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Transcript: The Witnesses: Gordon Sondland

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, The Witnesses: Gordon Sondland.
Image:  Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland takes his seat to testify before a House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 20, 2019.
Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland takes his seat to testify before a House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 20, 2019.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters


Article II: Inside Impeachment

Bonus: The Witnesses: Gordon Sondland

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Wednesday, November 20th, and here's what's happening. (MUSIC)

Archival Recording: Mr. Sondland, will you tell the truth today? Mr. Sondland, will you tell the truth? Did you act on your own, Mr. Sondland?

Kornacki: European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland came to Congress today for his highly anticipated testimony in the impeachment inquiry.

Gordon Sondland: 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 were playing the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose a very important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the president's orders.

Kornacki: So far, Sondland is the only person we've heard from who spoke directly to President Trump about the issues at the center of the probe. He had already revised his testimony, and today we learned even more.

Sondland: Precisely because we did not think that we were engaging in improper behavior, we made every effort to ensure that the relevant decision-makers at the National Security Council and the State Department knew the important details of our efforts. The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false.

Kornacki: Today on Article II, we're talking about this dramatic turn of events. The first witness to implicate multiple administration officials going all the way up to the president himself. And we're asking, could Sondland's testimony change the course of the inquiry? Kelly O'Donnell is White House correspondent for NBC News. She has been following every twist and turn of this saga. Kelly, thank you for joining us. Appreciate it.

Kelly O'Donnell: Great to be with you, Steve, and what a time to be following this closely.

Kornacki: Boy, you're telling me. So today, I guess by definition there's no ordinary days in an impeachment inquiry, but today before we even heard from Gordon Sondland today, the anticipation for this testimony, in particular for his testimony, was very high. Why was Gordon Sondland's testimony today so crucial and so anticipated?

O'Donnell: Gordon Sondland is someone who crosses some intersections we haven't seen before. Gordon Sondland is arguably a friend or at a minimum, an acquaintance of the president, a donor to the president, gave $1 million to the Inaugural Committee in order to be a part of Trump world, if you will. And that led to his appointment to be the European Union Ambassador.

That's different than some of the key witnesses we've heard from before who said they've never had any interaction with the president. So in some ways, Gordon Sondland is that connection point. A person who had had numerous conversations with President Trump personally and directly. And at the same time, he was a part of what some have described as the three amigos in terms of the policy work on behalf of the United States with Ukraine. And so he is at the heart of not only a relationship with the president, knowledge of what the president is thinking or saying, and he is on the front lines interacting with Ukraine and its leaders to try to figure out how to move the U.S. policy forward. And that makes him a compelling, interesting witness. He was in the right places with the right knowledge, and he's turned out to be quite consequential.

Kornacki: So let's get into why he was so consequential. Let's start with the opening statement. He laid out what he wanted to say in extensive opening statement this morning. You had folks calling this a bombshell, a series of bombshells. In terms of this idea whether there was a quid pro quo, what was he saying in this opening statement about that?

O'Donnell: Well, so important to remember that President Trump has in many ways had his, if I can call it this, his alibi witness, Gordon Sondland. Because in his previous testimony, he said there was no quid pro quo, no this for that. Well, that all ended today.

Sondland: Mr. Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo, arranging a White House visit for President Zelenskiy. 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, and we knew these investigations were important to the president.

O'Donnell: Gordon Sondland says that now everyone was in the loop that there was a condition placed on two things. Gordon Sondland went from being maybe the best friend the president had in terms of no quid pro quo, to now saying, "Well, everybody knew there was one." That is a huge change, a big flip.

Kornacki: So he says, "Everyone knew." The idea that all these folks in the administration had knowledge of a quid pro quo. Who specifically was he implicating there? And what was the evidence he was presenting to back that up?

O'Donnell: Gordon Sondland was telling the committee that he was instructed by the president to work with Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer. And that the direction from Giuliani was about the need for these conditions. At the same time, he also says that Secretary Pompeo was aware. He says that Vice President Mike Pence was aware. He says that Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff was aware.

Sondland: We kept the leadership of the State Department and the NSC informed of our activities. They knew what we were doing and why.

O'Donnell: Gordon Sondland is saying that he was a part of the State Department, kind of the heart of this foreign policy negotiating. He was interfacing with the president's personal lawyer, and from time to time was talking to the president. And he said he also understood over time, he didn't know initially that Burisma could become as I described it, code for the Bidens. He just wasn't that familiar with it. Now he's citing hindsight and saying that, it became very clear to everyone involved that the military aid would not flow, that a White House visit would not happen unless there was an announcement.

And he notably said an announcement, not actually a carrying out of an investigation, but an announcement of an investigation by Ukraine's president and leadership into 2016 interference, the Burisma company where Hunter Biden, the former vice president's son, was a paid board member.

Kornacki: Then there's the question of Trump himself and his relationship with Gordon Sondland, their interactions on this. Sondland saying all of this coming from Trump ultimately, that the Democratic lawyer who got to question him, Daniel Goldman, zeroed in at one point on a phone call July 26th that the president had with Gordon Sondland. What did that phone call say about the Trump-Sondland relationship? And what specifically, when Sondland is pointing his finger at Trump, what specifically is he saying about Trump's role in this?

O'Donnell: Well, the interesting thing about Gordon Sondland when it comes to the president is, he talks about their sort of informal, almost locker room style relationship in the way they spoke about things.

Daniel Goldman: You confirmed to President Trump that you were in Ukraine at the time, and that President Zelenskiy quote, "loves your ass," unquote. Do you recall saying that?

Sondland: Yeah, it sounds like something I would say. (LAUGHTER) That's how President Trump and I communicate, a lot of four-letter words, in this case three-letter.

Archival Recording: Holmes then said that he heard President Trump (AUDIO FADES OUT).

O'Donnell: And he was also clear that the president never said to him directly, there should be these conditions on Ukraine getting what it wants, which was the White House meeting and obviously the military aid. But by going at the president's direction to work with Rudy Giuliani, Sondland interpreted that to mean that that was the way the president was communicating that to him. And we heard a lot today this sort of (OVERTALK) a two plus two equals four.

Goldman: Is this kind of a two plus two equals four conclusion that you reached?

Sondland: Pretty much.

Goldman: It's the only logical conclusion to you that, given all of these factors, that the aid was also a part of this quid pro quo?

Sondland: Yup.

Kornacki: The fact that he is pointing his finger at Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, is there now a likelihood, a possibility that any of them will be called as part of this impeachment inquiry?

O'Donnell: Well, there is certainly greater pressure for them to account for this. And what we've already seen are initial statements where the vice president's chief of staff has said, "There was no discussion in his meetings with Ambassador Sondland of any quid pro quo in this way, no conversation about that."

So the chief of staff to the vice president is denying it. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who happens to be traveling in Brussels, he said that he had not watched any of the testimony, wouldn't comment on the testimony, but also would not recuse himself from some of the decisions related to the state department production of documents and so forth.

And then, of course, by implication, if you've got all of these different figures who are now a different part of the narrative, it could change the pressure on them to speak about what they know. Where that's hardest, of course, is with Rudy Giuliani himself, because he is the president's lawyer, and there are privilege claims that he can maintain.

The acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, you know, will also argue that his counsel to the president is something that would fall under privilege, but those things are to be battled out perhaps in court or with pressure. We've seen very clearly the administration does not want to have these key figures testify. That's also part of why someone like Gordon Sondland is so notable, because he is there and is telling his story and raising lots of questions. (MUSIC)

Kornacki: We're gonna take a quick pause, and we'll be right back. We want to look at this from the standpoint of Republicans and how they responded to this. Listening I thought today to the Republican lawyer, Steven Castor, who I think was more assertive, maybe more aggressive today, when he got 45 minutes of questioning than we've heard and seen from him in the past.

One point he seemed to be pressing with Sondland that Sondland had created one implication behind closed doors about what the president said when it came to Rudy Giuliani, and something else today in his public testimony. And specifically what Castor was hitting at was, he said that, "When Sondland had testified behind closed doors, he made it sound like Trump had dismissively said to talk to Rudy Giuliani."

Sondland: Well, when the president says, "Talk to my personal attorney." And then Mr. Giuliani as his personal attorney makes certain requests or demands, we assume it's coming from the president. I don't, I'm not testifying that I heard the president tell Mr. Giuliani to tell us, so if that's your question.

Steven Castor: Right, but in your deposition, you said the question was at the May 23rd meeting when the president said, "Go talk to Rudy," you responded, he didn't even say, "Go talk," he said, "Talk to Rudy." You subsequently said, "It was sorta, like, I don't want to talk about this."

Kornacki: It seemed that there was sort of an interpretive element of this that Republicans were trying to get at.

O'Donnell: And I think that's part of what the public hearings can do is, they bring to life and animate aspects of the narrative here. And you can't always control exactly how that's going to go. And I think Gordon Sondland was in some ways an unpredictable witness.

I think that he today in his live, if I can call it that, live action, on-television testimony made it sound in some ways like the president was giving himself a little buffer by saying, "Talk to my personal lawyer." And if the message is delivered by the personal lawyer, then the president's got some deniability there.

What you were sort of hinting at from the closed door deposition was a more offhanded, "Hey, I'm not that involved, talk to Rudy." There's a hugely different implication of those two things, from the offhanded to the directed. And it's really hard to get a sense of where Gordon Sondland falls in this, so much so that Republicans at one point said, "Are you a friend of the president?"

Archival Recording: Is Donald Trump your friend?

Sondland: No, we're not friends.

Archival Recording: Okay. Do you like the president?

Sondland: Yes.

Archival Recording: Okay. Well, you know, after you testified, Chairman Schiff ran out and gave a press conference and said, he gets to impeach the president of the United States because of your testimony. And if you pull up CNN today, right now their banner says, "Sondland ties Trump to withholding aid."

O'Donnell: They even warned him, if you will, if I can use that word, that the way it was playing outside the hearing room was that Gordon Sondland was sort of the impeachment best witness so far. And they were trying to sort of say to him, "Do you realize what you've said here?"

Archival Recording: Is that your testimony today, Ambassador Sondland, that you have evidence that Donald Trump tied the investigation to the aid? 'Cause I don't think you're saying that.

Sondland: I've said repeatedly, Congressman, I was presuming. I also said that, President Trump (OVERTALK).

O'Donnell: Even suggesting he might have made up or elaborated a bit on his testimony. And then they went through a more methodical, what exactly did the president say, what exactly did Rudy Giuliani say? And that's where Republicans tried to wrestle that back, after the Democrats had had several good hours.

Kornacki: If the suggestion here that Republicans perhaps are trying to advance is that this was something Giuliani was pushing much more than Trump himself, that would put Giuliani in a potentially awkward position. What has he been saying today? I know he's been active on Twitter today. How has he been responding to this?

O'Donnell: Well, one of the things he has taken umbrage with is the Republican lawyer that you just referenced who is working on behalf of the committee suggesting that Giuliani has business interests in Ukraine. He says he has not. And that he was really critical of the Republican lawyer for the way he has conducted the questioning.

And so Giuliani might be out on a bit of a branch on his own. He's obviously representing the president and can't talk about that. But was certainly put in a potentially, you could almost sense the being out on a plank kind of motif today, where wow, they're really sort of describing Giuliani as being the mastermind of this. He is pushing back.

But the president, of course, is ultimately here at the center of all this. And we heard from him, where he came out on the South Lawn as he was heading to a scheduled trip to Austin, Texas, with handwritten notes, big Sharpie-type ink, saying that, "He never wanted anything from Ukraine. He only wanted Zelenskiy to do the right thing." And a forceful defense from the president, almost in tweet style in live action.

Kornacki: On the Republican side of the committee, did you see solidarity? Did you sense any cracks, any potential cracks? What was your sense of that?

O'Donnell: Since no cracks in terms of any Republicans changing their view about the president's ultimate culpability here, didn't get that sense. In fact, if anything, there was a bit of a franticness in trying to pull back Gordon Sondland and remind him of some of his statements. And to suggest to him that presumptions that he was testifying about might not be helpful in this context.

Whereas, Democrats were happy to exploit those presumptions, because they sensed that there was this awareness over time that built within Sondland of what the larger picture was. And, in fact, Adam Schiff came back and said, "You wouldn't expect the president to say, 'I'm going to ask you to help me commit bribery.'"

Adam Schiff: My colleagues seem to be under the impression that unless the president spoke the words "Ambassador Sondland, I am bribing the Ukrainian president," that there's no evidence of bribery. If he didn't say, "Ambassador Sondland, I'm telling you (THROAT CLEARING) I'm not gonna give the aid unless they do this," that there's no evidence of a quid pro quo on military aid.

O'Donnell: Almost as if, of course, it would not be black and white, in plain sight, that in fact, the sense of the ambassador, his experience day to day and over time was, in fact, valuable. That where he sort of landed today in saying that everyone was in the loop, everybody knew, was ultimately from Democrats' point of view a believable, credible account. And Republicans were saying, "No, no, no, you've gotta be precise here, and the president never told you, Ambassador Sondland, did he?"

Archival Recording: No one on this planet told you that President Trump was tying aid to investigations. Yes or no?

Sondland: Yes.

Archival Recording: So you really have no testimony today that ties President Trump to a scheme to withhold aid from Ukraine in exchange for these investigations.

Sondland: Other than my own presumption.

Archival Recording: Which is nothing.

O'Donnell: Ambassador Sondland says, no, he never did. He never conditioned the aid or anything related to the aid to the announcement from Ukrainian's president to have an investigation that still has not happened.

Kornacki: Democrats think they have a breakthrough here. They think this was a breakthrough moment. What will they do next?

O'Donnell: Well, I think building on Gordon Sondland allows them to then say, this went deeper and farther into the administration than might have otherwise been known. And we'll also hear from a witness who's testified behind closed doors and who will be public.

And that is a person who was having lunch with Gordon Sondland, David Holmes, who overheard a phone call between the president and Ambassador Sondland the day after the do-me-a-favor phone call between President Trump and President Zelenskiy.

So hearing David Holmes' testimony may be very impactful as people try to get a sense of, was Sondland in the loop correctly on this? Is his account right, or is David Holmes who is an observer, is he right? So it is piece by piece, a building block game for Democrats trying to assemble as many of these witnesses to fill out a picture, and for Republicans, it's all about a wall around the president, that if he didn't give the direction, then that's enough to say, there's no impeachable offense. (MUSIC)

Kornacki: Kelly O'Donnell, NBC White House correspondent. A very suspenseful, dramatic day there on Capitol Hill. Thank you for helping to explain some of it to us. Appreciate it.

O'Donnell: My pleasure. What a day to remember, Steve.

Kornacki: Two more people are testifying in front of Congress tonight, Laura Cooper, a top official at the Pentagon, and David Hale, the third highest-ranking official in the State Department. And tomorrow, we'll hear from the last two witnesses scheduled for open testimony. They are Fiona Hill, the former Russia and Ukraine expert at the National Security Council, and as Kelly was just mentioning, David Holmes, the State Department staffer who overheard the phone call between Sondland and Trump.

Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Thursday.