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Interview with Tara Sonenshine; First Day of Public Impeachment Inquiry Testimony; Trump Organization May Sell D.C. Hotel. Aired 10:30-11a ET

Aired November 14, 2019 - 10:30   ET




WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tomorrow, the ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, set to tell her side of the story in the second day of public televised impeachment hearings against the president.

Ambassador Bill Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent testified for hours yesterday, sharing their expertise on the events that led up to President Trump's phone call with the leader of Ukraine.

I'm joined now by Tara Sonenshine, the former under secretary of state for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs under President Obama. She also once served as the deputy director of communications at the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton.

Thanks, Tara, thanks very much for coming in.


BLITZER: Let's talk a little bit about the concerns that I'm sure you feel, so many other diplomats feel over the way these two American diplomats have been treated by the -- by the Trump administration, if you will. What do you think?

SONENSHINE: Well, Bill Taylor, firstly, is someone I know. And, Wolf, you know the foreign policy community in Washington is a tight- knit group. So eventually, everybody knows everybody or a few degrees separated.

Bill, whether you were a Democrat yesterday, a Republican, a conservative, right-wing, left, progressive, independent, you had to look at Bill Taylor and George Kent. But for me particularly, Bill Taylor, and say, soldier, statesman, man of honor, served two administrations, Republican and Democrat. That's as close as we're going to get to an American hero, isn't it?

BLITZER: What did you think of the way they described Rudy Giuliani's role as sort of engaged, leading this so-called shadow diplomacy away from what these guys, you know, were supposedly trying to do, the official U.S. policy towards Ukraine?

SONENSHINE: It reminded me of a time you will remember during Iran- Contra, when we had Ollie North and we had this kind of shadow anti- foreign policy, they were arms trading with Iran. Not many people talk about it. But the question during those years was, what did the president know and when did he know it?

In this case, we know the president knew and we have this kind of secret, informal, irregular channel. What it added up to was taking a wrecking ball to American national security, taking established procedures that involve our security, our safety, getting on phone calls, talking on open lines, this is not how you secure a nation and its people.

BLITZER: What's the impact this is having on career diplomats?


SONENSHINE: I will tell you, my phone rings often and I teach young people who are aspiring to be at the State Department or overseas. The morale is dangerously low inside the building. At the embassies outside, people are nervous.

We are going to learn about political retaliation, intimidation. The harassment that our former ambassador to Ukraine faced, can you imagine 33 years as an ambassador? And rumors start, and your local host government says, hey, you need to watch your back.

BLITZER: She was getting threats.

SONENSHINE: She was physically concerned. And then you're parachuted out of your post. She honestly thought, on the plane ride home, there must be some physical security issue, which would justify removing an ambassador.

She'd been in that post for three years. She had committed to stay until 2020. She had served five administrations in six countries, hardship posts. Now, you get brought back and told you've done a great job but the president has lost confidence in you, and something bad is going to happen.

And now, she has to come before the country tomorrow, out of a job, scared to death but upholding the reputation of all of these public servants who are shaking in their boots.

BLITZER: It's an awful situation right now. Tara Sonenshine, thanks very much for coming in.

SONENSHINE: Thank you.

BLITZER: Critical testimony from the first day of President Trump's impeachment process, setting the stage for what we could see ahead. We're breaking down the key moments. Our special live coverage continues, right after this.


BLITZER: It was the first day of open, public, live on television hearings in President Trump's impeachment inquiry, two senior lifelong American diplomats taking serious questions on whether the president of the United States abused his office. And there were some very striking and surprising moments.

John Dean is here, he was the White House counsel to President Nixon. Also with us, Paul Rosenzweig, senior fellow at the R Street Institute, a former Homeland Security assistant secretary. Guys, thanks very much for coming in.

So, John, what was the most striking moment for you?

JOHN DEAN, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: I think the bombshell, obviously, that -- very early, the testimony that -- that one of Taylor's aides had heard the conversation with Sondland, thrusting Sondland, who's a volunteer witness, right back in the middle of this. I think he'll probably regret having come forward and not claimed this absolute immunity because he's now a key witness.

BLITZER: What do you think, Paul?

PAUL ROSENZWEIG, FORMER DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY FOR POLICY, HOMELAND SECURITY: I think that that was certainly a bombshell. I think the other really significant factor that showed up yesterday was the utter inability of the Republicans to kind of find a consistent factual theme, and to essentially be erecting fake legal arguments as their defense. It shows the kind of weakness of where they are right now.

BLITZER: Where do you think, Paul, this is all heading?

ROSENZWEIG: Well, I think it's inevitably going to head to a vote on the House floor for impeachment. The main question there is going to be whether or not any Republicans break ranks, especially some of the people who are retiring like Representative Rooney, Representative Hurd. And then to the Senate, where who knows what's going to happen.

BLITZER: Listen to this clip. You know, John, this is a Republican congressman, Jim Jordan. Let me play it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: -- the point that these are secondhand witnesses, but the White House isn't --


REP. JIM JORDAN (R-OH): Not secondhand. It's Sondland talked to Yermak and then Sondland -- Yermak and Sondland have a conversation, then Sondland talks to Morrison, and then Morrison talks to Taylor. And this all happens in Warsaw, where Vice President Pence is meeting with President Zelensky and nothing happens there.


BLITZER: So he's saying none of these witnesses --

DEAN: Thank you for (ph) that (ph).

BLITZER: -- had any firsthand information.

DEAN: Thank you for that, thank you for that. Paul and I were talking about that in the green room. It is the biggest bogus claim, that there's no proof of the president's involvement. There are exceptions to the hearsay rule. There are more exceptions that play out every day in courtrooms -- criminal, civil -- and that's the way we communicate.

When -- when my wife tells me that my dogs are doing something or my son is doing something, I don't have direct information, but I rely on it. It's the way we operate as a society. This is bogus.

ROSENZWEIG: Well, I think that the -- to bring it to the legal framework, there's a clear exception to the hearsay rule that says the statements in furtherance of a plan in the criminal context, a criminal plan, a criminal conspiracy -- but here, a plan to withhold evidence -- are admissible as evidence of the existence of the plan.

I have clients who are in jail today based upon that very sort of testimony. To say it is inadmissible is wrong. To say you don't want to believe it? That's what Jim Jordan's really saying.

BLITZER: Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, he said this in his opening statement. I'll play the clip.


REP DEVIN NUNES (R-CA): After the spectacular implosion of their Russia hoax on July 24th, in which they spent years denouncing any Republican who ever shook hands with a Russian.

Anyone familiar with the Democrats' scorched-earth war against President Trump would not be surprised to see all the typical signs that this is a carefully orchestrated media smear campaign.



BLITZER: So what do you think? You're shaking your head.

DEAN: Not even close, not even close. What happened is, Trump forced this issue on us. As the -- as the Russia investigation was wrapping up, this man is plotting his next activity that is illegitimate. To get a foreign country to do the dirty work of opposition research in exchange for foreign aid is outrageous.

This is -- Wolf, to me, this is so much more serious than Nixon's activities, it's more serious -- certainly more serious than Bill Clinton's activities. It's in the area of Iran-Contra, which was settled behind closed doors. But this is -- this is something that affects our national security.

BLITZER: More serious than Nixon, more serious than Bill Clinton?

ROSENZWEIG: Oh, certainly more serious than Bill Clinton, who's -- I mean, I worked on the Clinton campaign and I -- Clinton impeachment, and I still feel as though that impeachment was -- was well-founded. But whatever you think of that, it involved misconduct that arose at a personal level, not the misuse of presidential authority for personal gain.

And I have to say as well, that buried in yesterday's news was the -- was the Roger Stone trial and Rick Gates. And so anybody who actually goes and reads that testimony knows that Mr. Nunes' characterization of what happened between the Trump campaign and Russia is false.

There was direct testimony there of what amounts to collusion. It may very well not be prosecutable criminally, but there's no doubt at all that this is part and parcel of the president's playbook, to see Russia, to seek foreign influence on American electoral campaigns.

BLITZER: The tone of the hearing so far, what do you think?

DEAN: What happens is, they're faster with less information than historically. When I say "faster," events are occurring. Maybe it's social media, maybe it's more media today than there were with three or four networks in the past. But less information in the fact that Clinton, for example, turned over information; Nixon actually turned over more information; Andrew Johnson turned over more information.

So this -- in this White House, they've just closed the door. And but for the foreign service having a spine and coming forward, we wouldn't know what was going on.

BLITZER: John Dean, Paul Rosenzweig, guys, thanks very much for coming in.


Still to come, the Trump organization is now courting new investors for its hotel here in Washington, D.C. But the hotel's biggest draw for foreign government-related business? That's a subject that presents potentially a serious conflict of interest for the president. We have an exclusive CNN report, that's coming up.


BLITZER: Now, to a CNN exclusive. The Trump organization is considering selling its hotel here in Washington, D.C. and has put together a brochure, showcasing the hotel's grandiose architecture and Himalayan salt spa chambers to court new investors.

The hotel's biggest selling point, though, is the one thing that the Trump family insists it took no part in? Profiting off foreign governments.

CNN reporter Kara Scannell's joining us right now. She's been doing serious reporting on this. What are you learning, Kara?

KARA SCANNELL, CNN REPORTER: Well, Wolf, that's right. So Gloria Border and I have seen this 46-page glossy brochure that has been sent to prospective buyers of this hotel lease. And what the Trump organization is doing is saying that their biggest selling point is something they could not take advantage of. That is, profiting off of foreign business.

Let me read a couple of lines from this brochure to give you a sense of how they're marketing this. They say that "Tremendous upside potential exists for a new owner to fully capitalize on government related business upon rebranding of the asset."

TEXT: "the Trump Organization has made countless voluntary sacrifices, and while none of them are legally required, its commitment to turn away significant business during President Donald J. Trump's time in office, is undoubtedly... a major sacrifice, especially in a market dominated by foreign embassies, government patronage and international delegations."

SCANNELL: They also say the Trump Organization's commitment to turn away significant business during the president's time in office is a major sacrifice, especially in a market dominated by foreign embassies.

Now, the Trump organization also says that it turned away $9 million in business from foreign governments this year alone. But as we know that this property has become a lightning rod for critics of Donald Trump that say he may have illegally and improperly profited from the presidency and violated the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. The Trump Organization has denied this in many lawsuits, but this is, as you can see, part of their big strategy here.

Another strategy is selling one of the assets of the company the president loves to hate, Amazon. They're saying that the -- the new headquarters in Northern Virginia will be an asset to the hotel industry in Washington, D.C. -- Wolf.

BLITZER: We're also learning, Kara, that the president's lawyers will submit a request to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to block a subpoena for his tax records. What are you hearing about that?

SCANNELL: Today's the deadline for the -- Trump's lawyers to make their pitch to the Supreme Court, asking them to take up their case where they want to have the Supreme Court weigh in and say that the president has broad criminal immunity, he cannot be investigated from a criminal grand jury, as the Manhattan District Attorney's Office is doing. They want the president to say that he has complete immunity from that. It will be up to the Supreme Court to decide whether it will take up the case, though, Wolf.


BLITZER: We'll watch that closely as well. Kara Scannell, doing excellent reporting as usual. Thank you. Coming up, Coming up, much more ahead on our special coverage.

Democrats lay the ground work for impeachment as more witnesses get ready to take the stand. How damaging will it be for President Trump as the White House ramps up its defense? Stay with us.