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Democrats debate, Sondland's bombshell testimony, and Prince Andrew steps away from royal duties: The Morning Rundown

"Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret," Amb. Gordon Sondland said about the Ukraine pressure campaign during his opening statement.
Democratic presidential hopefuls participate in the fifth Democratic primary debate co-hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post in Atlanta on Wednesday. Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

Good morning, NBC News readers.

The Democrats came out swinging last night in the wake of Amb. Gordon Sondland's bombshell testimony. Next up, the former White House official Fiona Hill will take the impeachment hearing hot seat this morning.

Here's what we're watching today.

Democrats debate their vision for a post-Trump world

With the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump flashing like a bright light in the backdrop, the 2020 Democratic candidates traded barbs last night in their fifth primary debate co-hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the politician who got hit most often — nearly twice as much as the entire field combined — was Trump, NBC News' Shannon Pettypiece writes in an analysis.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg escaped largely unscathed after it was expected he'd draw heavy fire as the newly minted front-runner. The only candidate who tried to lay a glove on him was Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, and Buttigieg came back swinging. (Video)

Meantime, former Vice President Joe Biden stumbled with gaffes on women,marijuana and race. (Video)

So, who won the night? We take a look at who held their ground, who made a bid to break out from the pack, and whose presidential hopes may be on the ropes.

And how truthful were the candidates? Check out The Washington Post's fact checker.

Or if you want to relive the fun, check out our live blog from last night to see how the night unfolded.

"We followed the president’s orders," says Sondland

In the most highly anticipated hearing of the House Democrats' impeachment inquiry so far, Gordon Sondland directly implicated Trump and his closest advisers in the Ukraine quid pro quo.

The U.S. ambassador to the European Union described in detail how Trump, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and other top administration officials were all "in the loop" on a campaign to pressure Ukraine to announce investigations in exchange for the release of nearly $400 million in U.S. aid and a White House visit.

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

Read Sondland's explosive opening statement.

Here are some of the key things we learned from Sondland's nearly seven hours of testimony. As well as from Laura Cooper and David Hale, who also testified yesterday afternoon.

Sondland did not accuse the president of bribery — but implicated Trump and several of his closest advisers put personal political interests ahead of the country's, NBC News' Jonathan Allen writes in an analysis.

Meantime, Sondland's bombshell testimony left Trump and his allies scrambling to come up with a response.

Trump tried to distance himself from Sondland, saying he "is not a man I know well," despite the fact that the GOP mega-donor gave $1 million to the president's inaugural committee and the ambassador said they spoke probably 20 times.

Today we'll hear from Fiona Hill, the former White House official who oversaw Russia and Europe policy during key moments in the Ukraine timeline.

Watch her testimony starting at 9 a.m. ET on MSNBC, NBC and

And follow our live blog for updates and analysis throughout the day.

Prince Andrew steps away from public duties over Epstein ties

Britain's Prince Andrew announced Wednesday that he is stepping away from public duties because of the controversy surrounding his past friendship with accused sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein.

The Duke of York's announcement comes days after he discussed his relationship with the late, disgraced financier in a BBC Newsnight interview that was widely panned and only served to heighten public attention to the matter.

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THINK about it

The GOP’s attempt to discredit circumstantial evidence against Trump is legally absurd, lawyer Teri Kanefield writes in an opinion piece.


Looking for gifts that suit folks who work a lot (bordering on too much)? We have 16 gift ideas for every workaholic you know and love.

Quote of the day

"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."

Gordon Sondland's opening statement to House impeachment investigators, page 4.

One fun thing

After an unbearable departure — and a 16-hour flight from Washington, D.C. — Bei Bei has made it to his new home.

The charismatic 4-year-old panda cub was taken to a quarantine enclosure at China’s giant panda research center at Ya’an, in Sichaun province.

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Thanks, Petra