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THE SITUATION ROOM

New Impeachment Testimony Released; Democrats Schedule More Impeachment Hearings; Interview With Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-PA); House Judiciary Sets First Impeachment Hearing December 4; Fire Threatening Thousands Of Southern California Homes; "Slow-Moving Blob" That May Have Been A Flock Of Birds Caused White House Lockdown. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired November 26, 2019 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Setting the date. House Democrats pass the impeachment torch to the Judiciary Committee, which has announced it will hold its first hearing next week.

"Stop complaining." The Judiciary Committee chairman sends a letter to President Trump inviting him to take part in the hearing and says -- he says, if Mr. Trump chooses not to, he should -- quote -- "stop complaining" about the process.

And fire and ice. A wildfire threatens thousands of homes in Southern California, while severe winter-like weather threatens holiday travel plans for millions of Americans.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories tonight, including House Democrats just releasing transcripts of impeachment inquiry testimony by two key witnesses.

Also, the first House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing is now set for a week from tomorrow. The chairman, Jerry Nadler, is inviting President Trump and his lawyer to take part. And a senior administration official tells CNN the proposal is under consideration and will likely be discussed with the president as he spends the holiday week in Palm Beach, Florida.

We will talk about that and more with a Congresswoman Madeleine Dean of the Judiciary Committee. And our correspondents of analysts are also standing by.

First, let's go to Capitol Hill.

Our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, is joining us.

Manu, we now have the transcripts of the impeachment testimony by a key State Department official, Philip Reeker, and a key Office of Management and Budget official, Mark Sandy. Tell us about that. MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Mark Sandy,

who is the lone Office of Management and Budget official to go behind closed doors and testify before House impeachment investigators, details what he knew and what eh didn't about why that security aid for Ukraine had been withheld, nearly $400 million at the same time, separately, as the president was pushing for investigations into his political foes.

And there are questions, of course, about whether the two are linked, as Democrats believe there's more than enough evidence to show that they, in fact, were.

But mark Sandy makes very clear in his testimony that he was not told throughout July and throughout August why that was held. He didn't learn until September about why that money was ultimately held up. He said this was a question that was lingering for sometime, a question that he raised two officials in the -- in within the Office of Management and Budget, whether or not it was a legal move.

And he said that he had concerns that were not answered fully. And he said it was a question that lasted -- quote -- "pretty much all of August," a question that he raised to a top political official, Mike Duffy, who later withheld that aid after he initially signed off on holding back on the aid.

Now, he says this, according to this transcript, Mark Sandy, to answer a question from House investigators. "At any point in time for the moment that you walked into the SCIF to any time in history, has Mr. Duffy ever provided you a reason why the president wanted to place a hold on security assistance?"

He says: "I recall, in early September, an e-mail that attributed the hold to the president's concern about other countries not contributing more to Ukraine."

And, of course, we have learned that that later, just several days later, September 11, September 12, that the aid was ultimately released to Ukraine in the aftermath of reports showing that this money had been withheld up, and that's why the major concerns within the U.S. government, within the Ukraine circles about why this aid had been withheld, and amid a push by the president and his allies to investigate Joe Biden, his political rivals, as well as the theory that the president has pushed too that Ukraine may have interfere din the 2016 elections, something that has been debunked by top officials.

But also Mark Sandy makes clear that when he raised that other people within the Office of Management and Budget had similar concerns, he says that one attorney in the White House -- the counsel for the Budget Office actually resigned in part because of concerns that he shared as well that the security system to Ukraine had been held up.

And, Wolf, we are seeking comment from the Office of Management and Budget on that claim, but clearly concerns were within the White House Budget Office and lots of questions and not real clear reasons why this crucial military assistance was delayed -- Wolf.

BLITZER: What about the highlights from that top State Department official Philip Reeker? What are you seeing there?

RAJU: Well, Phil Reeker raises concerns as well about several issues involving both the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, his efforts to push for those investigations, as well as the efforts to oust the former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.

The State Department top leadership did not offer a statement of support amid this smear campaign that Giuliani was launching and others. And he makes very clear that Rudy Giuliani was the person who was feeding the president's views and perceptions about what was happening with Ukraine and with Yovanovitch.

He says that: "I know there was an understanding certainly from Kurt Volker and others that were there that Rudy Giuliani is feeding the president a lot of very negative views about Ukraine."

[18:05:09]

Now, he also says that he has concerns about the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland. Sondland, of course, was told by the president to be involved on Ukraine matters.

He said he didn't know why Sondland was involved in these issues. Sondland himself testified last week that there was a quid pro quo in the seeking of -- Ukraine seeking of a meeting with President Trump in exchange for those investigations being announced.

But he also says that Sondland had a script of sorts that he had for President Zelensky of Ukraine to tell -- to talk to President Trump about in that phone conversation in July of this year.

He says that: "I recall that he was working with President -- with Zelensky to work -- you know, as he was prepared for phone calls and engagement with the president toward this meeting, he had sort of a script. That's how he described it. I don't know the specifics of what he meant by that, but he described it as a script for Volodymyr to help him as we move forward in this."

So, clearly, there were efforts by Sondland and others to push for those investigations to be announced in exchange for several -- for some key official actions, namely, this meeting that occurred that Sondland believes was tied to this investigate -- announcement of investigations that could help the president politically, including of the vice president, former Vice President Joe Biden.

But Reeker is just another official, Wolf, who raises concerns about everything that he -- was happening and what they view as an irregular channel to push forward on Ukraine policy that seemed to contradict what the national security experts in the State Department were seeking -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And tell us about the next key step in this whole impeachment inquiry.

Jerry Nadler, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, writing to the president, saying a week from tomorrow there will be the first House Judiciary Committee hearing. They're calling it the impeachment inquiry into President Donald J. Trump, constitutional grounds for presidential impeachment.

They have invited the president or the White House counselor both to come in participate.

RAJU: Yes.

And we will see if they do just that. This is a new phase of this investigation, a sign that the impeachment proceedings are moving rapidly and a sign that the president could be impeached before the end of the year.

The House Intelligence Committee first will submit a report that we expect to be released early next week detailing the findings of its investigation. Then the House Judiciary Committee will take the ball from there. They will have their first public hearing next Wednesday, the one that you mentioned.

There will likely be other hearings as well before there will actually be formal votes before the House Judiciary Committee on articles of impeachment that we expect to happen probably the second week of December, potentially into the third week of December. And then after, that's when the full House is expected to vote on impeachment.

So, Wolf, it's very clear where the Democrats are going. They plan to move forward on -- to impeach this president. They made it very clear that they're going to do that. They're saying they will offer the president an opportunity to come in with his counsel to cross-examine witnesses, but there are questions about whether that will happen.

Of course, the Judiciary Committee chairman has a lot of discretion about what he will allow. So we will see how that plays out. But no doubt about it, Wolf, Democrats moving full steam ahead, even as there's still questions about whether they will succeed in the Senate, with Republicans still siding with the president and unlikely to remove him from office -- Wolf.

BLITZER: An important point, indeed. Manu, thank you.

Let's go to the White House right now.

Our chief White House correspondent, Jim Acosta, is on the scene for us, as he always is.

Jim, you're getting new information from your sources. What are you learning?

JIM ACOSTA, CNN CHIEF WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Wolf.

A senior administration official said Chairman Nadler's proposal to allow White House attorneys or perhaps even the president to participate in upcoming hearings is under consideration and likely to come up for discussion during the president's trip to Florida.

As for allowing top officials to testify, that is another matter. The president is trying to have it both ways tonight, insisting he would like to see some of his top officials appear before lawmakers, but adding that he doesn't want to tie the hands of future presidents.

What does that mean? It means, don't hold your breath.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Any response to Jerry Nadler?

(voice-over): Leaving the White House to spend Thanksgiving in Florida, President Trump ignored questions about what's waiting for him after his holiday break, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler's plans for new hearings in the impeachment inquiry.

While acknowledging in a tweet that he stalled military aid to Ukraine as part of that alleged deal to get dirt on Joe Biden, the president indicated he's not ready to allow top officials to testify in front of House Democrats, tweeting that his former National Security Adviser John Bolton "is a patriot and may know that I held back the money from Ukraine because it is considered a corrupt country. Likewise, I would love to have Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and many others testify about the phony impeachment hoax."

But the president said he doesn't want future presidents to be compromised. Pompeo refused to be pinned down on whether he would testify.

QUESTION: The president tweeted just a short while ago that he would encourage you, essentially, to testify in the impeachment investigation. Is that something you're considering?

MIKE POMPEO, U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE: When the time is right, all good things happen.

ACOSTA: Bolton, who has also been dodging the issue, tweeted: "It probably goes without saying that our country's commitment to our national security priorities is under attack from within. America is distracted. Our enemies are not. We need to make U.S. national security a priority."

[18:10:10]

One big reason that they are all skirting the issue is that they would be asked about European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland's testimony that the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani was orchestrating a quid pro quo deal with Ukrainians.

GORDON SONDLAND, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE EUROPEAN UNION: Mr. Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky.

Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election, DNC server, and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew these investigations were important to the president.

ACOSTA: A new CNN poll finds public support for removing Mr. Trump from office remains steady at 50 percent and that more than half believe the president used his office to gain political advantage.

Add to that a key Republican who initially said he believed the president's bogus conspiracy theory about Ukraine meddling is now changing course.

SEN. JOHN KENNEDY (R-LA): I was wrong. The only evidence I have -- and I think it's overwhelming -- is that it was Russia who tried to hack the DNC computer.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN HOST: That's what the consensus is.

KENNEDY: I have seen no -- yes, I have seen no indication that Ukraine tried to do it.

ACOSTA: The president is trying to find some humor in his foul predicament.

TRUMP: They have already received subpoenas to appear in Adam Schiff's basement on Thursday. Hundreds of people have. It seems the Democrats are accusing me of being too soft on turkey.

But Bread and Butter, I should note that, unlike previous witnesses, you and I have actually met.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

ACOSTA: Now let's talk Turkey about John Bolton's tweet that U.S. national security priorities are being attacked from within.

A senior official over here at the White House replied simply, Bolton is going to Bolton. But the White House is not likely to change its posture when it comes to allowing these top officials over here at the White House to have the green light to testify.

All of that likely means, Wolf, more presidential stonewalling in the days to come -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jim Acosta at the White House, thank you.

Let's get some more on all of this.

Joining us now, Democratic Congresswoman Madeleine Dean of Pennsylvania, key member of the Judiciary Committee.

Congresswoman, thanks so much for joining us.

REP. MADELEINE DEAN (D-PA): Thank you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And let me get your quick reaction to the breaking news we have been following, the transcripts just released from two key witnesses, one of them from OMB, Mark Sandy, a top official on national security there, the other -- and the other, Phil Reeker, the acting assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs.

But as far as Mark Sandy is concerned, he apparently told lawmakers in a sworn deposition that he was not given any reason why the nearly $400 million in authorized aid to Ukraine was frozen until September.

So how concerning is that lack of transparency to you?

DEAN: Well, it's very concerning.

It, sadly, meets all the evidence that we heard in the open hearings over the course of two weeks. What else I saw -- and I was only able to read some of the top-line releases on that deposition -- were that, once he questioned why this aid was being withheld, he learned, number one, it was the president directly who upheld the aid.

He learned that through Mick Mulvaney's office. But then he was removed from authorization of foreign aid. He was taken off those duties. He also said he was gravely concerned about the legality of withholding that aid.

What we know is, there was an attempt to extort a foreign democracy, a brand-new president, in exchange for dirt on a political opponent. The president tried to self-deal, tried to bribe a president, President Zelensky, for his own political gain.

Dr. Hill said it so, I thought, interestingly, and I will paraphrase it only, but she said it was a private domestic errand that Mr. Sondland and others were on, Mr. Giuliani were on, for the president of the United States.

And she realized that she was on a very different path. She was on a path about national security. Ironic that Secretary of State Pompeo is talking about national security. The threat was from within. It was from this very administration withholding aid from an -- aid -- from a friend who is under invasion by our foe and their foe, withholding military aid in order to bribe a meeting -- bribe dirt on a political foe.

It's just grave, damning evidence. And so I look forward to getting Sandy's deposition, as well as all the others. You know that that report is now about written. We saw two weeks' worth of public testimony that was, I think, courageous career diplomats.

[18:15:06]

But, remember, there are dozens of hours of private testimony, depositions, that will be a part of the report and the evidence that will come to Judiciary, I think, as early as next week.

BLITZER: The acting assistant of secretary of state for European affairs, Phil Reeker, testified that Ambassador Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, had what he calls a script for the Ukrainian President Zelensky to use in the phone conversation he had with President Trump.

Is that how foreign policy is supposed to be conducted? DEAN: I'm not a career diplomat, but that was one of the striking things between the testimony of Mr. Sondland and the testimony of the career diplomats.

Certainly, that is an extraordinarily irregular way to conduct foreign affairs and diplomacy in order to try to preserve peace in that country and stability, our own national stability. That did not seem like somebody who was steeped in diplomacy or how to move forward.

That was a script that was for a political errand only.

BLITZER: The impeachment investigation now enters a critically important new phase next week, when your committee, the Judiciary Committee, holds its first public hearing on this whole matter.

Will you have received the full report from the House Intelligence Committee before a week from tomorrow, December 4, when your committee is supposed to open up its hearings?

DEAN: I don't know, Wolf. I hope so.

I know they're working over this Thanksgiving break to complete the report. They work so well and for so many hours. So, I thank the staff of that committee, of those committees.

But I hope we will have the report as early as next week. And you do know that Jerry Nadler, the chairman, has put forward that we will have our first hearing Wednesday, December the 4, 10:00 a.m., on the constitutional question of impeachment.

So I look forward to beginning that serious, grave journey.

BLITZER: But I assume that Jerry Nadler will want that House Intelligence Committee report before he convenes his hearing.

DEAN: Yes.

And recognize what this first hearing is about. It is not on the evidence that will come forward in that report. We need to make sure we see all of the evidence.

But what Judiciary has the opportunity to do is to inform everybody, including the American people, on exactly the constitutionality of the steps of impeachment. What are high crimes and misdemeanors? What did our founders intend?

And so it is, in part, a very academic presentation that we will go through. And we will have the chance to ask academics, historians questions about what rises to the level of high crime, misdemeanor, treason, or bribery, as our founders and framers put forward.

Certainly, what they were thinking about was the somebody might get an office and either be so corrupt as to self-deal, or so corrupt as to abuse his office or her office, or would invite the foreign interference by another country into our elections. Those are some of the things that our founders were worried about.

And so this -- this will be a chance for us and for America to be schooled again in, what is it that impeachment actually entails?

I think about it. I mean, I'm old enough to remember both Nixon and Clinton.

BLITZER: Yes.

DEAN: But there are a whole host of young people who don't. And I'm happy to say we don't go through this kind of a journey, a grave journey, very often in this country.

I hope we don't have to go through it ever again in my lifetime. But we do need to remind ourselves what actually is a high crime and misdemeanor, so I look forward to that education.

BLITZER: We will be watching that hearing a week from tomorrow.

Congresswoman Madeleine Dean, of course, thank you very much for joining us.

DEAN: Thank you. Happy Thanksgiving.

BLITZER: Happy Thanksgiving to you too.

The breaking news continues next. We're getting more -- we're learning more on what these newly released impeachment testimony transcripts are showing, what two key officials are telling lawmakers about the Ukraine scandal.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:23:56]

BLITZER: More now on the breaking news, the new impeachment testimony transcripts just released by House Democrats.

I want to bring in our chief legal analyst, former federal prosecutor Jeffrey Toobin, into all of this.

So you have gone through a lot of these transcripts, sworn deposition. What stands out to you from these two Trump administration officials?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, before we go into the details, the larger message from these transcripts is that they're consistent with the story that has been told by basically all the witnesses, which was the aid to Ukraine was withheld at the highest levels of government, Mulvaney, acting presumably on the orders of President Trump, because the president -- because the president wanted the president of Ukraine to order an investigation of Burisma and the Biden family.

That's -- there are no surprises here, because, basically, every witness has told a story consistent with that fundamental set of facts. BLITZER: The acting assistant secretary of state for European affairs, Philip Reeker, says that the U.S. ambassador to the E.U., Gordon Sunlen, had what he what he calls a script for the Ukrainian President Zelensky to use in that phone conversation with the president on July 25.

[18:25:14]

So why is that revelation significant?

TOOBIN: Because it shows that Sondland, who was part of this effort to get President Zelensky to open an investigation of the Bidens, he had to tell Zelensky what to say, so that the president of the United States would release the -- would release the aid.

Zelensky needed the money. And he needed to know what to say in order to get the money, so that his troops wouldn't die in fighting the Russians.

This -- so, Sondland had a script for him, according to Reeker, to say the right things, so that Trump would release the aid.

BLITZER: Mark Sandy, the deputy associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, in charge of national security affairs, he says that -- he told the lawmakers in the sworn deposition that he and other OMB employees sent a memo to their boss in August recommending that the funds be released.

He also says that an OMB attorney resigned, at least in part because of concerns about the hold. So what does that tell you, especially the legality of that decision?

TOOBIN: Well, just -- we should also note that this memo, along with all the e-mails about this whole enterprise, they exist in the world. They are under the control of President Trump.

If he thinks that the evidence is exculpatory, he could let out all those memos, all those e-mails. He could let all the witnesses who refuse to testify, let them testify.

Now, as to the specific claims from Mark Sandy, again, it shows the disquiet, the anger, the frustration among the people in the Office of Management and Budget, who were trained to follow the law, about what was going on.

They wrote this memo saying, you have to release the aid. One lawyer apparently quit, at least in part because of what was going on here. Again, it's consistent with a bribery scheme to get an investigation of the president's rival.

BLITZER: Jeffrey Toobin reporting for us, thank you very, very much.

There's more breaking news just ahead here in THE SITUATION ROOM. We will take a closer look at the next phase of the impeachment inquiry, now set to begin next week with the first House Judiciary Committee hearing. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:30:00]

BLITZER: We're following multiple breaking stories this hour, including the first House Judiciary Committee impeachment hearing now set for a week from tomorrow. Let's get some more on all the breaking news. Our correspondents and analyst are here.

And, Sara Murray, apparently, the White House is at least supposedly considering maybe not sending the president but the White House Counsel up to this House Judiciary Committee hearing considering I'll believe it when I see it.

SARA MURRAY, CNN POLITICAL CORRESPONDENT: Considering it. And I don't think that President Trump is going to make an appearance. We've seen him say in the past that he would love to testify. Remember when he really wanted to talk to Robert Mueller and then ultimately refused to do that and only submitted answers in writing.

So it's always b possible the White House could send a representative on their behalf. They've certainly been complaining very loudly that they think that this is an unfair process. But I wouldn't expect President Trump to make an appearance for this .

BLITZER: In the letter that the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Jerry Nadler, wrote to the president, Nadler writes this, while we invite you to this hearing, we remind you that if you continue to refuse to make witnesses and documents available to the committees of jurisdiction under House Resolution 660, quote, the chair shall have the discretion to impose appropriate remedies. What does he mean, appropriate remedies?

SUSAN HENNESSEY, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY AND LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. So there are really three plausible remedies here. The first is, of course, that if the president of the United States refuses to produce witnesses and testimony, that will become the basis of an additional article of impeachment for obstructing Congress.

Now, there are other available remedies. So one is a referral under a criminal or civil contempt citation that requires the House to go through DOJ. It's very unlikely that that's going to work because, of course, Bill Barr is the head of DOJ, likely to ignore a request.

There is a third possibility, and that's Congress relying on what's called inherent contempt authority. That's the ability, the constitutional power of the Congress to enforce its own subpoenas. There's been a lot of discussion about whether or not Congress could arrest somebody. That's probably unlikely.

What's more likely is we might see Congress do something like impose substantial monetary fines and then go directly to the court to actually enforce them.

Now, one significant thing from that -- Judge Jackson's opinion in the McGahn case yesterday was she's specifically made a point of referencing the fact that Congress does have inherent contempt authority, though the scope of it is still untested.

BLITZER: When we look at the poll -- we just released a new poll today, David, and the question was should Trump be impeached and removed from office. Back in October, a month ago, 50 percent said yes. 43 percent said no. Now, it's exactly the same, 50 percent, 43 percent. All those dramatic hearings before the House impeachment committee apparently had no great impact.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, yes, they didn't have a dramatic impact, Wolf. But another way to look at it is that that poll is doing the work of telling us something that we were already sort of getting a sense of, which is that the cake is baked for a lot of the public.

[18:35:03]

There's about half the country, maybe a little more, maybe a little less, that says, yes, Congress should proceed with impeachment, possibly removal. You have another half roughly maybe a little more, a little less that say, no, this is not significant. Congress should put its priorities elsewhere.

That's what we've seen before and after all of those witnesses last week that suggest that Democrats in the House probably have to proceed based on the fact that they think this is the right thing to do rather than building support week over week, especially if they're going to do this before the end of the year.

BLITZER: Mark Mazzetti, the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, is meeting with reporters today and answering reporters' questions. And I want you to listen to what he used to say when he was the CIA director about Russia's interference in the U.S. presidential election in 2016. This is what he said back on April 13th, 2017, and then listen to how he phrased it today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

MIKE POMPEO, SECRETARY OF STATE: In January of this year, our Intelligence Community determined that Russian military intelligence, the GRU, had used WikiLeaks to release data of U.S. victims that the GRU had obtained through cyber operations against the Democratic National Committee.

REPORTER: Do you believe that U.S. and Ukraine should investigate the theory that it was Ukraine and not Russia that hacked the DNC emails in 2016?

POMPEO: Anytime there is information that indicates that any country has messed with American election, we not only have a right but a duty to make sure we chase that down.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: And so what do you think? There's a very clear shift there.

MARK MAZZETTI, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, absolutely. And recall it was less than a week ago when Fiona Hill testified in the impeachment inquiry that there was absolutely no evidence of a Ukrainian government involvement in disrupting the 2016 election. And she scolded congressmen and women for promoting this theory. And here you have the secretary of state singing a much different tune than he did as CIA director.

And as my colleagues reported last week, not only is this being spread by members of Congress, but it has been briefed to Congress that this entire theory has been promoted by Russian intelligence. So to hear the secretary of state sort of speak very obliquely about it and not drive a stake through the theory is perhaps not surprising but it's still extraordinary.

BLITZER: Yes, it is extraordinary, because he said what he said when he was the CIA director and he wasn't alone. The FBI director, so many of the president's own national security officials were saying the same thing, still are saying the same thing. Yet, all of a sudden, Mike Pompeo's is -- well, maybe Ukraine, we have to investigate Ukraine, see what they did, what they didn't do.

MURRAY: And that intelligence hasn't changed. The basis of all of this hasn't changed. What's changed is the political calculus for people like Mike Pompeo as the president faces an impeachment inquiry and as we're into 2020.

But that also makes it all the more alarming. When you saw Fiona Hill, she was saying essentially that we need to get our act together because they are already doing this again, preparing to interfere in our next election.

And so I think it is alarming to watch people sort of who do know better, willfully choose the president's talking points and move closer to that and protect their own political futures rather than thinking about what is best for democracy.

BLITZER: And it was only a few weeks ago that the president's own intelligence community leadership briefed the U.S. Senators and said, basically, this is a whole conspiracy theory that was orchestrated by the Russians, by Putin, the Russian intelligence services, to try to pin the blame on Ukraine as opposed to Russia.

HENNESSEY: Yes. This was really a willful propaganda, right? They understand exactly where the origins of this story are and are quite irresponsibly repeating it. We look at people like Mike Pompeo, there's a reason he has survived this long in the Trump administration when others have not.

And that is not because Mike Pompeo is someone who serves the president by telling the president and the public the truth. He has learned to survive, to politically survive in the Trump administration, you have to essentially pick up talking points that are beneficial to the president's personal views, whether or not they are grounded in reality, whether or not they are identified Russian propaganda contrary to the national interest.

And so I think that it's both shocking but also not at all surprising to see someone like Mike Pompeo make this kind of --

BLITZER: Because some have suggested that maybe he's thinking about leaving the State Department and running for Senate from Kansas.

SWERDLICK: Running for Senate, and it wouldn't shock me if, down the road, he has his eye on the presidency. Mark used the word, obliquely. I think that's the perfect word. He makes that statement because, Wolf, he wants to be seen as a serious guy, not a crack pot, not a conspiracy theorist. But he also wants to say, I'm the good foot with the president and the president's base, which is the energy in the Republican.

BLITZER: Let me get Mark Mazzetti to wrap this up. Go ahead, Mark.

MAZZETTI: Yes. And so this is going to be whether Mike Pompeo runs or not is going to be an open question. But, you know, his advancement of this theory, again, will probably fuel Republicans in Congress to keep it alive, even after Fiona Hill's testimony last week.

[18:40:10]

The fact that Mike Pompeo says, well, everything should be investigated. Any attempts (ph) should be investigated rather than say there's no evidence of it. It keeps it alive not only in Congress, it will keep it alive in the media and perhaps keep it alive with elements of the American public.

BLITZER: Everybody stand by. There's a lot more news we're following, including this. We're getting breaking news, a live update on the wildfire threatening thousands of homes in Southern California. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:45:30]

BLITZER: There's more breaking news we're following. A wildfire that's now threatening thousands of homes in southern California.

CNN's Nick Watt is joining us from Santa Barbara. Nick, I understand this fire is burning in some very tough terrain.

NICK WATT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, Wolf, and they are still trying to contain this blaze both on the ground and from the air. Part of the problem, this area hasn't burned in 29 years, so there is just so much fuel and this morning one firefighter said to us as soon as he heard where the fire had broken out, he knew they were going to have a battle on their hands.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WATT (voice-over): Six hundred firefighters battling blazes in bone dry brush.

ANTHONY STORNETTA, SANTA BARBARA COUNTY FIRE BATTALION CHIEF: It's been quite the fire fight. We've had winds moving upslope, down slope, across the slope.

WATT: With high winds whipping flames across the steep hillsides above Santa Barbara, the fabled beach town and home to nearly 100,000.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm like, oh my God.

WATT: Thousands of homes threatened, thousands people forced to flee, flames engulfing Highway 154. For some, the only route to safety.

After daybreak, tanker air drops. More helicopters joining the fight.

JIM HARRIS, LOS PADRES NATIONAL FOREST FIRE CHIEF: The really hard, difficult piece of fighting fire and the weather is some of the most extreme anywhere around.

WATT: But so far, not a single home lost, just one outbuilding. There are ancient Chumash Native American cave paintings here in these hills. Safe. Covered in advance of the flames with heat resistant tarps. That's why they're calling this the Cave Fire.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WATT: So, a huge rainstorm is going to move in tonight. That will help douse this fire, but it is not going to be enough water to end California's fire season. One state official said this morning it used to be until pretty recently, maybe five years ago, that fire season here was pretty much done November 1st. Not anymore. This year, Wolf, Cal Fire will stay fully staffed up through New Year's.

BLITZER: Nick Watt on the scene for us, good luck out there to all the folks.

Meanwhile, severe weather is threatening to snarl Thanksgiving travel plans for millions of people here in the United States. A major tomorrow in the West could bring hurricane force winds along with rain and snow while another powerful storm spreads snow from the Rockies to the great lakes.

We've already seen flight cancellations and road closures impacting travel, 21 million people are under some kind of winter weather advisory right now. And more than 31 million are expected to travel in the coming days.

Just ahead, how a flock of birds may have triggered a White House lockdown.

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[18:53:02]

BLITZER: Concern over an unauthorized aircraft in restricted airspace triggered some very tense moments here in Washington earlier today with the White House going on full lockdown.

Our aviation correspondent Rene Marsh is here with details.

Rene, I understand now, officials believe it could have been a flock of birds?

RENE MARSH, CNN AVIATION CORRESPONDENT: Yes. You know, it's funny. The Capitol Hill police saying that it was a slow-moving blob of something. In other words, even at this hour, there's still a lot of uncertainty around what sparked this, as you said lockdown of the White House. The capitol earlier this morning it went into restrictive access. Military jets were scrambled.

So there was this frenzy because they believed there was some sort of aircraft in restricted airspace. You can see the Secret Service presence there as well as Capitol Hill police. They were looking for what was in this restricted airspace.

For people who don't know, the airspace in Washington, D.C. is some of the most restricted airspace in the entire country. Hours after this all unfolded, they found nothing. They found no aircraft.

Capitol Hill police saying they saw something on their radar. They are not quite sure what it was. An official at the White House said perhaps it might have been a drone, but the military saying, look, when we went up we saw nothing in the sky.

So there is this mystery this evening. They believe, Wolf, that this was indeed a flock of birds and people at home maybe wondering, how is that possible? Quickly, we want to see you an old radar. You see those arrows there.

That is essentially what a flock of birds kind of looks like on a radar. So, that's how mistake can be made.

BLITZER: I was watching CNN and it brought back scary memories when I heard about that lockdown.

All right. Rene, thank you very, very much.

Just ahead, they spent decades in prison for a crime they didn't commit. Tonight, they are free.

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[18:59:24]

BLITZER: Three wrongfully convicted men are back home tonight after spending 36 years in prison for a crime the state's attorney now says they did not commit. The men were serving life sentences after being convicted of teenagers for the 1983 murder of a middle school student. They were exonerated after new evidence was reviewed by Baltimore's Conviction Integrity Unit.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ALFRED CHESTNUT, RELEASED AFTER 36 YEARS IN PRISON: I've been always dreaming for this day.

RANSOM WATKINS, RELEASED AFTER 36 YEARS IN PRISON: We're happy that we're free, but we got a lot to fix. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Absolutely.

WATKINS: This should have never happened.

ANDREW STEWART, RELEASED AFTER 36 YEARS IN PRISON: Too many people are losing their lives in prison that don't deserve it, and we've got to do something about it.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The men who are now in their early 50s say they're looking forward to thanksgiving with their families.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.