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Ambassador Gordon Sondland to Testify Today. Aired 6-6:30a ET
Aired November 20, 2019 - 06:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOHN BERMAN, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to get a sense of what Gordon Sondland is going to say when he testifies in just under three hours. NEW DAY continues right now.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Sondland has changed his testimony already. He is the connection directly to President Trump.
KURT VOLKER, FORMER AMBASSADOR TO UKRAINE: Ambassador Sondland is a big personality and sometimes says things that might be a bit bigger than life.
DONALD TRUMP (R), PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: The Republicans are absolutely killing it.
DANIEL GOLDMAN, ATTORNEY FOR THE MAJORITY: President Trump demanded a favor of President Zelensky to conduct investigations for President Trump's political interests, not the national interest.
LT. COL. ALEXANDER VINDMAN, DIRECTOR FOR EUROPEAN AFFAIRS FOR THE UNITED STATES: Yes.
GOLDMAN: Ms. Williams?
JENNIFER WILLIAMS, RUSSIA ADVISOR FOR VICE PRESIDENT MIKE PENCE: Yes.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All these fact witnesses can't be expected to make the ultimate determination.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Impeachment is such a high-level offense, that you better have fair evidence to overturn the duly election of the American people.
ANNOUNCER: This is NEW DAY with Alisyn Camerota and John Berman.
ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. This is NEW DAY. It is Wednesday, November 20, 6 a.m. here in New York.
You're watching CNN's special coverage of the House impeachment hearings. For Democrats and their investigation, they believe this morning will be crucial.
In just a few hours, Gordon Sondland will speak publicly. The U.S. ambassador to the European Union is the only witness thus far to have spoken directly with President Trump about the scheme to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens.
Ambassador Sondland already had to amend his testimony once. And GOP sources tell CNN that they are concerned about what he will say today.
The E.U. ambassador is walking a delicate tight rope. Will he say that the president directed him to demand a quid pro quo? To issue a bribe of millions of dollars in exchange for military -- in exchange for investigations?
BERMAN: So this morning the hearings followed nearly 12 hours of testimony from four witnesses. One of those witnesses, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, testified about his concerns with the call and the national security risks involved.
For that, the Iraq war hero was attacked by the White House and its Republican allies. Former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, made a number of important changes to his original testimony. He now says that the demand to investigate the Bidens was inappropriate.
CNN's Suzanne Malveaux is live outside the hearing room this morning. This morning, Suzanne, the focus will be on what is now called the Gordon problem.
SUZANNE MALVEAUX, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: That's right, John. And I asked a Democratic aide involved in the impeachment inquiry about the so-called Gordon problem, and she said it is unclear whose problem it's going to be, because he could either be helpful or hurtful to both sides.
MALVEAUX (voice-over): The pressure is on for Gordon Sondland as impeachment investigators on both size of the aisle are ready to grill him about the Ukraine scandal and his contacts with President Trump about it. The Trump megadonor 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 this -- this request to conduct these meetings was inappropriate. VOLKER: 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.
WILLIAM TAYLOR, TOP U.S. DIPLOMAT IN 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 25 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 have people 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.
REP. 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: The big question for Democrats and Republicans, to what extent was Sondland acting at the behest of the president? Two more witnesses to testify: Laura Cooper of the Pentagon, following the money; David Hale, who Republicans believe will help tell their side of the story -- John.
BERMAN: All right, Suzanne. Thank you very much.
Gordon Sondland spoke to President Trump. What did the president tell him to do in regards to Ukraine, in regards to Rudy Giuliani, in regards to the quid pro quo? What will he testify? We'll discuss next.
CAMEROTA: In just a few hours, the current U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, will testify on Capitol Hill about his direct involvement in the push to have Ukraine investigate the 2016 election and the Bidens.
Joining us now is CNN political commentator Joe Lockhart. He was President Clinton's former press secretary. And CNN senior global affairs analyst Bianna Golodryga.
OK. All eyes on Gordon Sondland. He's a wild card, as we have established. We don't know exactly what he will say, but Joe, what do Democrats and the investigators on here most want out of him? What would they consider an accomplishment?
If they get Gordon Sondland to say that everything he did was directed by President Trump, is that what they're looking for him to say?
JOE LOCKHART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think, ultimately, that's what they're looking for. But what they're going to do in the first instance is tie -- be the first witness that really ties someone to the president of the United States who can say, the president of the United States told me "X" or told me "Y." Because we haven't really had that.
We've had a bunch of, you know, sort of mid-level staffers talking about the policy, talking about the process, but not with a lot of insight into the president being on the phone call. Sondland talked to him. Sondland was his guy. That's what they're looking for.
BERMAN: What did the president say to you? What did the president tell you to do? And I'm not talking about just the July 26 phone call. I'm not talking, you know, about the phone calls to September. I'm talking about over your complete tenure here as ambassador to the European Union. What did the president tell you to do?
BIANNA GOLODRYGA, CNN SENIOR GLOBAL AFFAIRS ANALYST: And in these private meetings and private phone calls. We know that their private meetings began as early as May, when the group of representatives met with the -- President Trump after the election and the inauguration of President Zelensky. And Sondland stayed behind.
What did the president talk to you about then? What did he talk to you about on that phone call that many other people heard on July 26?
And more importantly, I think, when did you know that the president was tying the withholding of aid and the withholding of a meeting to these investigations of both the Bidens and Burisma and the 2016 election?
CAMEROTA: Gordon Sondland, of course, has changed his testimony. He's famously amended it. And so we don't know exactly how forthcoming he will be today. But if he is, then he is the linchpin. He's the person, as you point out, who actually knows what the direction was, who knows what the instruction was, who can get into the president's mindset, because he had these phone calls with him. I mean, after this, then are Democrats ready to wrap it up? If they get that from him, are they done?
LOCKHART: Well, I mean, he's the linchpin who's willing to go up and testify. There are people who have better information than him. Mick Mulvaney, for one, who actually, you know, implemented the policy of holding the aid. But he is the closest to the president.
And he -- he cannot use the Volker excuse that I didn't put things together. He has told too many people and bragged to too many people about how this was his policy and he was implementing on the part of the president.
So he's got choices today. You know, he can risk perjury and try to dance around this and protect the president. He can tell the absolute truth, or he can take the fifth.
My guess -- you know, I noticed last night that a lot of the right- wing media already was starting to go after him.
LOCKHART: How? Steve Bannon on his podcast was saying, he's just a guy, he's a glorified donor who just puffed himself up. The president, you know, doesn't -- doesn't know him. He doesn't matter.
He's -- he's -- given the fact that no one else will testify, he's the best the Democrats have.
BERMAN: The problem with that defense, let's get S-16 ready in the control room, if you will. The problem with that, which is the president barely knew him, is the evidence.
BERMAN: Which is that Gordon Sondland apparently could get a call through whenever or wherever he wanted. So let's play that sound.
(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)
TRUMP: Let me just tell you, I hardly know the gentleman.
GORDON SONDLAND, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO E.U.: I spoke to both President Trump and President Zelensky before and after the call.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: Not just before, not just after, but --
CAMEROTA: Before and after.
BERMAN: -- before and after. Right? And he also got that call through from the restaurant in Kyiv. So clearly, the president spoke to Gordon Sondland a fair amount.
GOLODRYGA: Multiple times, right?
Look, if I were to guess how things were going to play out if Republicans were effective at one thing yesterday, it was trying to establish Volker as the head of Ukraine policy. Right? He's establishment. He has a reputable history. He has a lot of contacts.
The downside of that was that Volker, the best that he came out of was saying, look, at the time I didn't know there were all these connections; but now I do, and it was obviously bad.
Volker today, now all eyes are going to be on Sondland. Because Sondland was the guy that knew the back channel, right? He knew the back story. He knew about the unconventional channel, the unusual channel.
CAMEROTA: He was part of it.
GOLODRYGA: And what the president really wanted to do. Right. And the only question I have now is whether, now, Sondland is going to put all the blame on Giuliani.
CAMEROTA: Excellent question. Hold those thoughts.
BERMAN: I think we need to talk much more about this.
BERMAN: Much more about this next.
BERMAN: In less than three hours, the most anticipated and perhaps most mysterious witness yet will testify before Congress. Mysterious because we don't know what he's going to say, really. Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, he spoke to the president many times about Ukraine. So where is he headed?
Back with us, Joe Lockhart and Bianna Golodryga.
One of the things that's most interesting here, friends, is that there is testimony that these men talked repeatedly, including once on July 26, which was the day after the Trump/Zelensky phone call. We haven't heard what Sondland has to say about that yet, but the president was asked directly about it, and this is what the president had to say.
TRUMP: I know nothing about that. First time I've heard it. The one thing I've seen that Sondland said was that he did speak to me for a brief moment, and I said, no quid pro quo under any circumstances. And that's true. The other, I've never heard this. In any event, it's more secondhand information, but I've never heard it.
(END VIDEO CLIP)
BERMAN: President says, I've never heard it.' He's never heard of this phone call on July 26 when Ambassador Gordon Sondland. So what happens when Gordon Sondland, or if Gordon Sondland goes in today saying, yes, that phone call happened?
GOLODRYGA: I think most people assume that phone call happened. You have credible witnesses that now say that that phone call happened. Regardless of the president not saying, he said he didn't remember. BERMAN: He didn't say I don't remember. He said I don't know
anything about that.
GOLODRYGA: Right, right, right. Well, we all now know that there were multiple people who heard that phone call.
BERMAN: Sometimes he lies?
GOLODRYGA: I'm not going there, but I think that his track record is not that stellar when it comes to things he says he doesn't recall or people who he says he doesn't know.
That having been said, given the number of witnesses and now the fact that there are reports that the State Department is looking at how people are using their cell phones overseas gives credibility to the fact the president had a phone conversation with Gordon Sondland in Ukraine. And there were witnesses who said that they heard, please hold for the president, and they heard the president speaking loudly, to which Sondland said he's not in a very good place.
CAMEROTA: Yes, the president, you know, was not speaking loudly in that denial The president -- you know, that was not a full-throated denial. He was so sedated in terms of attempting to say he doesn't know about that phone call. It's just a different style than we sometimes hear from the president at the podium.
LOCKHART: Yes. And historically, the last three years, it's a bit of a tell with the president when he's thinking, like, how do I answer that? Because he clearly does know about the phone call. And he wanted to create the impression that there's nothing to see here.
You know, I think that it does go to the president's state of mind that he was talking to Sondland so often. Because the only thing he had, you know, we know from Sondland and we know from David Holmes that he didn't care about Ukraine, he didn't care about the policy. He cared about getting Biden.
And the fact that he kept taking these calls from Sondland, and it wasn't because they're best buddies, showed that this was something that the president was focused on, perhaps obsessed with.
And I think that is a line of questioning that I think should be put to Sondland today, which is why was the president so interested in this? How often did he push you on this? Did you feel like this was a high priority? Or did he care about corruption in general? These were the sort of things I think particularly Dan Goldman will go after. And it will be really interesting to see Goldman press down.
GOLODRYGA: And -- and remember what Sondland said to Taylor's aide. He does not care about Ukraine. He cares about investigating the Bidens.
And that comes to mind, because the people who he had -- he had the closest relationship with regards to Ukraine -- and this goes back to U.S. national security and why it matters -- are Sondland and Giuliani. Not Ukraine experts, right? And we've heard this week and last week from so many credible,
impressive experts that, if the president really cared about learning what is going on on the ground there and why it matters in terms of policy, he would have reached out to them.
In fact, his justification is, "I've never met these people. I don't know who that -- they are." It's a really sad state of offers.
LOCKHART: And remember, his national security advisor, John Bolton, is telling everyone, don't talk to me. Talk to the lawyers. So his appointed expert on this has said, I have washed my hands of this. I am not touching this issue.
GOLODRYGA: The Gordon problem. I mean, that's how Dr. Hill --
GOLODRYGA: -- phrased it, right? So everyone in that inner circle knew. It's just a matter of who wanted to dig deeper, what actually was going on.
BERMAN: I'd like to recognize myself for the purposes of reading a statement into the record.
CAMEROTA: Yes, Chairman.
LOCKHART: You have to yield.
BERMAN: This is Gordon Sondland's revised testimony. This is what he felt was so important to revise after he testified behind closed doors to Congress.
He says, "I now remember speaking individually with Mr. Yermak" -- that's the Ukrainian official who works for President Zelensky -- "where I said that the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine provided the public anti-corruption statement that we had been discussing for many weeks."
That is the lean. That is the conditionality. That is what has been called a quid pro quo.
CAMEROTA: That's the crux of the matter. I mean, they already have it. They have it. The investigators have it. He already testified to this.
BERMAN: I guess what I'm getting at -- and you're right -- is if he illuminates that today more, says it out loud today more, if he says, yes, there was a quid pro quo, how does the president react to that when the president just claimed there wasn't?
CAMEROTA: Well, let me just finish on the question that Bianna posed --
BERMAN: I yield.
CAMEROTA: Thank you. LOCKHART: Yes, yes.
CAMEROTA: Let me recognize myself now. And that Bianna posed before we went to break, which is will he pin this and can he pin this all on Giuliani? Can he say Giuliani was the president's surrogate. We were all acting sort of in connection to what Giuliani was saying.
Might that happen today? And what happens if he says that?
LOCKHART: Yes. I want to stay in character so this is a parliamentary inquiry. But yes. I mean, there's -- there's no doubt that there's -- this has been an exercise in finger pointing.
The higher you get up in the administration, you saw the people like Vindman and Williams, they weren't blaming anyone. They were just saying that they thought this was wrong.
You start moving up the chain, and yesterday it was, he did it, he did it, he did it. I think Sondland will very much say that Giuliani was a driving force here. He was the person closest to the president. Giuliani was telling him this is what the president thinks. I was just doing what I thought the president wanted me to do.
GOLODRYGA: And we've gotten -- we've gotten to this point in the narrative, right? Every single person that's testified has said that somebody planted the seed in the president's mind a long time ago that Ukraine was not a good country, and then most of them point their finger at Giuliani.
And there are reports that Vladimir Putin and Victor Orban also played a role.
LOCKHART: Yes. And Sean Hannity. I would throw him in, too.
BERMAN: Joe Lockhart, Bianna Golodryga, thank you, all, very much.
We've been talking about this. Republican sources including those close to the president say they are worried about Sondland's testimony and how far he will go today. The key question Sondland will have to answer today, next.