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Trump Claims Sondland Testimony Exonerates Him; Trump Declares Impeachment Case is Over; Sondland: Everyone Was in the Loop on Ukraine Pressure; Sondland Testimony Links Trump To Abuse Of Power. Aired 2-3a ET

Aired November 21, 2019 - 02:00   ET




DONALD TRUMP (R), 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.


ERICA HILL, CNN ANCHOR: Sondland's testimony, though, tells a different story.


REP. ERIC SWALWELL (D-CA): He had spoken to you often?


SWALWELL: Well, you said at least 20 times?

SONDLAND: OK, if that's often, then it's often.

SWALWELL: And you donated $1 million to his inaugural committee, is that right?

SONDLAND: I bought a VIP ticket to the inauguration.

SWALWELL: That's a lot of money isn't?

SONDLAND: It's a lot of money.


HILL: Back with us, CNN legal analyst Michael Zeldin, CNN national security analysts Samantha Vinograd and Steve Hall.

There is a lot to get to that just left you scratching you're head in some of what we heard today. Most notably the fact that Ambassador Sondland said on more than one occasion he had a tough time recalling certain things.

Part of the reason being that he couldn't review his notes.


SONDLAND: I can't find the records, if I don't have the record schedules, there are lots of notes, records, readouts of calls. 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.


HILL: Republican counsel questioning his inability to recall details, he said he's not a note taker, doesn't keep notes but at the same time the question of why he didn't have access to some of these records and these notes.

And that's because he's not allowed to see them, which we know has come repeatedly. In some ways there's something for everybody in that answer but it is still mind-boggling.

MICHAEL ZELDIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, it's a pattern of behavior by the White House to obstruct the investigation of Congress, plain and simple. They are denying Congress, these witnesses that Congress needs to hear from, they are denying them access to information that they need to be truthful and fulfilling of their obligation to tell the truth and nothing but the truth.

And, holistically, and so what we see here really is the byproduct of this obstructionist behavior by the White House and if they don't stop or if a court doesn't stop them, all they're going to do is walk into an article of impeachment for obstruction of Congress, much in the same way that Richard Nixon did.


Because Sondland is a bit different than the other witnesses have testified. Sondland is still unfortunately employed at the U.S. government, he's headed back to Brussels right now. I worked for the U.S. government, you typically keep things like your schedule on your unclassified system. You have access to unclassified emails when you're still employed at the U.S. government.

So it's a little unclear to me. I don't doubt that the State Department and the White House are making things like for, example, records of the president, call logs that sort of thing unreachable for Sondland but it is not entirely clear to me why he would have access to anything that was kept on his schedule.

He had an assistant who scheduled his meeting, scheduled his calls so unless he was really just wheeling and dealing without keeping anything on his official schedule and using his personal cell phone for everything that he did, I don't understand why he's having so much trouble accessing information.

HILL: As we keep saying, the more we hear, the more questions we have and that is an excellent point and one that certainly deserves an answer.

Another thing that was really remarkable we heard from Ambassador Sondland the specifics about the investigations, that the president wanted and what the president wanted in terms of the meat of the investigation or a lack thereof.


SONDLAND: I never heard, Mr. Goldman, anyone say the investigations had to start or had to be completed. The only thing I heard from Mr. Giuliani or otherwise was that they had to be announced in some form.


HILL: That's all they needed to see. They needed to be announced.

What kind of message does that send not only to the Ukrainians but the fact that this is what we're hearing from Ambassador Sondland today and this is being heard around the world?

STEVE HALL, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY ANALYST: I think what you're hearing and what the Ukrainian heard from that was, from an administration, from a president that prides himself on saying we will drain the swamp, we're seeing some swamplike behavior.

Why would you want somebody to announce some sort of investigation as opposed to carry through or talk about the specific methodologies to be used?

Clearly this is a propaganda move to try to make a point.


HALL: That's going to be confusing for a brand new president like Zelensky, who is used to dealing with the Russian swamp and the sort of typical corruption that happens in autocracies and authoritarian regimes.

Not used to hearing that so much from the United States. So it's got to be sort of confusing and a dark message. All you got to do is play along to make a point and that's all we need from you. They definitely understood they needed to do something if they wanted the things they really needed to protect their country better.

HILL: We saw the opening statement from Devin Nunes, who was once again attacking the process and attacking the fact that they were sitting there, as we've heard from him over successive days. But then there was a little bit of a shift.


REP. DEVIN NUNES (R), INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Ambassador Sondland, you are here today to be smeared.

STEVE CASTOR, MINORITY COUNSEL: As we get to the end here, you don't have records, you don't have your notes because you didn't take notes, you don't have a lot of recollections.

I mean this is like the trifecta of unreliability. Isn't that true?

SONDLAND: What I'm trying to do today is to use the limited information I have to be as forthcoming as possible with you and the rest of the committee. And as these recollections have been refreshed by subsequent testimony, by some texts and emails I've now access to, I think I filled in a lot of blanks.


HILL: It's remarkable we have Devin Nunes saying, you're here to be smeared. And then three hours later counsel questioning the witness that I think Republicans thought was going to be a far different witness for them than what they heard in the opening statement.

VINOGRAD: And we've had reporting that White House was quote-unquote "blindsided" by the testimony. But the Republican counsel is adaptive; they were able to shift very quickly to go from warning someone that he is going to be smeared -- like the White House smeared Lieutenant Colonel Vindman when he was testifying -- to break down his credibility as a witness.

They attacked various parts of his testimony. We'll have to wait and see whether this continues. Again, he is on his way to Brussels to represent the U.S. government. He gave his testimony today. We have to imagine the president is starting to fume about it. There may be a tweet.

And at what point does the secretary of state and the president get together and say Sondland's testimony was too damming?

At what point does he upset the president and we see retaliation against him?

We don't know when that may be. But we should expect the same kind of behavior from Nunes and from the Republican counsel, for every witness that comes forward if they don't hear what they want to hear.

HILL: To your point, the president was largely silent although we did hear -- there was a distancing, of course, with some --


VINOGRAD: -- the president -- Gordon Sondland said he spoke to the president 20 times, what have you. I can't think of any U.S. government official that President Obama spoke with 20 times on the telephone overseas.

He certainly talked to his national security adviser that much. But for somebody to be able to call the president or hear from the president 20 times indicates a level of closeness that typically is for the secretary of state or the national security advisor.

HILL: What were they talking about in the 20 or so times?

Oh, we would love to know.

Much more to come. A$AP Rocky helped jog the memory today.

There's another big question and that is Russia.

What could Russia be getting out of all of this?





HILL: In just under seven hours President Trump's former top Russia advisor is set to testify, which brings us to another figure, Vladimir Putin. State Department officials noticed a change of attitude and approach towards Ukraine in the wake of President Trump meeting with Putin and Viktor Orban.

It's fascinating because we have talked so much about how all roads seem to lead to Rudy Giuliani. But those roads also, in many cases, seem to lead to Russia. And one of the latest examples was brought up in testimony in terms of Russia's role and Russia perhaps benefitting. Take a listen.


REP. JACKIE SPEIER (D-CA), MEMBER, OVERSIGHT AND INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEES: Would you say that the delay in military aid to Ukraine and the reluctance to have a White House meeting has a benefit to Russia?

SONDLAND: I think it could be looked at that way.


HILL: And if it is looked at that way, Steve, what does that do for Russia and what does that do for the U.S.?

HALL: I think it there's a couple of different ways this whole situation benefits Vladimir Putin and Russia. Ukraine is critically important to Russia. It's already annexed, chopped off part of it, Crimea.

It basically wants Ukraine back in the fold and be part of Russia again. When President Zelensky sees the corrupt actions, that plays into a Putin talking point, democracies say they're open and they're not corrupt. But they are. So come back to Mother Russia.

And going back a couple of years to just before our 2016 elections. [02:15:00]

HALL: Putin has been working hard to drive divisions in our society politically and basically in any way that he can. In doing so, he's got us going at each other and now we're hyperfocused on this impeachment thing, which allows him the leeway to expand his geopolitical goals, his presence in the Middle East while we're focused on this impeachment circus.

So it's a win-win for Putin and I think he sees it that way and he's going to continue to push until somebody says we've got to stop. We've got to contain.

HILL: And in this federal indictment, we know Parnas and Fruman were being funded by Russian money. Some of their goals included removing the ambassador at the center of this.

So that's what we're learning in that federal indictment. The big question is, what more could there be?

ZELDIN: There's a lot of linkage to Russian money in the entire Trump orbit.

We saw that in the Mueller investigation. We're seeing it here in Parnas and Fruman. I don't know if there's an overt effort to launder money into the United States for a bad purpose. Mueller thought there was and indicted some people for behavior associated with that.

But I think the bottom line is to the extent that we behave in a corrupt way, in -- to the extent we behave in a hypocritical way, we undermine our own integrity on the global stage. I think it's time that we take stock in the way we've been behaving as a country and understand the implications it has for us geopolitically.

HILL: And maybe to look at more than one thing at a time.

The timeline is interesting here. Because we look at the meeting in the Oval Office. That was May 10th of 2017. On June 8th is when Rudy Giuliani first met with Ukrainians.

Am I reading too much into that?

VINOGRAD: Back even further up. This conspiracy about Ukraine being involved in 2016 election interference started from what we know with Paul Manafort, who was working with former Ukrainians who were part of a pro-Russia party. So the origination of this idea in Trump's head came from Manafort, who is in jail.

Vladimir Putin has also propagated this notion that Ukraine was involved in election interference in 2015, even though we sanctioned Russia for exactly that activity. And I will note we have sanctioned Russia for something else with respect to 2016 election interference: information warfare.

Donald Trump by asking the Ukrainian to make a public statement about investigating his rivals, with not as much intent on getting them to actually conduct the investigation, he was soliciting foreign influence operations from a foreign government.

He was asking for exactly what we sanctioned Russia for in the past. That is truly remarkable and really underscores the fact that Russia is winning and potentially gaining more leverage over Ukraine and the credibility of our presidency, our institutions, our elections is being undermined from within.

HILL: How difficult, even the conversation that we're having, for the American public -- and there are plenty of people who are concerned about the integrity of the U.S. elections, the integrity of the democracy. They're concerned about what could happen in terms of Russian interference.

But when we see all the different narratives floating around, making the people who may be -- I shouldn't say make them -- but to get through to people on the fence, who think it's happening and it won't effect me. It's important to get that message through.

HALL: Absolutely. There's so much stuff floating around that I think it is confusing to a lot of Americans. A lot was made -- just about every time a Republican opens their mouth. Oh, we just sent blankets to Ukraine and this administration sent weapons. There's some truth to that.

I was watching the former administration when they made some difficult decisions. And a lot of Americans don't even understand where Ukraine is the importance of it. These are the things that are confusing to many Americans.


HALL: A good administration would be explaining the important role Ukraine, as a young democracy, plays. But with all the name calling and dust up -- and it's just amazingly confusing.

And Vladimir Putin will take that to the bank because that confusion, which he started by propaganda and active measures campaign, it works well for Russia and worked poorly and negatively affects the United States.

HILL: Steve, Sam, Michael, appreciate your expertise as always. Thank you.

The word "historic" was used a lot around Sondland's testimony Wednesday. How does it really compare though to the biggest crises ever faced by a president?

Carl Bernstein and a former Nixon Library director here to give us context next.





HILL: Sources tell CNN White House aides felt completely blindsided by Gordon Sondland's testimony, expressing distress at what they heard. If you hear the president tell it, he's calling Sondland's testimony a win and an exoneration. Never mind the fact that people have been calling it a John Dean moment, comparing it to the day when Nixon's former White House counsel turned on him.

Let's bring back presidential historian Tim Naftali, co-author of "Impeachment in American History" and famed Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein.

And there's so much comparison to Watergate. There's a key difference in the way this is being consumed. Take a listen.


REP. ADAM SCHIFF (D-CA), CHAIR, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Frankly, I think if Richard Nixon had had FOX primetime he would have never been forced to leave office.


HILL: There is -- we spoke last hour about this sense of immediacy and we do have it seems this insatiable appetite for information and getting it immediately. But there's also where you get your information and it is so different than the way people got information 40 years ago.

CARL BERNSTEIN, JOURNALIST AND AUTHOR: Certainly. Look, things happen in their own time. So you can't make too many useful comparisons of events in different eras. There's no question that FOX is perhaps the most important political development in changing our political culture in the last 25-30 years.

It's been hugely influential. And it's not a news operation. It really is about presenting a particular ideology and point of view. And it has changed culturally who we are in this country. We're in a cold civil war. And I'm not sure we would be in this cold civil war without FOX being in the trenches of the cold civil war for all these years.

But let's take a look at some of the comparisons between Watergate and now. The difference is the system worked in Watergate. We haven't seen the system really work thus far.

Richard Nixon tried to make conduct of the press the issue in Watergate. It didn't work. It's worked much more successfully for Donald Trump. In both instances, the presidents of the United States, Nixon and Trump, tried to undermine the very basis of our democracy: a free electoral system.

In Nixon's case, he didn't want to run against the strongest candidate, Senator Edmund Muskie of Maine, and he approved a massive campaign of political espionage and sabotage to cripple his candidacy, much as Joe Biden has been targeted by Donald Trump. The difference being that Nixon never went to a foreign power to

undermine the American electoral process. He did it with this massive campaign at home.

The other aspects that are different is the Republicans. The Republicans became the real heroes of Watergate because they put, many of them, principle above party both in the Senate Watergate hearings and then in the votes in the Judiciary Committee.

And when it came time for a Senate trial, because Nixon was going to be impeached by the House and Nixon thought he could prevail in the Senate, Barry Goldwater, the 1964 nominee of his party, led a delegation of Republican leaders to the Oval Office, sat down with Nixon.

Nixon expected Goldwater to it tell him he would aid him in winning acquittal.

He said to Barry Goldwater, "How many votes do I have in the Senate?"

And Goldwater looked him in the eye and he said, "Mr. President, you might have four votes now and you are not going to have mine."

And two days later Nixon resigned. So that is the huge difference. And whether -- thus far we have seen no cracks, no willingness to put principle above party. It is very clear here what has happened in this Ukraine situation. It's not really ambiguous.

The question is whether some Republicans are going to be courageous. None of us know where this is going.

[02:30:07] HILL: Sure. There's also the question of the American public. So, it's been just about two months since Speaker Pelosi announced the impeachment inquiry, but if we take a look at the most recent polling, it's clear, Americans are split.

They're split over impeachment and they're adamant about not changing their minds. You look at the position on impeachment.

But there's also -- can you imagine changing your mind about your position on impeachment. Tim, 65 percent of respondents said no.

TIM NAFTALI, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: Well, that may be partly the consequence of the fact that we have developed these hermetically sealed bubbles. And so, what's happening is, what psychologists described as confirmation bias. In other words, you're actually looking to hear from people that you know, already agree with you.

So, you don't want to change your mind. And, in fact, changing your mind is an uncomfortable thing to do. I've been looking at the Republicans in the Nixon period, to try to understand why so many of them did, as Carl just explained, they chose country over party, not because Republicans can't do that, but because it seems so alien, the rhetoric we're hearing from the Republicans today.

And what's really interesting is that, in the run-up to the President's resignation, there were leaders in the Republican Party who wanted Nixon to resign. They felt Nixon was pulling down their brand and they were angry at him.

But they were told by the rank and file Republicans around the country, don't do this. This doesn't help us. And many of them said, you know, we are going to lose votes, either way. If we support the President, we're going to lose some votes in our districts. If we go against him, we will lose support in our districts. I think something that's changed is the districts.

I'm not sure that there are that many Republicans in districts where they could actually say, you know what? I'm going to lose votes either way. I think in a lot of districts, where they're only going to lose votes if they vote against the President, and I think that changes the calculation.

Now, what was really interesting and it is such a patriotic story, Carl alluded to this, those Republicans who sat on the Judiciary Committee, and we haven't yet watched the drama in the Judiciary Committee, that's going to come next.

The ones who sat as jurors, once they got all the details and actually study them, they realized, oh my God, we have to vote against the President, because there's a climate of corruption. Not all of them came to that conclusion, but a number -- enough of them did, to make the entire process, in the committee, bipartisan.

Now, the question for me, is has our DNA, our political DNA, changed, such that it's not possible for elected Republicans when they bring all the data together to conclude as those did, in 1974. I'm an optimist by nature. One of the things that was important to those people in the House Judiciary Committee, they were all lawyers. Everybody was a lawyer.

So, as a lawyer, they look at the data and they said, oh my goodness, the President has actually not discharged his responsibilities, as his oath prescribed. Are they capable of it today? I don't know. But I remain hopeful that some will conclude when they look at the evidence, that there is a cost to keeping someone, in office, who seeks corrupt objectives.

HILL: I appreciate your help. Tim Naftali, Carl Bernstein, thank you both. The leading 2020 Democrats facing off, just a short time ago, how impeachment dominated the fifth debate for that. That's next.




HILL: On the same day, the E.U. ambassador implicated President Trump in a quid pro quo. The President himself declared victory in the impeachment hearings. Democratic presidential hopefuls all hoping to take his spot, weighing in just hours later, in the fifth Democratic presidential debate. Let's get a little perspective here from CNN political commentators, Alexandra Rojas, Bakari Sellers and Elaina Plott. Good to have you all back with us. As we look at what we heard tonight from these Democrats, obviously impeachment was going to be a focus, right there off the top, and so they started with questions about impeachment. Pete Buttigieg had this to say. Take a listen.


PETE BUTTIGIEG (D), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: The impeachable conduct that we have seen in the abuse of power, that we're learning more about in the investigations, but just to be clear, the President has already confessed to it on television.


HILL: The President, again, as we said -- he says, today was, you know -- I'm fine. When we look at this and that is the message that we're hearing from various candidates. There's also concern from the Bernie Sanders of the world, that President Trump cannot dominate their campaigning or it could take away from the end result. Alexandra, how do you work that balance at this point?

ALEXANDRA ROJAS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I mean, I think, you know, even though Pete made that comment there, a lot of what he's talked about, right, isn't just defeating Donald Trump, it's also the governing vision that comes after Donald Trump and, sort of, leading us out of that.

And I think that balance comes with, you know, talking about issues in solutions to some of the biggest crisis that we're facing, that are hitting Americans right at home. We'll also acknowledge this moment. So, looking at recent elections that we just had this past week where, for the first time, Democrats won since 1993 in Virginia.

If you look at a place like Kentucky, where Trump won by over 30 points in 2016, where Democrats are winning. Impeachment is not the, you know, thing that Democrats are running on there, but it's definitely something that's in the air and something that clearly Democrats want action on.

So, I think you have to balance this, sort of, governing vision for the future, big solutions, big ideas, that Bernie is promoting and that Pete is, sort of, trying to balance, aligning himself with, while also holding the President to account.

HILL: We can't ignore what is happening because, obviously, impeachment, very important, not just in terms of governing, but in terms of what's next and what they will see down the road.

[02:40:07] Bakari, we've got five senators here, vying for that Democratic nomination. If and when this moves into the Senate, we're told that they could be there for some time, and at the beginning of the year, we're talking Iowa, we're talking New Hampshire, very important moments. How do they balance -- I mean, how much planning -- you know, you support Kamala Harris, do you have a sense of how much they're considering what they'll need to do if they're in Washington and Pete Buttigieg is out there canvassing in Iowa?

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, that's going to be tough and we know Mitch McConnell plays hard ball, so I suspect Mitch McConnell will try to have all five of those United States senators in Washington D.C., as much as he possibly can. I mean, those senators are going to have to do their job and they're going to also have to campaign. I mean, there's no if, ands and buts about that.

I mean, I think one of the things that we have seen, though, is that, while impeachment is a big issue, as we saw, as Alexandra said, we saw just recently in Louisiana, we've seen in Virginia, we've seen in Kentucky, that there are some very tangible issues. Well, there are some very tangible issues that are -- that are winning the day. Democrats took over the House, based on health care.

But, there is a moment for all five of these senators, while they are jurors, and we've seen Kamala Harris, we've seen Cory Booker, take advantage of those moments during these hearings against Bill Barr, against Kavanaugh, Jeff Sessions, et cetera, et cetera. And so, there will be moments during this impeachment process, where someone may be able to have a break out moment.

The fact is, this race is completely fluid and with this impeachment going on, we don't know what's going to happen next. I firmly anticipate what is up today, maybe down tomorrow, in Iowa, and we'll see what happens between now and the next 70 (INAUDIBLE) 0240 01:45 days before we get to that primary.

HILL: Elaina, meantime, at the White House, the President, as you mentioned, saying earlier today, look, I won, it's over, things are good. I mean, what is -- what is the real sentiment at the White House? Because we also have our reporting that they were blindsided, many folks were blindsided by this testimony today from Gordon Sondland.

ELAINA PLOTT, CNN POLITICAL ANALYST: I certainly don't doubt that reporting, that White House aides were blindsided, but I do have to say, Erica, based on the multiple Senate Republican aides I spoke to today, many of whom work for members or senators, I should say, who I expected to be, in some way, moved by Ambassador Sondland's testimony, told me that they felt that today actually went far better than they expected it to.

Crucially, of course, that means I wasn't able through my reporting today, to identify a single senator who may be interested in convicting the President in the Senate, based on the ambassador's testimony today. And that's why, I think, you saw the dynamic play out at the beginning of the Democratic debate tonight, which is to say --

You know, the candidates didn't want to dwell on impeachment, you know. Of course, they did their due diligence, and from everyone, from Mayor Buttigieg to Senator Klobuchar saying, they do believe that the President has committed an impeachable offense, but we're pretty quick to transition into, you know, how that translates to their bigger vision for the country.

Elizabeth Warren, of course, went right into saying why Sondland was a perfect example of how money corrupts governance, and how it shouldn't be the case that you get to donate $1 million to an inauguration committee, and immediately get an ambassadorship.

So, I think that, sort of, quick transition to me signaled that, you know, the candidates on that stage are just as aware as Senate Republicans and Democrats, alike, that the tide hasn't shifted quite enough to where impeachment should dominate their waves.

HILL: Well, and as we also saw on this poling that we were just talking about a short time ago, the country is still split, but also, when people are asked, could they imagine changing where they're at now, for impeachment. The no on that is, I believe it was 65 percent of people saying that they can't imagine changing where their mind is, right now.

So, is it also -- I mean, in addition to the fact that, you know, as you -- there are -- not that impeachment is not important, but there are important issues that voters want to hear about, they want to hear about plans for health care, they want to hear, you know, about jobs, they want to hear about family leave, they want to hear about education. These are all important moments.

So, Alexandra, as candidates are balancing this, has there also been, sort of, a sense of a pullback in terms of talking about impeachment, because Democrats don't want to turn voters away?

ROJAS: Well, I mean, I think that we have to be really careful about this time, next year, if we don't do anything, which is the president of United States basically looking at Democrats and saying, hey, I did nothing wrong, right? They try to do something and we couldn't, and I know that could go both ways.

So, I definitely think it's not something that we want to put everything into, because there's so much more than just this. But, at the same time, like, it's not something that we can shy away from, especially since it's going to be referenced by the President, and we need to be able to hold him to account, so that he doesn't go around and say that later.


HILL: And Bakari, as you pointed out, you see Mitch McConnell could play hardball with this. The fact that it's not just the beginning of the year, but we don't really know the timing at this point.

We don't know exactly when things are going to wrap up in the House. We don't know what else could be coming along because it seems almost every day or every witness we learn about, it leads to a new thread. How much of that is a discussion behind the scenes? SELLERS: Well, I don't know how much of it is a discussion behind the scenes because the Republican Party has to weigh this. I mean, Donald Trump is like a human Keke Palmer meme. I mean, every time someone comes up and says -- and says something he doesn't like, it's I don't know this man, sorry to this man.


PLOTT: Sorry to this man.

SELLERS: It's like -- it's like, oh my God. Like you, you don't -- now, you don't know someone who donated a million dollars to you. It's embarrassing and laughable when Donald Trump has to go out and defend himself.

It's also equally as embarrassing when Jim Jordan and Devin Nunez have to go out and try to articulate reasons to kind of dial in this Hill. And so, Democrats do have that advantage. I think this wall-to-wall coverage of just the lunacy of this White House benefits the Democratic Party.

The flipside to that though is that you cannot let the messaging that wins elections be drowned out. Which is what all of these candidates are trying to balance. Which is what John Bel Edwards, balance. Which is what Andy Beshear, balance. Which is what Terry McAuliffe, when he was helping candidates in Virginia, balance. And which is what Attorney General Hood attempted to do in Mississippi, where he came up five points short.

And so, you have to find that balance. And I'm quite comfortable and believe in the Democratic Party will find that balance. And while Donald Trump is going out being a human meme, I think that, that the rest of the country is seeing him for what he is. And just wants the Democratic Party to acknowledge that there is a vision going forward and who's the best person to carry that banner?

HILL: Bakari, Elaina, Alexandra, great to have you all with us. Thank you.

PLOTT: Thank you, Erica. Thank you.

HILL: The impeachment is not only a search for answers. Some believe though, it is truly a test of loyalty among Republicans. Are GOP lawmakers putting country first or deference to the president?

I'll talk with Ron Brownstein about whether Gordon's Sondland's testimony changes the dynamic. Next.



HILL: Democrats got what they wanted on Wednesday, firsthand witness who could link the president to an impeachable offense, abuse of power. Republicans though aren't backing down, keeping up the president's defense. So, of course, the big question, where does this all lead? Let's bring in CNN senior political analyst Ron Brownstein. Ron, you know, I want to play something for you because what really stood out is what we heard from Lindsey Graham just a few weeks ago and that when we heard from Gordon Sondland today. Here are those two moments.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM (R-SC): Show me something that, that, that is a crime. If you could show me that -- you know, Trump actually was engaging a quid pro quo outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing.

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

Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election, DNC server, and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States --


HILL: And that last line really the key there. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States.


HILL: Do you think that's enough for Lindsey Graham?

BROWNSTEIN: No. And I think this is a very ominous moment for the country. Because the point of today is not that there was insufficient evidence to move Republicans. I mean, the evidence of today is that there is no evidence that can move Republicans.

And you see -- you know, what has been accumulated already and certainly today in the unequivocal testimony of Gordon Saondland about there being a quid pro quo, and that it being everyone in the loop is, would any prosecutor in the country have trouble proving this case?

I think, you know, one out -- one outcome of today is that it is now essentially guaranteed, if it wasn't already, that the House will impeach Donald Trump with perhaps, only three or four Democrats voting no, and it's still unclear whether any Republicans will vote other than Justin Amash who's left the party on this overwhelming evidence.

And I think what that says to me is that the Republican Party is basically saying, they are kind of withdrawing from the idea that there is one common set of rules that should apply at all times to all officials -- really to all Americans.

And that in essence as long as Donald Trump is in position to give us the power to do the things we want, there is almost nothing we will not accept. And Erica, I just had one last thing.

HILL: Yes.

BROWNSTEIN: This is not the last exit on this highway. If the president -- if you watch the president's inclinations, if he can get ultimately -- you know, survive this without any real indication that Republicans will not be locking arms around him in no matter what he does, do we think this is the last way in which he will push against the absolute boundaries of law and custom? I don't think anybody can look at the evidence to say that is the case.

HILL: You know, the argument is being made and especially by Republicans that this should be decided in November. This should be put to the American people. It should not be happening the way it's happening. Then, you know, this is one of the many lines we've heard from Republicans.

There have been no interesting outcomes that were not the way the Republicans wanted them to go as we know.


HILL: And very recently, not just in 2018. How much do you think they are -- honestly? Because we know that so much of the calculations for Democrats and Republicans alike is keeping their jobs. It is continuing to keep that job in Washington.


HILL: Based on what we have seen though in the most recent elections, do you think that is starting to come into play at all for Republicans.

BROWNSTEIN: Yes. First, of the first half of your question, you know, the one reason you can't leave this to 2020 is because this was designed to shape 2020 and to tilt the playing field in 2020.

And the second reason why it seems inappropriate to say just leave it to the voters is because of what I just said, which is that if you allow conduct this egregious, and I don't think there's any question now that there was a sustained campaign of pressure on a foreign government facing Russian aggression to investigate an American political rival.

If you allow this to go unsanctioned, what will come next? And I think that is a very legitimate question. Look, for Republicans, Republican elected officials face the reality that they are largely dependent on the same coalition as Donald Trump at this point.

There are very few House Republicans left from swinging districts. Only three who voted -- for districts that voted for Clinton, they are in his constituency, they are afraid to break from him. But also by not breaking from him, they make it easier for him to hold public opinion among Republicans.

HILL: Ron Brownstein, always good to talk to you. Thank you.

BROWNSTEIN: All right. HILL: And thanks to all of you for joining us. "EARLY START" with Christine Romans and Dave Briggs is next.