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Sondland Ties Trump, Pence, Pompeo, To Pressure Campaign; Sondland On Ukraine, "We Followed The President's Orders"; Sondland: Everyone Was In The Loop On Ukraine Pressure; Rep. Denny Heck (D-WA) Is Interviewed About Sondland's Hearing; White House in Crisis: Impeachment Inquiry. Aired 1-2a ET

Aired November 21, 2019 - 01:00   ET

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


[01:00:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Erica Hill, thanks for joining us. Welcome to a special report White House in Crisis, Impeachment Inquiry. We're going to take a deep dive into day four of public testimony to digest everything we've learned over the last 24 hours. And there is a mountain of new evidence. Three more witnesses appearing before cameras. Among them, Gordon, Sondland whose testimony was the most anticipated, and he came back ready to tell all.

The President's own ambassador to the E.U. putting Mr. Trump directly at the center of the Ukraine pressure campaign. And from there, he kept naming names.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GORDON SONDLAND, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO EUROPEAN UNION: 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 work with Mr. Giuliani so we followed the President's orders. We kept the leadership of the State Department and the NSC informed of our activities. They knew what we were doing, and why. Was there a quid pro quo? The answer is yes. Everyone was in the loop.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: So what now? Let's bring in CNN Legal Analyst Michael Zeldin, and CNN National Security Analyst Samantha Vinograd and Steve Hall. That moment, obviously, with Ambassador Sondland saying, yes, there was a quid pro quo, grabbing headlines as quickly as those words were uttered.

Sam, Republicans are stressing here that yes, he said there was a quid pro quo, but then he went on throughout testimony to make very clear he was not told directly by the President. Just -- let's take a step back and remind us for a minute, how does the messaging usually go? Does a President speak directly with an ambassador? SAMANTHA VINOGRAD, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Erica, in the first instance, ambassadors don't typically have a direct line to the president even when they're seasoned, even when their experience, which clearly Gordon Sondland was not, right? He was taking calls from the President from a restaurant in Kiev. He said today that he makes calls from his landline, key surveillance target.

But ambassadors typically coordinate their work through the National Security Council. They don't go directly to the President. What we learned today is Gordon Sondland considers his activity to have been part of a "regular channel, not an irregular one," because the leadership was involved.

Rather than sitting down and having an interagency process where the President meets with his cabinet, gets briefed on intelligence and makes decisions, there was this informal process and I'll call it irregular because it was so out of touch with reality or excuse me, with actual policy goals, the president to Rudy Giuliani, to Volker, Sondland, Perry, and potentially Secretary of State Pompeo.

So what we've seen is a breakdown in the actual interagency policy process because, Erica, this was not about policy, this was about politics. If it was about policy, it would have been worked through that NSC process.

HILL: When we -- when we talk about the policy, right, so the President, certainly as we know, he has the power to change, to set policy. It was fascinating what Sam just touched on here is that -- so we have Ambassador Sondland who thought there was essentially one policy here, but then you hear from Bill Taylor, you hear from Volker, who saw something different and who saw perhaps a completely different channel, or more than one.

Steve, from a -- Sam touched on this, but also from a security perspective, how concerning is that, that there are multiple messages out here, and it's not clear which one is official?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: Yes, Erica, I mean, it's very confusing not just for the Americans involved, who are trying to, you know, formulate the policy, and Sam just did a good job of describing how it normally happens. But it's also can be very confusing, you know, for the host country, in this case, the Ukrainians as well who are trying to figure out, OK, who am I supposed to listen to here?

We just had a career ambassador Masha Yovanovitch who I served with in Moscow, the consummate professional understands, you know, everything historically about what's going on. And then you've got somebody like Sondland who, you know, is basically an amateur. Now yes, the President, of course, does have the ability to name whoever he wants, but sometimes not necessarily backfires but has, you know, ramifications.

And one of the ramifications here is that you've got shifting messages, you've got -- you've got Rudy Giuliani wandering around, you know, putting across whatever his messages perhaps directly from the president, perhaps not. I mean, it's all very confusing not just for the Americans who are trying to actually be professionals and get a real policy across.

But it's also really confusing for the Ukrainians to try to figure out OK, who am I supposed to listen here to here? When I need to pick up the phone, who do I talk to? It can be very difficult sometimes especially for a new president like Zelensky.

HILL: You know, it's interesting though, when we heard -- when Sondland was saying everybody was in the loop, he was asked specifically if Ukrainians knew as well, and he said yes. So to your point, they sort of have had a sense according to Sondland's view, but again, what they do with that is entirely separate.

When we talk about what the President can and cannot do, Michael, Laura Cooper talked about congressionally appointed funds and how they can and cannot be spent or not. Let's take a listen to that moment.

[01:05:22]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. JIM HIMES (D-CT): That's a legally specified process. That's not the President in the Oval Office manifesting a general skepticism of foreign aid, right? That's a process.

LAURA COOPER, DEPUTY ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE FOR RUSSIAN, UKRAINIAN, AND EURASIAN AFFAIRS: It is -- it is a congressionally mandated process. Yes, sir.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: The point obviously, Michael, that they were -- that they were trying -- Jim Himes is trying to make there is that the President can't just decide, OK, we're not going to do with this aid what Congress has already mandated for us to do. Legally, what does that do?

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, that's right, unless he goes back to Congress. And this law that was passed in the post-Nixon era was designed to ensure that Congress when it appropriates money has the final say and how that money is distributed. And the Defense Department, the State Department, whoever else, other distributors of that money, know that process well.

And in this case, they cannot legally hold that money back just whimsically. And that's what appears to have been the sort of gravamen of what she was saying. That this hold back without any explanation, without use of the interagency process or congressional consideration was an illegal act.

And that's why you saw the testimony the other week from the OMB person saying, look, I'm not going to sign off on this, because it's not lawful, as far as I'm concerned. So they brought on a political person to do the signing off on. HILL: What's fascinating too is as we look at all this, is that from the beginning, one of the reasons that we were given was well -- you know, the reason the aid was held up is because there were concerns about corruption, right? We keep going back to these concerns about corruption.

If, Sam, if the President wanted to withhold that aid for some time because he was concerned about corruption, that could have been a very simple public pronouncement that likely few people would have questioned were it done that way? I'm not comfortable with what I see. I'm going to hold off here and I just want to let you all know. That's the plan. That didn't happen.

VINOGRAD: Well, Erica, even if that had happened, it wouldn't -- it would not have been backed up by what he said in private. He did not raise corruption in his private engagements with the Ukrainians in the first instance. And number two, Erica, we have a process for assessing corruption in Ukraine. Under the National Defense Authorization Act, we have certain benchmarks that the Ukrainians have to meet in order to get a large portion of their security sector assistance.

People like Laura Cooper working coordination with the State Department have an official regular process for assessing whether the defense sector in Ukraine meets those corruption benchmarks. It is not an arbitrary decision by the President of the United States. It relies on expert analysis in line with the law.

The President cannot choose just to violate that law because he doesn't trust President Zelensky, or some other explanation. But again, this whole notion that they were trying -- and Jim Jordan, I believe, has put this board that they were trying to kind of suss out how serious Zelensky was about corruption, that could have been something President Trump raised on a phone call with President Zelensky or worked, for example, through the Charge Bill Taylor in embassy Kiev. Instead, they're using this as an explanation when again, it doesn't hold up with respect with the law says.

HILL: When we look at to what we're hearing from the president, so the President very clearly today wanted to remind everyone where he's at and where he was at back in September. I just -- I just want to play this moment, and then we'll circle back.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: So here's my answer. I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo, tell Zelensky to do the right thing. Then he says, this is the final word from the President of the United States. I want nothing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: OK, so we watched the president there, and this is -- this was earlier today. And you saw him looking down at his notes. And we actually have a picture of these notes. You can see it. It was very clearly written out on his pad there what he wanted to say which was basically verbatim what we heard from Sondland today in his testimony when he was asked about this exchange with the President on September. I believe it is December -- September 9th, right, the same day the I.G. told Congress about the complaint that Congress announced an investigation.

Michael, when you see all of this, I'm just curious, what do you make of it?

ZELDIN: So it seems pretty self-serving. It seems to me that when Ambassador Sondland says the President of the United States point blank, what do you want from the Ukrainians? His answer should have been, I want to make sure that they are fulfilling their anti- corruption promises.

I am concerned about whether or not we're going to give money to them, and it's going to be wasted. So he had an opportunity to speak to the corruption initiative that all of his defenders are saying is at the bottom of what he was doing here. He doesn't. He instead says, no quid pro quo. I want nothing. That seems just too convenient especially in the aftermath of the whistleblower complaint being made known and the quid pro quo becoming part of our daily vernacular. I don't buy it.

[01:10:43]

HILL: So you're not buying it. You know, there's been so much attention on what we heard from Gordon Sondland today and with good reason. But part of what we learned from Laura Cooper today should also be grabbing headlines because what she testified to is that Ukrainians were e-mailing about the assistance. They had questions about the aid of the day of the call, on July 25th. Here's what she laid out today.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

COOPER: On July 25, a member of my staff got a question from the Ukraine embassy contact asking what was going on with Ukraine security assistance.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: And she was asked in further testimony, Steve, about this -- about this reaction. And she made clear, Ukrainians -- when -- it was her experience that when they reached out, they had specific questions. And the fact that this happened hours after the call based on the timestamp of the e-mail, Steve, what does that tell you about what they likely knew and who may have known it?

HALL: You know, here in the United States, Erica, we might be a bit confused about who knew what, when and whether or not guys like Sondland, you know, had direct contact with the President. But I'd say one thing -- and I visited Ukraine a number of times, I've met with some of their senior intelligence folks as well as some of their senior leadership, there is no doubt, there is absolutely no doubt that the Ukrainians understood a quid pro quo. There is no doubt. Why? The Ukrainians have lived all these years

since Soviet times right under the shadow of the Russian bear. They know that if they don't want to get completely absorbed back into Russia like Crimea did, that there's really only one country that's going to stop them from doing that, and that's the United States of America.

So, you know, the President can go on all day long and all night if he wants to about how there was no quid pro quo, I asked for nothing in return, and it's a bunch of garbage because the Ukrainians no better. The Ukraine -- that's why they were asking. They were saying, OK, is everything OK? Is there something else that needs to be done? Have we screwed something up?

Because they know that if they don't get that assistance, and specifically, if they don't get the military assistance -- there's other kinds as well, but the military is critically important to them, given the fact that they're essentially at war with Russia. The Ukrainians knew that they had to do what it was that the -- whatever it was really that the United States one of them to do in order to survive as a country. It's an existential threat.

So the idea that there was no quid pro quo just because those fancy Latin words were not said is senseless.

HILL: Steve, Michael --

ZELDIN: Erica?

HILL: Go ahead.

ZELDIN: May I just add one thing to carry on Steve's point which is that the July 25th transcript is Exhibit A of the fact that the President of the United States wanted a favor from Ukraine in exchange for continued cooperation with them.

So in the transcript itself, before you even get to the quid pro quo, there is the favor being asked which is essentially an offer that they can't refuse.

HILL: All right, the three of you, don't go far. We have much to discuss in our next hour including that threat from Russia and why we keep seeing things come back to Russia. First, though, when we look at Ambassador Gordon Sondland's testimony, did it harm the Democrats case for impeachment in any way? I'll ask someone who had a front row seat at the hearing, a House Intelligence Committee member who questioned the ambassador. He's with us next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[01:15:00]

HILL: The fourth day of public impeachment testimony bringing new focus on the people surrounding the President swept up in the inquiry. Do the Democrats though believe they gained any ground? Let's bring in one of the Democrats asking questions in the probe, Washington State Congressman Denny Heck?

Congressman, it's certainly an important moment today for Democrats, when we heard Ambassador Sondland say, yes, there was a quid pro quo. However, when he was pressed, he also made clear and I want to play a moment here, that it was not from the President who told him directly about that. Let's listen to this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SONDLAND: President Trump never told me directly that the aid was conditioned on the meetings. The only thing we got directly from Giuliani was that the Burisma and 2016 elections were conditioned on the White House meeting. The aid was my own personal, you know, guess based again, on your analogy, two plus two equals four.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: It was his guess. He never heard it directly from the President. Is that going to be a problem for you moving forward?

REP. DENNY HECK (D-WA): The aid was withheld, Erica, and it was withheld over the objection of every single agency that was involved in it, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, and the State Department, all wanted him to go ahead and directly instructed that it was being withheld under orders of Mick Mulvaney from the President for reasons that were never revealed. Two plus two equals four, Erica. He did it, he withheld the aid in an attempt to shakedown the Ukrainian President to undertake this politically- motivated investigation.

HILL: But again, as you point out, that's what was coming from Mick Mulvaney. As we heard from Ambassador Sondland, this is what he was, you know, hearing from Rudy Giuliani. It does -- does it matter? It seems that it should, that it was not coming directly from the President who was saying, This is what I want.

HECK: Erica, it came directly from the President. Please do read the transcript. He shook down President Zelensky.

HILL: I can promise you, I have like you several times.

HECK: I bet you have. In no uncertain terms, and that's a confession that was signed by Mick Mulvaney at that later press conference. And is supported by all the facts, all the players around.

[01:20:04]

Look, he told them, talk to Rudy. And Rudy told them what he wanted, which was the shakedown while the aid was being withheld. And if that isn't enough to suggest consciousness of guilt, remember that they moved that transcript immediately into the code words server to hide it. Remember that they refused to allow us to talk to any of the primary actors, Mick Mulvaney, or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, or Mr. Vought or Mr. Duffy over at the Office of Management and Budget. They won't let us talk to any of these people, nor will they produce any of the documents that have been duly subpoenaed of them. If that doesn't indicate a consciousness of guilt, I don't know what does when combined with the President's very words in that transcript.

HILL: I want to talk to you a little bit about those people, a number of whom you just mentioned, central figures here, who you have not heard from, and you brought that up earlier today, as well, asking why they hadn't been heard from. I want to play that moment, as well.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

HECK: Why then, sir, with your courage to come before us, does that same standard not apply to Mr. Mulvaney, Mr. Duffy, Mr. Pompeo, Mr. Bolton, Mr. Vought, Mr. Giuliani, why shouldn't those same sentiments beat within their hearts to do their patriotic duty, and do what you have done, sir? Indeed, why doesn't that same standard apply to the President of United States?

SONDLAND: I wish I could answer.

HECK: I suspect you can't because there is no good answer.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: As you said, you want to hear from them, you want to see these documents. If you don't, however -- if you don't hear from some of these officials, do you believe Democrats can convincingly make their case against the President?

HECK: He did it, Erica. The case has already been made. Look, we seem to be --

HILL: So, you don't need to see anything else?

HECK: Well, I -- what I am seeing is an overwhelming -- and indeed a mountain of evidence to suggest that he did it. And we seem to be constructing kind of a new legal standard here. If this were a crime, what you would be suggesting is, unless you have a signed confession, a videotape and three eyewitnesses, you can't convict anybody. And we all know that's not what happens in a criminal court of law. The evidence is overwhelming. He did it. And the only question remaining for Congress and for the American public is he did it. What's the appropriate remedy? How should he be held accountable? Is this behavior that is acceptable, that which I believe betrays his oath of office and compromises our national security.

HILL: As we talked about in the beginning, you had Ambassador Sondland today saying very clearly in his opening statement, Yes, there was a quid pro quo. We know from what we heard in both the questioning and even from hearing from lawmakers afterwards. It doesn't seem that that was enough to move the needle for Republicans. Do you believe at this point that there is even one Republican who is coming over to the side of the Democrats at this point and in agreement with you and seeing what you see?

HECK: Not yet, but then again, we're not taking the vote today or even tomorrow. Indeed, we have another hearing yet to go, Erica. And in fact, from two spectacular witnesses, Dr. Fiona Hill and David Holmes, he who overheard the conversation between Mr. Sondland and the President in that open terrorist restaurant in Kiev, Ukraine. There's still more information to come.

And today is a great example, as have other hearings been, we learned something new today that we didn't know before. We may learn something new tomorrow. We just don't know yet until we go through this. I also think that if you think about the American public, it says though there are three parts; there are those who haven't paid any attention at all until this began to be televised. You have those who paid quite a bit of attention and maybe even read the depositions, but that's just ink on a page. And now, they could actually see and hear some of the compelling and riveting stories by all these people.

So listen, I think there's a distance possibility that when you add those two factors plus the possibility of new information being revealed, that the American public will take this in and digest it, and give a considered opinion about what's the best for our country.

HILL: Give me a sense though, you say you are at a place now, right, where you're convinced. We know that from listening to you. You've seen enough and in your mind to drop articles of impeachment. So, if that's where you're at, what specifically with those articles be for you today?

HECK: I think there's a distinct case to be made for both abuse of power and there's an arguable case to be made for obstruction of Congress, which is I remind you, Erica, was the third article of impeachment against President Nixon. Look, he's refused to allow people around him to testify when Congress was exercising its constitutional responsibility under Article 1, Section 2 and Section 3, and he has withheld the documents. Even though as Ambassador Sondland himself indicated today, he was at a disadvantage because the State Department would not even allow him access to his own material, so that it could refresh his memory. And he complained that that wasn't fair to him, since he decided to respond to the duly issued subpoena.

[01:25:11]

HILL: Congressman Heck, we appreciate, again, taking the time to join us, and we will continue to watch where this goes next. As you mentioned, two more witnesses coming up tomorrow. Thank you, sir.

HECK: Thank you, Erica.

HILL: Gordon Sondland's testimony today being referred to by some as a John Dean moment. That, of course, the testimony that rocked the Watergate hearings. We'll see what someone who helped break the Watergate story thinks along with some other great historical minds who weigh in, next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HILL: Before Ambassador Sondland even finished his testimony, it was being called the John Dean moment of the Trump presidency. Just like Nixon's former White House Counsel, Sondland took an oath before a congressional committee and delivered testimony that implicated the President in serious wrongdoing. If history is prologue, what exactly does this mean for the current President? Tim Naftali presidential historian and co-author of "Impeachment: An American History" is here with me.

[01:29:36]

Also famed Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein and CNN political analyst Elaina Plott.

And Carl -- I want to start with you. Would you agree that this was a John Dean moment? You would know first hand.

CARL BERNSTEIN, JOURNALIST: No, I think that John Dean was a perfect witness who was privy to a lot more than Mr. Sondland was. Nonetheless, Sondland was a devastating witness and I think that what was revealed to day is that the level of corruption of this president has now been revealed in a way that's very, very hard for the Republicans to deny.

And secondly, that we have seen now the wheels coming off the coverup -- the coverup led by the President of the United States. And once those wheels come off we now see in stunning detail just what the real conspiracy to undermine our electoral process by the intervention of a foreign power solicited by the President of the United States has been. It is a really ugly tale.

HILL: A really ugly tale. You also pointed out that John Dean was a much better witness.

Tim -- as we look at this, that is something the Republicans quickly jumped on. Yes, he may have said quid pro quo in the opening statement, but there was a lot that did not seem as damning in their eyes. And Republicans were pointing out, there's so much that he couldn't remember. He doesn't have notes and he doesn't have any of this from his meetings. How damaging is that?

TIM NAFTALI, CNN PRESIDENTIAL HISTORIAN: Well, first of all, let's keep in mind that it's only later that you really understand the implications of a John Dean moment. As Carl knows better than anybody, John Dean's testimony did not lead immediately to impeachment hearings. John Dean's testimony actually lead to a rephrasing, a reframing of the conversation about the President's role in the coverup. But it's the tapes, it's the tapes that changed the whole nature of the struggle.

So what I'm saying is Sondland's testimony -- Ambassador Sondland's testimony, as Carl mentioned, not only added dots but connected some and it is now clear that Sondland was not some kind of rogue elephant, that Sondland was implementing a policy that was coming directly to him either via Giuliani or from the President himself. And that the President's main concern was a corrupt intent.

That's very clear. And that's what's so devastating about his testimony. Now I don't expect Republicans to say, oh, give up. It's over. Sorry. Oh, we're totally wrong. No.

What I'm expecting to see is the pressure building on others perhaps to come forward, and I'm looking to people who plan to run in 2024 because you don't want to be supportive of this kind of foreign policy. We Americans have a tradition of very serious, very important foreign policy. We don't want to be associated with the kind of "three stooges" foreign policy that involve black mail.

So I'm anticipating that as more details like this come out which all confirm the whistleblower account, that it's going to put a lot of pressure on senators who care about foreign policy to think about what is the right thing for future presidencies.

HILL: I want to get to the senators in a minute. But I just want to pick on what you were saying about the tapes. One of the things that we don't have, or that we -- or lawmakers don't have, that they haven't seen are a lot of these documents. What we learned today actually is that Ambassador Sondland doesn't even have access to some of his own documents.

In fact, I just want to play a little bit of what he had to say today when he was asked multiple times about his recollection about his records and what he did have. Take a listen.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GORDON SONDLAND, U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE EUROPEAN UNION: I can't find the records. If I don't have records, schedules. There are lots of notes, records, readout of calls, I can't get to them. I don't recall. Again, without all these records.

Again, based on my lack of records.

I just don't have all the records. I wish I could get them.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: So Sondland making the point there that the State Department, the White House keeping these documents out of his hands and suggesting, obviously, they're not just keeping information from Congress there.

Elaina, obviously Democrats jumping on that. Is it also something that there's a sense they could be using as they try to make a case for obstruction?

ELAINA PLOTT, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Absolutely. I mean here's the key thing -- Erica. Right now sort of the main line of defense Republicans have for President Trump right now is that Ambassador Sondland's testimony was ultimately a wash because he did say prodded by Mike Turner, prodded by Jim Jordan that he was never actually told directly by the President that this aid was being withheld for the explicit purpose of getting Ukrainian officials to launch an investigation into Joe Biden.

[01:34:59]

PLOTT: What's particularly ironic, of course, is that with Republicans saying that nobody who has testified thus far has firsthand knowledge of this is that they won't allow -- this White House won't allow people who could plausibly have firsthand knowledge of this.

As Sondland pointed out today, people like Mick Mulvaney, Secretary Pompeo, Vice President Mike Pence -- these people were right in the middle per Sondland's testimony in this, you know, entire saga. But those are people who this White House has, you know, forbidden from testifying.

So the firsthand account defense that Republicans are running with, I think starts to weaken by the day as Democrats start to say, if that's what you've got, then let us hear from those who would have the firsthand knowledge.

HILL: Carl -- what do you think the chances are that we hear from any of those people? In fact, we have quite a list we can put up of the people that we haven't heard from -- most notably Mick Mulvaney, Secretary Pompeo, John Bolton, of course. A lot of people would love to hear from John Bolton.

BERNSTEIN: I think that what we need to do is not speculate. And I certainly don't know who we're going to hear from.

I know that Fiona Hill, we're going to hear from tomorrow. And she is in a position to tell us an awful lot of things including about John Bolton.

Now, one of the things that is so extraordinary about what we have seen is we have a president of the United States who, at every turn -- and this is part of the Ukraine story as well -- has served the interests of Russia, a hostile foreign power. And we're going to hear about that, I suspect, in some of tomorrow's testimony.

It's also what makes this so different than Watergate and perhaps worse in some regard because Nixon never tied the fortunes of the United States to a hostile foreign power who he was susceptible to.

In this instance whether wittingly, half wittingly, or unwittingly, that is what Donald Trump has done throughout his presidency.

One other point I'd like to make here about the tapes that were mentioned -- the Nixon tapes -- which eventually led to the smoking gun after many, many months of investigation, here we have begun with the smoking gun. The actual transcript or summary of the July 25th conversation that the President himself ordered released is the smoking gun.

And what we saw today is how many people were in the loop, as Mr. Sondland put it. Those closest to the President of the United States in many regards -- his lawyer, his secretary of state, his chief of staff. In the loop was quite a phrase to hear, and indeed convincingly, Sondland showed us that they were. So this in some ways is worse than Watergate, particularly also in regard to this aspect of a foreign power.

HILL: Carl -- you said earlier this week that Senate Republicans who had confided in you were deeply disturbed by what they had witnessed. That was Monday, I believe. That was before all of the witnesses that we've heard from and certainly before Ambassador Sondland.

A, have you heard from any of them after the testimony Wednesday? And B, do you have a sense that any of this is moving the needle for them to say something publicly?

BERNSTEIN: First of all, I think I also said how craven those senators have been in not being willing to publicly say what they are saying in private about how disturbed they are. And I have not talked to them -- any of them today.

I think it's really important that we point out that I don't think any of us, even the best of the reporters involved in covering this story, know where it's going to go. It can go anywhere. We do not know how the first term of Donald Trump is going to end -- whether it is in a Senate trial and what happens in a Senate trial, the dynamic of that trial.

Right now it does not look like it would be a conviction certainly, but anything can happen and that also includes the way and the effect of a trial on the election. If Donald Trump is the candidate, this is going to be a hell of a trial unlike anything that we've seen. Very different than the Clinton impeachment trial.

So let's not get ahead of our skis --

HILL: Right.

BERNSTEIN: -- as journalists here and -- but there also is great work here. There are so many leads that have been developed in this investigation through the testimony of others and through earlier reporting. This is a real opportunity for reporters and journalists to develop this story further, particularly going after some of those same people who have not been allowed to testify, we sure as hell can try talking to.

[01:40:00]

HILL: Absolutely. And that picks up on something that Tim -- you and I were talking about briefly in the break. And that you would really hate to see the public hearings and even the investigation end at this point because you feel there is still much more to be learned.

NAFTALI: Well, I'm certain that there's much more to be learned because we get that when we listen to a professional like Laura Cooper.

And she says -- first of all, she told us that the Ukrainians knew much sooner than we understood and that matters because one of the talking points that President Trump's loyalists have used is that, well, this wasn't black mail because the Ukrainians didn't know they were blackmailed. She's made clear, no, in fact they did know that there was a hold on security assistance.

What she doesn't know, and she's just telling the truth, she doesn't know why there was a hold. No one told her. They said, there's a hold.

There are people in our government who know why there was a hold. And it would be unfortunate not to have the documents produced by those people, email -- or their testimony.

So I think we could get to the bottom of this and I think that the -- what we see now as a pattern of corruption but we need more information. And one of the things about an impeachment that people have to keep in mind is that this is not a criminal investigation. This is about the conduct of one person.

All this is about is whether that one person, that's the President of the United States should be removed from office. And we still need more data from the people next to that president, the people who talk to the President.

We just heard today, for example, that senators called the President to ask him to remove the hold. What did he say to the senators? Who are those senators? Did he explain to the senators his rationale?

There are a lot of people who probably know why the hold took place and they probably could testify that it was the President who had it placed but they haven't talked yet.

Ambassador Sondland is the first with some direct connection to the President who has put him at the center of the story but there are others who could. And then we would have, as Carl has alluded, then we would have the real story. And whether we get it or not is unclear. I hope we don't rush -- I hope the House doesn't rush the investigations.

HILL: And to your point, one thing we all need to remember, that it's far different, you know, decades later is that people have an expectation of immediacy --

NAFTALI: Yes.

HILLA: -- and that is not always the way things get done and certainly not always done well. So we need to remember that.

Appreciate all of you being with us. Elaina, Tim, Carl -- thank you very much.

Impeachment, of course, was the first topic at Wednesday night's Democratic presidential debate. Five potential impeachment jurors on that stage. How the candidates are taking on a White House in crisis next.

[01:43:00]

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HILL: Just a short time ago we heard from ten Democratic presidential candidates. Soon after the current president's E.U. ambassador delivered testimony of a quid pro quo.

Let's bring in CNN political commentators Alexandra Rojas, Bakari Sellers, and Mia Love. Good to have all of you with us.

Alexandra, as we look at this, given the testimony today, tonight's debate starting on impeachment, perhaps not surprisingly. And candidates were asked just how central impeachment should be to any Democratic presidential nominee's campaign.

Here's what Bernie Sanders had to say.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SENATOR BERNIE SANDERS (D-VT), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Sadly, we have a president who's not only a pathological liar, he is likely the most corrupt president in the modern history of America. But we cannot simply be consumed by Donald Trump because if we are, you know what, we're going to lose the election.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HILL: Do you agree, Alexandra?

ALEXANDRA ROJAS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think he brings up a good point. I think not just Bernie Sanders but the rest of the stage got after which was that this is also about governing after Donald Trump, right? But I think it's also important that the presidential candidates recognize that we have to right now recognize the moment of history we're in.

Like Bernie said, this is one of the most corrupt pathological liar of a president and it also means that we need to hold him to account and the, you know, Republican Party that is letting him run wild. And this hearing today especially means that people need to step up.

HILL: When we look at the polling, too, it's clear that voters want a candidate who can not only take on the President but they want a candidate who can beat the President. Full disclosure as always, you know, we've endorsed Kamala Harris.

But who really -- based on what you saw tonight, who among those ten looks like the candidate who can, in fact, beat Donald Trump?

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think when I leave the studio tonight at 3:30 on the East and midnight on the West I will sleep comfortably knowing that nine out of the ten candidates on stage excluding probably Tulsi Gabbard will carry the Democratic banner and wave it well.

I'm somebody who will tell you that like many Democrats that I will wear a "Bernie Sanders for president" t-shirt. I will wear an "Elizabeth Warren for president" t-shirt. I already have my "Kamala Harris for president" t-shirt.

But we want to make sure the number one priority and I think whether or not you're in Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina, Nevada -- the number one priority is beating Donald Trump -- and I think all of the candidates tonight. And when you look at the polls, we had a poll that was a sobering poll today from Marquette (ph) and it talked about the swing state of Wisconsin. And what it showed was that Donald Trump is either running even or ahead in these swing states.

We know we have a battle on our hands and so we know that the top candidates in this race have a chance to beat Donald Trump, but at the end of the day, Alexandra will tell you this and I will tell you this as well, we have to unify and we have to have a candidate who we can all unify around.

[01:50:04]

SELLERS: So I think all of the candidates did a great job talking about that and talking about those issues tonight and wanting to bring the party together. So I'm quite comfortable going to sleep knowing that one of them will carry the banner.

HILL: So you'll take almost any of them? All right. We'll take that as an answer --

SELLERS: I'll take 90 percent of the field. I mean that's not bad.

HILL: Mia -- when you look at this and we look at what we heard today from Ambassador Sondland, what we have learned over the last couple of days in terms of testimony in these public hearings -- what are Republicans saying about it? What are you hearing?

MIA LOVE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think that Republicans are thinking that some of the hearing was not good and some of it actually turned out well for them. I think they liked what Morrison had to say. They liked what Volker had to say.

I do think that Sondland was really -- he was confusing. And mainly to the American people because you have an opening testimony where he states there was a quid pro quo. And then he says well, wait a minute, that was my assumption.

It seems like he was trying to play two sides here. One way, trying to maybe go back to work and not upset the President. And the other side of it was I'm going to cover my rear end because there people have realized that there might have been some deception during the deposition.

So I think it was really confusing and you could see that it was really frustrating to Republicans where they had to flat out ask him did you hear from the President that there was a quid pro quo and he said no, that was my assumption. He goes on to say actually there was a phone call where the President was irritated and he said I don't want any of this. I don't want a quid pro quo.

It was really quite I think confusing for Republicans and confusing for the American people watching it.

HILL: Bakari -- you think Sondland is the smoking gun here. Why? SELLERS: I mean yes, it wasn't confusing for the American people. I

think it was actually pretty clear. Sondland came in and he gave his opening statement. He gave his testimony.

The question was asked was there a quid pro quo? The fact is it's not even necessary for a quid pro quo to exist -- I'm struggling saying it because we've been saying it so much on TV and throughout the hearings.

But it's not even necessary for that to occur for there to be some abuse of power or obstruction of justice or any other litany of offences that the President has committed.

The fact is that what happened, we know for a fact that there were investigations that were -- that the President of the United States wanted the investigations launched into not only the server in 2016 but Burisma. What Sondland said was that he didn't know at the time but he knows now that Burisma meant the Bidens.

But even more importantly than all of these things, the words that he stated today that he acted at the behest of the President of the United States and the President of the United States sent them to Rudy Giuliani.

Look, if the Republican Party wants to clear all of this up, then have Mick Mulvaney testify. Have Bolton testify. Have Rudy Giuliani testify. The reason they cannot testify is because they will probably end up going to prison if they do.

And so I already know Rudy Giuliani's in a great deal off trouble. I hope my friend Mick Mulvaney is not. And I look forward to some more transparency coming from the White House.

It was extremely clear today Sondland was as close to a smoking gun as you can possibly get. The question that we have that the Republicans should have died on this hill is we know the President of the United States committed an abuse of power. We know that he obstructed justice. We know he just does not understand the protocols of the White House. But is this an impeachable offense? I think that's the hill to die on.

But instead they want to fight nonsense. And the American public can see through that.

HILL: Alexandra -- how do you think the American public is looking at all of this. How is the inquiry affecting particularly Democrats who are now vying for attention, right, and who are hoping to grab this attention leading into Iowa in a number of days at it this point?

ROJAS: Yes. I mean I think that, you know, recent polls have shown that these hearings and, you know, the general talk of impeachment is working, especially among Democrats. 70 percent of people right now, I think not just Democrats but above in a recent ABC poll show that they don't approve of Donald Trump's handling of this and want the President to be held to account. So I think it's -- for Democrats in the field right now it's really important to recognize that we have to handle this moment right now for the country to show that we can hold the most powerful person in our country to account while also making sure that we're charting a path forward for governing in the future, especially ahead of Iowa.

And that's what I think a lot of the presidential debate had to balance. It was great to lead on that but then also painting a vision of what you're going to do to make sure that you stop the next Donald Trump from happening again.

[01:55:02]

HILL: All right. Stay close. We will come back and talk a little bit more about this a bit later in the program.

First though last month President Trump called his E.U. ambassador a really good man and a great American. Now however, the President seems to hardly know Gordon Sondland man.

His reaction to Wednesday's testimony when "WHITE HOUSE IN CRISIS" continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

HILL: I'm Erica Hill. Thanks for joining us.

"WHITE HOUSE IN CRISIS: THE IMPEACHMENT INQUIRY" continues now. Gordon Sondland was the first person to testify who dealt directly with President Trump about matters with Ukraine.

So was there a quid pro quo? The answer is yes. Those are the words of Gordon Sondland Wednesday morning. The E.U. ambassador explicitly links the President to the demand for investigations into his political opponent and the 2016 elections.

The President recently offered high praise for his hand-picked diplomat. Now however, a familiar refrain -- turns out the President hardly knows him.

[01:59:59]

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: Just so you know, I don't know him very well. He's a guy that got put there. He wasn't even on my side. He came over to me, I didn't even know that.

(END VIDEO CLIP)