who, what, the Ukrainian aid was delayed and when it was released. And then also, you have David Hale. He is the one who was requested

by Republicans and his previous testimony behind closed doors, saying he had never heard of investigations into the Bidens for the 2016 election.


That is something that Republicans are going to want to hear to bolster their own story -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: It will be another interesting day. Suzanne, thank you very much.

MALVEAUX: Thank you.

CAMEROTA: So, the ambassador at the center of the Ukraine controversy will testify this morning. Up next, the key questions he must answer.



BERMAN: So in just hours, we will hear from a central figure in the impeachment inquiry, the most central we have heard from yet, and frankly, the most unpredictable. Witness have testified that Ambassador Gordon Sondland pushed Ukraine to open investigations into President Trump's rivals in exchange for military aid and a White House meeting, a charge that Sondland initially denied, but then he backtracked on that and said he did make clear to the Ukrainians that aid was conditioned on the investigations.

Joining us now, CNN political correspondent, Abby Phillip, and CNN senior political analyst, John Avlon.

Abby, the Gordon problem, as was mentioned in public testimony yesterday, not a phrase that I'm coining it and of itself.

CAMEROTA: And you've lassoed.

BERMAN: Well, I think it's very descriptive of what the issue is today. It's the Gordon problem for Gordon Sondland and for President Trump. He is the witness we are told the White House fears the most.


ABBY PHILLIP, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Because they're not sure if he will remain loyal. He has put himself in a terrible box right now by having to amend his testimony on a really critical and central point to this whole thing, which is whether or not he explicitly told the Ukrainians about a quid pro quo. He is now acknowledging that he did that.

And he hasn't yet amended his testimony, but I imagine that he will today, which is to talk about that phone call that was overheard in the restaurant in Ukraine in which he is having a conversation with President Trump about the investigation into the Bidens. So, the question for Gordon Sondland is how much more does he need to

share? I mean, it seems that he's been representing himself to a lot of other witnesses who have testified is someone who had regular and direct contact with the president. He has omitted at least one of those important conversations. Is there anymore?

And I think that the fear of perjury and the fear and also the fact that the president has been distancing himself from Sondland really leads the White House and Republicans to wonder how much more is Sondland going to do to potentially keep President Trump out of this or does he have more to share?

CAMEROTA: He does seem like the linchpin between the instructions, the demand from President Trump, and the agreement to make a statement about investigations with Zelensky. That -- Gordon Sondland is the person who delivers the message and who says, we've got it.

JOHN AVLON, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: That is very clear in all the testimony to date. Not so in Sondland's initial version of events. So, he's got a lot of 'splaining to do, as Ricky Ricardo might say.

But there are a couple of key questions that we're going to have to answer today. And he's got three choices, right?

He can do the "I do not recall" route, right? Play it cute, as he did in his testimony. He can say, take the Fifth, constitutionally required.

Or he can tell the truth. But that could be problematic for Donald Trump. And one of the key questions for himself is how much loyalty is he going to give to Donald Trump when Donald Trump now says he barely knew the man, because he almost uniquely has answers to key questions.

Did Donald Trump order this directly? How much does he know? Does he recall the phone call to the Ukraine restaurant that's being described, which is so key? And was anticorruption a sincere aim of the administration or was it simply code for investigating the Bidens?

PHILLIP: This is, I think, a really key point. Sondland insisted that he didn't know that Burisma equaled Biden until the end, and presumptively the end is when the impeachment inquiry was about to start. And there are other witnesses, Holmes, who say in that conversation, in the restaurant, Gordon Sondland basically said, the president only cares about the big stuff. The big stuff being, investigations into 2016 and the Bidens. So that has to be cleared up today.

BERMAN: That's July 26th. And Alexander Vindman, Colonel Vindman puts the information about the Bidens on July 10th. So, there are other witnesses who say that Sondland certainly knew this was about Bidens. And if he didn't, you know, shame on him for not reading, you know, the newspaper and things like that.

Let me just read out loud a little bit of what Gordon Sondland has changed his testimony to be. This is P102. Sondland says he now recalls speaking individually with Mr. Yermak, he is a key aide to President Zelensky, where I said that resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we've been discussing for many weeks.

So Sondland when presented with testimony from other witnesses says, yes, he did pressure the Ukrainians, he did say, you're not getting the aid unless you do the investigation.

AVLON: Yes. So, that's a very different tune, but we've seen testimony change in that direction consistently. I mean, there are very clear pictures emerging. Whatever Jim Jordan says the facts are on Donald Trump's side, that is pure spin. The facts and the testimony is clear and the president's got a real problem.

Now, Sondland's testimony today could be really key in focusing that, but already there, that backtrack says there was a quid pro quo. You know, you can call it solicitation of bribery or whatever else you want, but key aid was being held up unless the Ukrainians were willing to do Donald Trump's dirty work with an impact to 2016.


And I've got to say, the idea that the big stuff is 2016 election conspiracies and investigating political rivals for 2020, and not dealing with Vladimir Putin and Russia's incursion in the region and their attempt to destabilize everything in Vladimir Putin's benefit shows how off the fundamental priorities are of this administration, or at least of this president. There's clearly a strain in the administration that wants continuity. They keep running into the president.

CAMEROTA: But let's just play this out for a moment of what we might see today, because if Gordon Sondland, being a wild card, comes in and says, either as you say, the first option, I don't remember, or he pleads the Fifth, both of these are distinct possibilities, do they need Gordon Sondland anymore?

There are so many people around Gordon Sondland who he talked to, who heard him say things, who understood what the connection was. And so many people have testified what Gordon Sondland told them already.

I'm not saying they don't want Gordon Sondland.


CAMEROTA: But I'm saying they can still do articles of impeachment without Gordon Sondland.

PHILLIP: They can do articles of impeachment. The question is, what is the strength of the case? And I do think Gordon Sondland is key to that.

He's one of the few people outside of maybe Rudy Giuliani and John Bolton who where -- it seems unlikely to hear from, who actually talked to the president on multiple occasions. I mean, I always come back to, because it's really critical. Gordon Sondland picked up a phone in a restaurant in Ukraine and called the White House switchboard and was patched through to the president of the United States.

That is not the kind of thing that is common and that other ambassadors around the world can do. And it raises really serious questions about what kind of access did Gordon Sondland have to the president and what more don't we know?

It seems unlikely, as Sondland originally testified, that they only had two or three conversations and that one of them was about Merry Christmas and the other one was non-substantive. It just seems highly unlikely that is the case.

AVLON: And the tone of the call recounted by Holmes also indicates a deep familiarity. I mean, I'm going to make you uh uncomfortable, Ali --

BERMAN: I'm going to say please.

AVLON: But go ahead, yes, please.


BERMAN: Ambassador Sondland on to state that the president, that Zelensky loves your ass. Then I heard the president ask, so he's going to do the investigation? Ambassador Sondland replied, he's going to do it.

CAMEROTA: It's "loves your ass." you're putting the emphasis on the wrong place.

AVLON: The point is, that's knowledge, that's familiarity.

BERMAN: Which word are you supposed to emphasize?

CAMEROTA: You were emphasizing the body part, and I don't think that's --

BERMAN: Ii think it's loves your and -- everything has equal weight in that sentence.


CAMEROTA: Thank you, all very much.

BERMAN: All right. Ambassador Sondland coming up in a couple of hours, we're going to dive into how he may try to thread this needle and what did he learn from some of the other testimony we heard?



CAMEROTA: The most unpredictable witness yet will take the stand this morning and CNN has learned that Republicans are worried that Ambassador Sondland will turn on President Trump somehow. Last night, another key witness who Republicans thought could help make their case changed his tune, acknowledging that military aid and the Biden investigation were linked.

Back with us, Abby Phillip and John Avlon.

OK. So that's Kurt Volker.


KURT VOLKER, FORMER SPECIAL ENVOY TO UKRAINE: 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. I saw them as very different. The former being appropriate and unremarkable, the latter being unacceptable.

In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently. And had I done so, I would have raised my own objections.


CAMEROTA: OK. So that's his -- that's his basically saying, he was very late to the game of putting the pieces together. And whether or not you believe that, he now is saying that any investigation to the Bidens was inappropriate and that he also spoke up for Joe Biden, whom he had met and worked with and said was, you know, an honorable man.

AVLON: An honorable man, yes. And here's somebody -- Volker had been head of the McCain Institute. This is someone who's been respected. Republicans had put them on their vaunted, you know, witness wish list.

And he definitely did not sing from the GOP Trump hymnal on this. He seems to have thought better, recalled differently the details, as you just heard. And he condemns any connection between the two and there seems to be a pretty clear connection between the two.

So, Republicans who thought that Volker and Morrison would sort of bail them out didn't get what they were hoping for.

PHILLIP: And in fact, both Volker and Morrison made it very clear that investigating the Bidens would be or was in their view, inappropriate. They have some plausible deniability about whether or not they knew that that was what was being pushed toward at the time, but they were both pretty clear that investigating a U.S. citizen, you know, or urging a foreign government to do that was not kosher.

And Republicans seem to be so eager to make these two witnesses their star witnesses. And yet that is the central point. That is the point of this whole thing, is, was it OK to push Ukraine to investigate the Bidens?


And the answer clearly from virtually every witness we've heard from is no.

BERMAN: What was interesting is you've heard from four people yesterday who all describe the same fact pattern, but later in the day, Volker and Morrison, Republicans tried to press them, was it bribery? Was it extortion?

And they've both said, no, but their legal opinion on that.

AVLON: Well, look -- that's now where we're at. The big debate is Republicans saying, OK, maybe you all say this was wrong, but does it rise to the level of bribery, which is the language in the Constitution or treason that Nancy Pelosi has invoked?

And, you know, that's a relatively thin read, even though it's a very important point. You know, Morrison, you know, also testifying that he didn't necessarily think the call was illegal or improper, but he was concerned enough to immediately raise the red flag.

BERMAN: You don't go and talk to the lawyers just because you like hearing the lawyers' voice.

AVLON: No, and, look, the Republicans seem like they're heading down the path where their argument was going, this is far from ideal, but it is not impeachable, because they keep getting confronted with a fact pattern that's fairly uniform at this point. Up until today, at least, that doesn't back their talking points.

Yesterday, our friend, Jeff Toobin, called it a graveyard for talking points. It certainly has that quality. The headstones are everywhere.

CAMEROTA: OK, so yesterday, what many feared would happen when lieutenant Colonel Vindman took the stand did come to pass. And that was you heard various Republicans try to take different inroads to somehow maligning him. So, here are a couple of examples.


STEVE CASTOR, REPUBLICAN COUNSEL: You went to Ukraine for the inauguration?


CASTOR: May 20th.

At any point during that trip, did Mr. Danyluk offer you a position of defense minister with the Ukrainian government?

VINDMAN: He did.

CASTOR: And when he made this offer to you, was he speaking in English or Ukrainian?

REP. CHRIS STEWART (R-UT): I see you're wearing your dress uniform, knowing that's not the uniform of the day, you normally wear a suit to the White House. Do you always insist on civilians calling you by your rank?


CAMEROTA: Is that the best -- I mean, I guess --

PHILLIP: I was really surprised that the defense secretary thing for Ukraine really caught me a little bit by surprise, because it seemed so clearly -- I mean, you know, later on, the person in question who raised this with Vindman said that it was a joke and Vindman seemed to take it as a joke. But even if he hadn't taken it as a joke, he immediately reported it to his superiors.

So the idea that Republicans would argue that he somehow entertained an offer to return to Ukraine as defense minister is really -- I mean, I think it really, it is beyond the pale.

BERMAN: Can I just point out what took this even one step further, which is when the official White House Twitter account -- this is not a political account, this is the White House official account --

CAMEROTA: Not Donald Trump's account.

BERMAN: -- went after Alexander Vindman. That's the type of thing that is not supposed to happen here.

Quoting from testimony: I had concerns about Lieutenant Colonel Vindman's judgment.

Again, this is the White House -- official White House attacking a White House employee.

AVLON: That's the key point. This is somebody who works in the NSC. Somebody who the White House is attacking one of their own employees.

Overall, when they're attacking the witnesses here, they're attacking their own State Department staffers or White House employees. But again, in the backdrop of what made the thing Abby pointed out so objectionable is the calls initially when he gave his first testimony to suggest he was somehow un-American or had dual loyalty, that's classic stuff and that's despicable.

CAMEROTA: John, Abby, thank you very much.

So who is Gordon Sondland and why is he considered such a key witness? We break down all of those details, next.