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U.S. Ambassador to European Union Gordon Sondland to Testify in House Public Impeachment Hearings; Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) Interviewed about Ongoing House Impeachment Hearings; Soon: Ambassador at Center of Ukraine Scandal Testifies. Aired 8-9a ET

Aired November 20, 2019 - 08:00   ET

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


[08:00:00]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: -- impeachment inquiry may rest on what happens next hour here in Washington when one of the central players in the Ukraine scandal, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, testifies before the television cameras up on Capitol Hill. Washington is now waiting to see, will Ambassador Sondland flip on President Trump and point directly at Trump's involvement in the Ukraine pressure campaign? A huge question, Chris.

CHRIS CUOMO, CNN ANCHOR: Yes. And, look, there are already a lot of big questions, as you say, Wolf. Now there are new questions. There's a breaking story in "The New York Times" that says Ambassador Sondland was not a one-man rodeo here, that he kept Secretary of State Mike Pompeo updated during the entire Ukraine pressure campaign. So you're going to remember, Pompeo failed to mention being on that July 25th call in interviews right after we found out about it, and Republicans were already on edge before this news.

So let's do a round-up of how it's playing. Let's begin on Capitol Hill, CNN's senior congressional correspondent Manu Raju. What else are we expecting from Sondland?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL CORRESPONDENT: We expect Gordon Sondland to essentially throw Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, under the bus. But the question is, will he throw the president under the bus as well? That's going to be a big question today, because according to witness testimony after witness testimony, Gordon Sondland had direct interactions with the president, and then Sondland later told other witnesses that the president himself had essentially linked military aid to Ukraine in exchange for this public declaration by the Ukrainians to announce investigations into the president's political rivals.

Now the question is will Sondland confirm those accounts, or will he say, as he did in his closed-door deposition, he did not recall some of those key accounts. Already he has had to amend his testimony, saying that he later remembered that in September he had a conversation with a senior Ukrainian official saying that aid was likely linked to that investigation announcement. But he couldn't remember precisely how he came to learn of that request. Sondland, of course, is of high interest. He's someone who is a Trump

donor who provided a million dollars to the inaugural committee. Also he's someone who, of course, the president and the state department tried to prevent from actually testifying before the House intelligence committee. He previously complained that he was not able to get some of those documents he needed to prepare for his testimony. The question is whether he has any new documentation to provide to this committee as well.

And today's proceedings will play out much the way we have seen other proceedings in the past. The House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff will deliver his opening statement followed by the ranking Republican, Devin Nunes. Each of their staff attorneys then will provide a 45- minute round of questioning after Sondland himself delivers an opening statement. We'll see if he revises the account in any way.

And that's just act one of a two-part series today. Later in the afternoon two officials will testify. That's Laura Cooper from the Defense Department and David Hale from the State Department. Cooper likely to provide information about how unusual it was that the way they handled this military aid to Ukraine, how it was essentially held up, why it was held up, and how she wasn't informed about some of those key decisions. And David Hale will provide information about that ousted Ukrainian Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, why that statement of support was not provided despite this pressure campaign by Rudy Giuliani's smear campaign of sorts to try to get her out from the post.

But in just under an hour, Gordon Sondland will deliver that key testimony, providing information. We'll see about what he says about those conversations with the president and how involved the president was in holding the Ukraine aid over that country until it announced those investigations.

CUOMO: Look, this is going to be a very interesting day because, by all indications, Manu, Gordon Sondland is not going to shoulder the blame for this Ukraine campaign. So how does he distribute the responsibility? We'll see soon. Manu, thank you. Wolf, to you.

BLITZER: Yes, it's going to be huge, huge moment. Anticipation clearly building, Chris, right now.

Let's get some more now on what we can expect to hear from Ambassador Sondland's public testimony. CNN's Kylie Atwood is joining me right now. First of all, Kylie, tell us a little bit more. How did this go from being a hotelier, a guy who had a bunch of hotels, made a lot of money. All of a sudden, he's the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

KYLIE ATWOOD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY REPORTER: Yes, so when President Trump won the nomination and then became the president, he turned into a Trump donor. He was always of the Republican establishment. And then, once Trump ended up in the White House, he donated to his inauguration, donated $1 million. And then he has this direct line with President Trump. That is not normal for other U.S. ambassadors to other countries. Because he can pick up the phone and call President Trump, he has landed at the center of this impeachment inquiry.

So let's look at some of the things that he told lawmakers behind closed doors that are going to be things that they are going to look at when they talk to him today in an open setting.

[08:05:05]

One of the things he said is that President Trump directed him to work with Rudy Giuliani, his private attorney, on Ukraine. And he said that that disappointed him, that he would not have suggested that someone who is of the president's personal attorney area would work on foreign policy, but nonetheless, he did it.

The other thing he claimed is that he was unaware initially that Giuliani was pushing for investigations into Biden. He knew that Burisma was on the table, but he claimed that the two were separate. So there are a number of things in his closed-door testimony that folks are going to ask him about today.

BLITZER: He's also going to be asked a lot about that phone conversation he had while at a restaurant, outdoor terrace at a restaurant in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, with the president of the United States, a conversation that could be heard by others at that table, including David Holmes, the counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy.

ATWOOD: Yes, a really jaw-dropping revelation when that came to fruition, because this was a conversation that Ambassador Gordon Sondland had with President Trump, as you said, in an open setting at a restaurant in Ukraine. He did not talk about this at all during his closed-door testimony. It only came to light when David Holmes, who is this U.S. official, a foreign service officer at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, came forth with this information.

And I want to read to you how David Holmes described that situation in his closed-door testimony. He said, quote, "I heard President Trump ask, So he's going to do the investigation. Ambassador Sondland replied, he's going to do it, adding that President Zelensky will, quote, do anything you ask him to. I asked Ambassador Sondland if it was true that the president did not give a expletive about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not give a -- about Ukraine. I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated that the president only cares about big stuff. I noted that there was big stuff going on in Ukraine,like the war with Russia, and Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant big stuff that benefits the president, like the Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing."

So here what Sondland was doing in this conversation was discussing these investigations, these investigations that would benefit President Trump politically, and also claiming that that's the only thing that President Trump really cared about when it came to Ukraine.

BLITZER: Very, very important. Kylie Atwood doing excellent reporting for us, as usual.

Chris, Gordon Sondland, he's represented by a well-known, highly- respected Washington attorney who I'm sure is telling him, Gordon, ambassador, you've got to tell the truth, the whole truth, nothing but the truth no matter where that winds up. Otherwise you're going to be in big trouble.

CUOMO: Absolutely. Look, this isn't just about going in and having a candid conversation. He has to worry about his exposure. Its Congress now, but there could be a referral to the Department of Justice by Congress on any of these matters and any of these subjects and the individuals that come before them. And that is a very heavy burden to bear on a morning like today. Wolf is 100 percent right.

So let's get a feel for what's going to be going on in that room. We have Democratic Congressman Denny Heck, a member of the House Intel Committee. Of course he'll be questioning Sondland just a short time from now. Congressman, thank you. Don't worry about the IFB because it's just you and me anyways, so you're not going to hear --

REP. DENNY HECK (D-WA): The phone hung up in my ear.

CUOMO: Don't worry. It happens to me all the time.

(LAUGHTER)

BLACKWELL: So we were having an interesting conversation. Let's clue the audience into it a little bit. We get caught up in the politics and the substance so easily here, and it matters, of course. But the human beings in the room and what the feel is in there, and we were -- I was sharing my recollection about the Clinton impeachment, how different this is, not just procedurally but personally. What is your personal feel about how the Republicans in the room seem to project a, we must stay in line on this. You're saying you are picking that up.

HECK: Frankly, Chris, it breaks my heart because from our perspective and my perspective, they are putting self-interest in defense of the president before country. But as I suggested to you off camera, they're in a vice. If they step out of line at all, we see what the president will do. Goodness sakes, we see what he has done to his own employees. We see what he did to Ambassador Yovanovitch, we see what he did to Colonel Vindman, a man who still walks around with shrapnel in his body, for goodness sakes. He will viciously, cruelly attack them and seek to destroy their reputation and their career. And so they see that to one side.

On the other side, of course, I think they ought to answer their better angels. I think they ought to understand what the constitutional stakes are here in play.

CUOMO: But as we were saying, you see those better angels, if you want to call them that, reflected in who is leaving, you know what I mean, because I don't see what the sustainable course is.

[08:10:08]

And when you are listening to the arguments yesterday, even sitting today, we were with Mike Johnson from Louisiana, a talented lawyer, smart guy, promising person within that party, well, you know, I see this as all hearsay and people who have opinions about what other decisions were being made by other people, but nothing really, and no quid pro quo, which -- how can you see that on the facts?

HECK: Chris, he did it. He did it. The facts are overwhelming. The legal standard which they're trying to construct is we must have a videotape of an act of crime. We must have a signed confession. We must have at least three to five eyewitnesses. And as you well know as an attorney, that's never how it happens in a criminal proceeding. The evidence is overwhelming. And as I said to you on the program the other night, the debate America ought to be having is, OK, do these acts rise to the level of an impeachment offense? But the facts are the facts, and he did it.

CUOMO: Why can't they own the position that -- they won't go as far as you can, but it was wrong. Shouldn't have mentioned bien. Shouldn't have done it this way. Shouldn't have held up the aid this way, but we believe he had good intentions. An election is around the corner. Not worthy of removal. They got the aid. He didn't get any dirt. Let's move on.

HECK: Because the president will destroy them. And they know it.

CUOMO: So what happens with Sondland today? How big a deal is he?

HECK: He's been characterized by others as a bit of a free radical, so stay tuned. Buckle up. We don't know. He's basically got three choices. He can perjure himself. He can have amnesia. Or he can do the right thing and tell the truth and come clean as he attempted to in his amendment.

CUOMO: What is the chance that, look, it was fishy that the E.U. ambassador had something to do with Ukraine because, obviously, they're not there. That's been explained as, he was given broader portfolio by the president. What's the chance that a newbie, a guy who is gifted an ambassadorship, not the first time that that's happened, for his donation in connection to the campaign, would have been carrying all this on his own? You know what I mean? Why would he want to get the Bidens? It doesn't make sense. He had to be working with others.

HECK: It's not credible. But before we imbue too much importance in just this, let's remember this. We have seven hearings, just like J.K. Rowling had seven books in the Harry Potter series.

CUOMO: I have never heard it compared to that, but OK.

HECK: Today is book five, and we all know there's plenty of plot to be revealed in the subsequent books. And indeed, we have four more witnesses after this one. I am especially interested, frankly, in all of them, but notably, Dr. Fiona Hill tomorrow as well as Mr. Holmes. There's a lot of plot to be revealed here.

CUOMO: Who are you in the Harry Potter series, by the way?

HECK: No, don't go there.

(LAUGHTER)

CUOMO: I love that you made the reference, though. It's a very big deal. They do all matter, but, really, Gordon Sondland is the man that your other witnesses keep identifying as somebody who is a hub, who had a special relationship, a special connection to these designs. So we'll see what he says this morning. It's going to happen in, what now, almost 45 minutes. So thank you very much, congressman. Good luck today.

HECK: Thank you.

CUOMO: All right, so still to come, we'll watch. It matters on a day like today to watch the people show up. What do you read in their faces? How do they enter this room? Who are they with? U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, I would argue the biggest witness yet in the public impeachment hearing. There's too much importance to what he says. The key question -- how will he explain why he was doing what he was doing under oath. Who knew what and when? Stay with CNN.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[08:18:01]

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Now less than one hour away from the most highly anticipated witness in the impeachment inquiry, the U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland, he is getting ready to testify publicly. He's the only witness, so far, who has spoken directly to President Trump about the scheme to get Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. Ambassador Sondland could be the only witness who can directly link the president to what's been described as a shadow foreign policy campaign.

A team of experts joining us now to discuss.

This could be, you know, Gloria, a huge moment in this entire prospect.

GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST: It could, as you point out. Gordon Sondland is somebody who had a relationship with the president, who spoke directly with the president. As we know from the recounting of this phone conversation that he had in Kiev at a lunch table with the president.

And he is also somebody who spoke with people at the State Department and at the National Security Council. So, as I was always keep saying, this is like the parable, the blind man and the elephant. Everybody seems to see a piece of the puzzle here.

Gordon Sondland may have some vision and may actually be able to sort of connect the dots here and talk about what he saw, what he observed and who directed what. Don't forget, he was at that May 23rd meeting with the president of the United States with the Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Ambassador Volker and himself in which the president talking about Ukraine said talk to Rudy, that the president said that Ukraine was corrupt, that they tried to hurt him. And he said, you know, just talk to Rudy and shook his head.

What I think we might hear from Sondland today is what happened when they talked to Rudy and he'll be able to say who knew what and when.

BLITZER: And "The New York Times" is now directly linking the Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to all of this, saying he knew about everything, including Rudy Giuliani's role in trying to get from the Ukrainians dirt on the Bidens.

[08:20:06]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESONDENT: Sondland presents a risk to a lot of folks who have tried to put distance between themselves and this decision, claiming ignorance and Kurt Volker running the policy saying he wasn't quite sure that this was the connection there, although others have said the connection was clear. I think that's one big headline here.

But the questions will be, was there a quid pro quo? Was this meeting with the president and the military aid tied to really -- you go to a requirement to have the investigations to get these things and, two, was that at the direction of the president? He's going to be asked that directly. Does he give clear answers to those questions for someone who wasn't just observing but was directly involved in those conversations?

BLITZER: If he does completely, you know, Ross, go against what the president has been saying, that the phone conversation was perfect, there was no quid pro quo, everything is great, how damaging potentially for the president could this be?

ROSS GARBER, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, that's what I'm looking at. So, you know, at the beginning of this inquiry, the president held on to every Republican in the House, even got two Democrats to vote against authorizing the investigation. I'm looking at what might potentially move moderate Republicans or Democrats either way.

And the key thing here, I think is still the why and Sondland may be able to shed light on the why. What was in the president's head? What was in Sondland's head? Now that Sondland knows a lot more because he's watched and read testimony, does he think that what happened was wrong? Does he think that what the president did was wrong or right?

And what are the challenges here is we still haven't seen a White House narrative. We still haven't seen a Republican narrative about what they say is going on. I think that may have to change pretty soon.

BLITZER: You know, Jeffrey, his lawyer is well regarded here in Washington with a lot of experience in dealing with these kinds of matters and I'm sure he's giving him some very strong advice.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN CHIEF LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. Good advice in general is to tell the truth. That's just sort of my experience.

BLITZER: When testifying under oath.

TOOBIN: Testifying under oath.

BORGER: So naive.

TOOBIN: But, you know, we're talking a lot appropriately about Sondland, but let's remember that there are other witnesses with even more knowledge than Sondland. John Bolton, Mick Mulvaney, Secretary Pompeo, all of whom have had conversations with the president on these subjects, and they refused to testify about it. Now, apparently, you can get John Bolton to talk about these issues if you go to his lecture agent and pay him thousands of dollars to give a speech, but he apparently will not speak to the impeachment inquiry which, to me, is one of the most outrageous facts in this whole -- in this whole matter.

But talking about Sondland today, you know, Rudy Giuliani is not up for impeachment. All these other peripheral figures are not up for impeachment. Today is about Donald Trump.

BORGER: Exactly.

TOOBIN: Today is about what did the president know and when did he know it?

The old Howard Baker question from Watergate, we want to know that today to the extent Sondland, A, knows it and, B, will tell the truth.

BLITZER: You know, it's clear the president's tweeting and retweeting, trying to sound very optimistic, all good stuff going on.

But I'm sure he's going to be watching on television this testimony from Ambassador Sondland. And I suspect he and his close associates are nervous.

PREET BHARARA, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes. Let the character assassination begin once again. The president has two ways of going about this. I hardly knew the guy or he's a never Trumper and shouldn't have been hired in the first place.

I think consistent with what other people on the panel have been saying, what is important about this is that he puts this in the mind of the president of the United States. This whole thing got started because one of the first revelations was, not that someone at the direction of the president did something or not, but that the president himself had a phone call on July 25th with President Zelensky.

The president himself was on the phone and we understood what he said in that phone call. Now you have the second thing that directly puts the president in the mix and that is the July 26th call. And from my perspective, I'm really curious to see how this witness, Sondland, talks about that call. It's a remarkable thing.

And it shows the eagerness with which the president needed to be updated on the thing that he wanted. The investigations. Couldn't wait for a secure phone or somebody back in the office. Couldn't wait for Monday. Couldn't wait for some other appropriate time when nobody else was around. He needed to know that information right and that's remarkable.

If on the other hand, Sondland says, well, I sort of didn't remember the call because it was unremarkable, that itself is remarkable, because it shows a course of dealing between Sondland and the president about these issues that shows how much the president cared about it and that's devastating to him.

BLITZER: Because if you had a phone conversation with the president of the United States, while you were sitting at a restaurant in Kiev in Ukraine, you would remember all those details.

BHARARA: I had two calls with the president when he was the president-elect, as some people may know.

[08:25:01]

And I remember them very well.

BLITZER: You still remember them all?

BHARARA: I do.

BLITZER: It's very interesting.

I am anxious to get your thoughts, Carrie, on what you're bracing for right now. And as you're saying that, we anticipate that ambassador Sondland will be arriving up on Capitol Hill momentarily. We'll have cameras all over the place. We'll have live coverage.

CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, what I'm looking for is, does Ambassador Sondland tell the whole story? You know, we're talking about this phone call and I think the call you're referring to is the one with David Holmes who was a State Department aide.

Holmes testified under oath to the committee last week and so the committee already knows Holmes' end of that conversation. And so, Sondland really is in a position where he must be truthful because there's other testimony that hasn't become public yet that the committees are aware of. And so he is, I think, in terms of his appearance before Congress, incentivized to tell the truth.

But he also needs to tell the truth because the information that he has is central. As Jeffrey said, of all the people who were closest to the president, Mulvaney, Bolton and --

BLITZER: Pompeo.

CORDERO: Pompeo, thank you.

Sondland is the only one who has agreed to testify. All of the others who were so close to the president and who were in direct communication with him and know exactly what his intentions were have been unwilling to come before. So, Sondland really is carrying, I think, a great amount of responsibility today.

BLITZER: The president says he might be willing to answer questions in writing.

TOOBIN: Want to bet?

BLITZER: I'm not --

TOOBIN: I have money here in my pocket. Are you sure? All right.

BLITZER: I suspect that's not going to happen.

All right. Everybody, stick around. We're only minutes away from Ambassador Gordon Sondland's historic arrival up on Capitol Hill. People are gathering in the House Intelligence Committee briefing room.

Much more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[08:31:25]

BLITZER: Welcome back to the -- this very, very special day.

We're just moments away from what could be the most consequential testimony in the impeachment inquiry. So far it's been mostly straight arrows, respected members of the diplomatic corps, current and former members of the national security apparatus, career foreign service workers who have put country over all else. But now there's a wild card, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. And we're anxiously awaiting to hear, Chris, what he has to say.

CUOMO: And we're anxiously awaiting his arrival. I mean we're situated here. We see a little bit of the security setup taking shape. And when he comes, we'll show you that and it's important to see how he looks, how -- what countenance he brings to this occasion. He is a businessman. He was a big-time donor to the president. He was known as somebody who had a good relationship with him. That got thrown into question when the president seemed to create distance as Sondland became more controversial.

But right now he is squarely in the spotlight of a foreign policy train wreck. He has to make choices, Wolf. How is he going to explain his role? How much of this was about him? How much of this was he directed to do? Who knew what and when?

Let's start with CNN's Kaitlan Collins outside the White House with more on reaction. It's really tough going into a situation when you're not sure if you can control it.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And they're not sure what it is that Gordon Sondland is going to say. That's what we've been hearing from multiple White House sources today. And Pam Bondi is the former Florida attorney general who the White House recently hired to come in to help with impeachment strategy, their communication, what exactly they were going to say as they are fighting back against these House Democrats.

She just did her first interview, Chris, and listen to what she said about the contacts between President Trump and Gordon Sondland.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Does the president know Gordon Sondland well? Are they in frequent contact? Have they been?

PAM BONDI, SPECIAL ADVISER TO PRESIDENT TRUMP: Well, we're going to hear what Gordon Sondland has to say today. He was -- he's ambassador for a short while.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What does the president say?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, what does the president say?

BONDI: The president, he was ambassador to the Ukraine. He is ambassador to the Ukraine. And the president knows him. The president does not know him very well. He's a short-term ambassador. Of course he knows him.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

COLLINS: Now, Chris, there are a few things we've got to note there. Gordon Sondland is not the ambassador to Ukraine. He never has been. He's the ambassador to the European Union, which he still is, though he did tell colleagues that the president put Ukraine in his portfolio and that's why he was working on these affairs because people were questioning it because, of course, Ukraine is not in the European Union. She also said he's a short-term ambassador, but he's been confirmed since the summer of 2018 and she said he doesn't know the president well, though that's why his testimony is coming under so much scrutiny because he's one of the officials who is going on Capitol Hill who had a direct line of communication to President Trump.

Now, while we're waiting to see what it is that Gordon Sondland is going to say, I also want to note something that we are just now learning, which is that Lieutenant Colonel Alex Vindman, who testified yesterday, and while he was testifying, the White House issued a broadside against him on its official Twitter account. We are being told by a source that he is expected to show up to work today. he's one of the officials who has testified who works right next door to the White House. But he is expected to go back to work today, Chris.

CUOMO: All right, Kaitlan, thank you very much.

All right, so let's look at the political calculus at play here. CNN political analyst David Gregory and Asha Rangappa, CNN legal and national security analyst, former FBI special agent.

All right, oh, wow, what a day this is that you don't want to be Gordon Sondland because, Pam Bondi there, it's not about getting wrong that he's the ambassador to Ukraine.

[08:35:09]

That's a fact problem. He has a much bigger problem is that they are clearly trying to mitigate his relevance, Asha. And he may not be a pro at diplomacy, but I'm sure his lawyer, and he's a sophisticated guy, he has to feel that they're starting to move him away from them.

How does that play?

ASHA RANGAPPA, CNN LEGAL AND NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Well, first of all, this guy gave a million dollars to Trump's inaugural. So we have seen before when especially when Trump has tried to distance himself from, say, you know, people on his campaign, you know, Michael Cohen was acting rogue, you know, that -- that tends to psychologically make people want to stick up for themselves --

CUOMO: That's right.

RANGAPPA: And not protect, you know, the person that suddenly disowning them.

And, you know, as we talked about before, Sondland can be in potential legal trouble here. You know, if he lies to Congress, he could end up in jail. Other people have. Roger Stone, Michael Cohen. So he -- it's in his interest, I think, to make the best case for himself, not the president, but, of course, that will make the president unhappy.

CUOMO: Right.

David, you've seen so many of these situations finessed where they want to create cover for themselves based on what he might say, but they need him to be as good to them as he can be.

DAVID GREGORY, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Yes, and I think what you've seen the defenders of the president do in these hearings is suggest over and over again to these witnesses, oh, well, that's your opinion. You knew this but you didn't know the overall. You missed the sense of the overall. Only the president had that sense of the overall.

So here is Gordon Sondland, who is not a diplomat. He's in over his head. He's a hotelier who gave a lot of money. And most guys in that position don't actually do the diplomacy. You know, they're figureheads as ambassadors. And that happens on both sides of the aisle. We know that.

Here, he's a guy who had direct access to the president. So it gets a little tougher for the White House and for the president's allies to say, oh, no, I mean, what does this guy know? He had a direct line into what was a shadow account. And the account was, let's get Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. And he knew about it and he knew directly and that's where it can be damaging to the president.

My hunch is, this is a guy who's going to probably say, no, I wasn't out on my own. Like everybody knew what I was doing because I spoke to the president about it. CUOMO: Right.

GREGORY: Who spoke to Rudy Giuliani about it and these guys were all spun out about a conspiracy theory having to do with Ukraine and they didn't trust. That's the key thing here. Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, don't trust the bureaucrats. They don't trust the diplomats. That's why they wanted to go around them.

CUOMO: Right, but they also wanted to do something that they knew wouldn't fly.

GREGORY: Right.

CUOMO: You know, because when you make these -- you know, a little bit of inside knowledge here. When you talk with these State Department folks who own regions, they have such a deep understanding of so many deeper relationships that you don't just get to pick some new policy that they see as an antithetical or anathema to their overall objectives.

Now, we believe this is the ambassador. And, again, this is not just empty circumstance, it's important to see the man or woman who's going to be making the moment.

GREGORY: And, remember, this is not the ambassador to Ukraine. The fact that he was ambassador to the European Union, which does not handle the Ukraine account, why was he so engaged in it?

CUOMO: Right.

GREGORY: Again, because he has that personal relationship.

CUOMO: And, remember, you know, Asha, to what we were saying sooner, remember that story that was spun out that he muscled his way in? You know, first of all, it never made sense because how does this new guy who comes in with no portfolio muscle his way in to Pompeo's, you know, universe, right?

RANGAPPA: (INAUDIBLE).

CUOMO: That never made sense. So that has to be explained, which is, you know, his -- because he's been insufficient so far in saying, well, the president gave me -- the president wouldn't have done that.

All right, here he is. Out. Smile on the face. Quick step. Not with counsel. He'll be joined by counsel, we have to believe, but smile.

RANGAPPA: I hope so for his sake.

CUOMO: You know, a sure step walking in, trying to get inside. It's chilly but I'm sure he's kind of anxious to get in there and get this done.

But this is what we're witnessing here right now, which is not just an entrance. This is the continuation and probably the major pivot point of a huge, political situation. GREGORY: Right. And as we watch Gordon Sondland behind the mag right

now going through security in the building where the hearing will take place, he represents a real problem for the White House because he has direct knowledge of what the president thought, what was in his mind with regard to Ukraine, with regard to the potential investigation. So he becomes tricky. He's also changed his testimony. How do Republicans treat him today? It's going to be a big part of it.

CUOMO: Yes, because, look, he could have both sides coming at him, Asha, because the Republicans, from what we've seen them do with testimony, what do we see, lock step, nothing was done wrong, and anything that seems out of the ordinary was out of the ordinary and the president had nothing to do with it. That's tough for Sondland to shoulder.

[08:40:07]

RANGAPPA: That's tough for him right now. And he is going to have to make a choice.

And to the extent that I think Republicans, you know, they haven't settled on a real defense yet, but to the extent that they want to have some kind of, you know, this was a rogue operation, kind of a Reagan Iran/Contra, he had no idea what was going on kind of thing, Sondland's going to blow a big hole in that because of this -- these direct conversations that he was having, even immediately after the phone call where he basically is overheard by his aides saying, the president doesn't care about Ukraine. And this, again, undercuts the he cared about corruption argument.

GREGORY: The other danger for the president and his allies in this is the notion that somehow you isolate Sondland to say, well, there's certain things you didn't know. I think he's going to testify, no, I knew. We all knew what the marching orders were. What the president's orders were. This was a coordinated campaign to get to one place, and that is to have the Ukrainians investigate Joe Biden.

The other interesting point here, we've heard day after day, Chris, is that this was a policy disagreement. That the bureaucrats are trying to undermine the president because they didn't like his policy. And we know from covering Washington all these buildings around us, all these different agencies, state, Pentagon, they can be at cross purposes sometimes if they disagree with policy. That's a real thing. The difference here is not what they would have you believe is the loyalty test. The difference here is saying, you know the president was pursuing a policy that was about investigating another American, a political opponent.

CUOMO: That's right.

GREGORY: That goes beyond policy differences.

RANGAPPA: It's not a policy.

GREGORY: It's -- right. I mean you --

RANGAPPA: I mean it's not an official policy.

CUOMO: Well --

GREGORY: Well, you don't see this kind of thing. There were huge policy differences within the government say in the Iraq War.

CUOMO: Right.

GREGORY: You know, and you saw leaking and you saw disagreements play out, not like this.

CUOMO: Right. This is different. This isn't the president's feelings about NATO and I'm not going to be as nice until everybody else is.

GREGORY: Right.

CUOMO: You may not like it, but that's his call. This is about whether Gordon Sondland, the EU ambassador, who we just saw arrive, whether or not he's going to tell a story today that is different than this is just a matter of policy and preferences.

There he was when he just entered moments ago. We believe that the testimony is going to believe -- begin at the top of the hour. So stay with CNN. This is a day to remember.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[08:47:23]

BLITZER: All right, we're standing by.

On the left, just moments ago, Ambassador Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, he arrived up on Capitol Hill. He went into the House of Representatives office building. He's going to be testifying momentarily, right at the top of the hour. This House Intelligence Committee hearing is expected to begin.

This could be very, very explosive. Of course, depending on what he says. And the performance that he delivers right now could be so significant.

And, Gloria, I don't think we can overemphasize potentially what we're bracing for.

BORGER: No, I don't -- I don't think we can. As we were talking about before, Gordon Sondland is somebody who saw the whole picture because he had a relationship not only with the president but with the people at the -- at the National Security Agency, with the people at the State Department, with ambassadors abroad. And here is somebody who spoke with the president directly, who was directed, as we know, by the president to talk to Rudy Giuliani.

We will find out what Rudy Giuliani wanted him to do and whether he did it and what the president wanted him to do. So I think this is, you know, this is somebody who has a tie to everybody and can talk about what the president told him to do and when he told him to do and what other people in the executive branch knew or did not know.

BLITZER: And we know that Rudy Giuliani, you know, Jim, he wanted the Ukrainians to come up with information or dirt politically damaging information about the Bidens, Burisma, the 2016 presidential election and all of that. In exchange, the U.S. would lift the suspension on the $400 million in security assistance and set the stage for a meeting with President Zelensky and the president in Washington.

SCIUTTO: Right. I mean and that's the thing, you can argue that the quid pro quo has already been established, right, by multiple witnesses with consistent testimony. Vindman, Hill, Volker, Williams, all these people coming from different sides of government say that there was a tie there. And, by the way, Sondland has already said that in what we know from his transcript from the closed door hearing.

So -- so Sondland's testimony, though, one, to hear him say it in public, you can kind of call him a confirmatory witness, but also establish that distance from the president or lack of distance to say that these were the instructions delivered to me either by the president or by Rudy Giuliani at the direction of the president because, you know, I think it's worth acknowledging how far we've moved just in the last few weeks because the quid pro quo has gone from theory, really to fact. So then the question becomes, is it a justified quid pro quo and did the president know?

[08:50:03]

BORGER: And is it impeachable?

BLITZER: And that's the key --

SCIUTTO: And is it impeachable?

BORGER: And is it impeachable?

BLITZER: Ross.

GARBER: Well, and -- yes, which is ultimately, you know, the fundamental question. What I'll be looking for from Sondland is whether he says, yes, I have the whole picture and it was totally fine, or, I didn't have the whole picture. And now that I think about it, it was not totally fine, which we saw a bit of from Volker. I think the president is clearly hoping for the former. I saw what was going on and it was totally fine and here's why it was totally fine.

TOOBIN: You know, I really don't care what Sondland thinks is totally fine. I care what the House of Representatives thinks is totally fine. I mean the issue here -- I mean all this -- this like, did you think it was bribery? These are fact witnesses. They're not judges. The issue is what -- what was the conversation? What was he told to do? What did he do?

And, you know, the notion that any sort of exchange, any sort of quid pro quo, I had -- I'm trying to speak English as much as possible, not Latin, but any sort of exchange of, you know, dirt on the president, dirt on the president's rivals, versus a meeting with the president and millions of dollars, how is that appropriate under any circumstance?

GARBER: I think the --

TOOBIN: How is that -- how is that justifiable, legal, appropriate, not a high crime and misdemeanor?

GARBER: Yes, so I think the -- the point would be that they probably wouldn't say that what they were looking for was dirt on the president. As you know, for bribery, you need a corrupt intent. So what's in the president's head actually matters here. And so if what was happening was the president was trying to get a corruption in Ukraine and that emblematic of that potential corruption was this, you know, issue that he thought existed with money coming from Burisma to Biden's son and potential interference in the 2016 election, if that's what was in the president's head and if that's what was in Sondland's head, that's a significant thing.

TOOBIN: Out of -- out of all the corruption in Ukraine, the only thing that the president cares about is this fantasy about the 2016 Crowdstrike and Joe Biden's son. There is no conceivable way that is an innocent --

GARBER: That would be very -- that would be very -- look, of all the corruption in Ukraine, if it were true, and I'm not saying it is, but if it were true that the president believed that the vice president's son got a payoff to influence U.S. policy, and if it were true that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, that would be incredibly significant and --

SCIUTTO: There is no -- there's no basis for that charge (ph).

BLITZER: No (ph).

TOOBIN: But -- but I mean you can't -- you can't assume fantasies. I mean you can't assume --

GARBER: Well -- well, we -- that's what I'm saying, what's in the president's head matters. And Rudy Giuliani --

BLITZER: But we do know, Carrie, we do know, based on David Holmes, the political counselor, the counsel for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, who overheard a conversation directly from the president with Ambassador Sondland and then Ambassador Sondland said, according to David Holmes, the president doesn't care about Ukraine, he only cares about getting this information about the Bidens and the 2016 Ukrainian intervention in the U.S. election. That's what he cares about.

CORDERO: Right. And that's why it matters which Gordon Sondland shows up today because, really, his story has shifted over a period of months. If we go back to the text messages that have been released between Sondland and Ambassador Taylor, they were going back and forth and Taylor says, I think it's crazy to withhold assistance conditioned on these investigations, these political investigations. And then there's this -- remember, there's this delay of hours before Sondland gets back to him and says, oh, no, that's not really what's going on. Then there's Sondland's closed testimony where he says one thing. Then

he comes back and corrects his testimony. So Sondland has not been consistent. And today is really his one last opportunity in open session --

BLITZER: Yes.

CORDERO: Under oath to say what is really going on.

BLITZER: Very quickly.

PREET BHARARA, SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: An important distinction here is not that the president wanted an investigation. Even though there's some language to that effects. He wanted the announcement of an investigation. If you care about corruption, you can have that happen if you have the investigation go on. It can happen quietly. What he wanted over and over again, and counsel for the Democrats, Dan Goldman, with whom I used to work, has been very, very good on this. In eliciting from witnesses the fact that what was important to the president of the United States was the announcement. And that is the thing that casts aspersions and dirt on his political rival Joe Biden.

BLITZER: You know, Chris, and we're bracing for potentially an explosive opening statement from Gordon Sondland.

And Chris --

CUOMO: The EU ambassador, Mr. Sondland, if you can hear me, Wolf, can you hear me?

BLITZER: Yes, I hear you -- I hear you now.

CUOMO: He has to make it OK for himself. People take care of themselves in these situations. And for him to do that, he has to say, I wasn't doing anything that everybody wasn't on board with.

[08:55:02]

I was -- like "The New York Times" says this morning, I told Secretary of State Pompeo. He knew everything. You know, to the -- the discussion of your panel, you have so many brilliant lawyers there. They're all right. But, remember, just in common lay speak, you know, we only know what they show. And what was in this president's head is a function of what we saw him do. And if he really had real questions about Burisma or Biden or payments, you go to the Department of Justice, you don't ask for an announcement from Ukraine about an investigation. That's about politics. It's not about investigating corruption.

But, Wolf, we'll see how Sondland puts it together in a way that protects him and the president.

BLITZER: All right, Chris, stand by.

We have major breaking news right now. We now have a copy of the explosive, truly explosive opening remarks

by the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland. And it is not -- repeat, not good for the White House. Not good for President Trump. Here's just part of what is in this opening statement that he will read before the committee in moments.

Sondland will say, and I'm quoting now, I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question. Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.

The ambassador will then go on to say, and once again I'm quoting, everyone was in the loop. It was no secret. Everyone was informed via email on July 19th, days before the presidential call. And as I communicated to the team, I told President Zelensky in advance that assurances to run a fully transparent investigation and turn over every stone were necessary in his call with President Trump.

Let's go to our senior congressional correspondent, Manu Raju, up on Capitol Hill.

Manu, I don't know if Republicans are prepared for what they are about to hear from Ambassador Sondland.

RAJU: Yes, because he is describing in more explicit terms this quid pro quo, as he calls it, the president's desire for the Ukrainians to publicly announce investigations that could help him politically before a key meeting would be set up between President Trump and President Zelensky. A meeting that could bolster this alliance with this country. A meeting that had been desperately sought by this new administration as a way to bolster his legitimacy in his fight against Russia.

But as what Gordon Sondland will testify, everybody was in the loop as part of this push to demand Ukraine announce these investigations before that meeting happened. Everybody. And meaning Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff and others as this was happening.

And also, he makes very clear that he says he later came to believe that the resumption of the aid, the roughly $400 million in aid, was tied to this announcement of Ukraine going forward with these investigations. Very significant saying that.

In the couple of excerpts here that we'll read from this opening statement discussing the role of Rudy Giuliani who, of course, the president had directed as part of this effort saying, first, Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the president of the United States. We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the president's orders. Now, he comes on -- he goes on to discuss more about this effort to

try to get Ukraine to move forward on these investigations. Some of the discussions that were happening internally and later saying that he continued to learn about the security aid being withheld and how it could have been tied to this demand for investigations. And he discusses bringing this up with Vice President Mike Pence at a September meeting in Warsaw between Vice President Mike Pence and President Zelensky of Ukraine. He describes his interactions with Mike Pence this way. He said, I mentioned to Mike -- Vice President Mike Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations. I recall mentioning that before the Zelensky meeting.

He goes on to say, based on my communications with Secretary Pompeo, I felt comfortable sharing my concerns with Mr. Yermak in a very brief -- Mr. Yermak being the senior official for the Ukrainian government. In a very brief pull aside conversation that happened within a few seconds, I told Mr. Yermak that I believed the resumption of U.S. aid would likely not occur until Ukraine took some kind of action on the public statement that we had been discussing for many weeks.

[08:59:57]

So, there you have it, Wolf, two key issues, the aid and the meeting. Was it tied to this public declaration of investigations that had been demanded by Rudy Giuliani at the direction of President Trump and Gordon Sondland --