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Analysis after Gordon Sondland, Laura Cooper and David Hale's impeachment testimony

Ambassador Gordon Sondland, Defense Department official Laura Cooper and State Dept. official David Hale testified Wednesday about Trump and Ukraine.
Image: Day 4 of Impeachment hearings with Laura Cooper and Gordon Sondland
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

The fourth day of public hearings in the House's impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump saw testimony from three Trump administration officials.

Laura Cooper, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, and David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs, testified before the House Intelligence Committee at just before 6 p.m. ET Wednesday. Their appearance followed testimony from U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who appeared before the committee for a hearing that began more than eight hours earlier.

Trump impeachment highlights:

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Transcript of Trump's conversation with Ukrainian president

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Article II: Inside Impeachment — Blockbuster testimony

On the latest episode, Article II host Steve Kornacki talks to NBC White House correspondent Kelly O’Donnell about the bombshell testimony from U.S Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.

They discuss how Sondland's testimony implicated administration officials all the way up to President Donald Trump and the ways in which the ambassador's statements could shape the trajectory of the inquiry. That includes the questioning Thursday of David Holmes, a senior diplomat who overheard the July 26 phone call between Trump and Sondland.

Download the episode.

Nunes, Schiff wrap up hearing in competing styles

In a scornful closing statement, Nunes compared the inquiry to a game of “three card monte” and the hearings to an “inquisition” — although he noted that he felt that the victims of inquisitions had “more rights” than the witnesses testifying at the hearings.

He then took aim at what he said were the tactics of some House Democrats, suggesting they must have learned them in law schools that teach “if the facts and the law are against you, simply rig the game and hope your audience is too stupid to catch your duplicity.”

Schiff, smiling, replied, “I thank the gentleman, as always, for his remarks,” prompting laughter from the audience.

In his own closing remarks, Schiff delivered an almost professorial lecture on what he said was the difference between “corruption and anti-corruption,” explaining that Republicans have mixed up their definitions when it comes to how they’ve assessed Trump’s calls for Ukraine to launch investigations into the Bidens and a “conspiracy theory” into the 2016 election.

“That,” Schiff said, “is not anti-corruption. That is corruption.”

Cooper suggests Trump admin didn’t follow legal mechanisms for hold on Ukraine aid

Rebecca Shabadis in Washington, D.C.

Cooper suggested in testimony that the administration didn't follow what she believes are the legal mechanisms to put a hold on already appropriated aid.

During an exchange with Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, Cooper said that Congress was notified of the aid to Ukraine, through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, and then there was a waiting period before it became available around mid-June. 

But on July 18, the Office of Management and Budget announced that the U.S. would freeze the aid to Ukraine. Cooper said that during a July 26 meeting, her superiors at the Pentagon raised the question of how the president’s guidance could be implemented. These officials, she said, suggested that a reprogramming action might be the best option to execute the decision, but more research would be required. 

After that meeting, Cooper said that there a discussion on July 31 at her level in which she expressed that it was “my understanding” that there were two ways to stop the dissemination of funds to Ukraine. 

Either the president could propose a recission, Cooper said, or a reprogramming request could be done by the Defense Department. Cooper confirmed that both options would require providing notice to Congress. 

“There was no such notice, to my knowledge, or preparation of a notice, to my knowledge,” Cooper said. 

The aid ultimately was released by the administration on Sept. 11.

An hour of hearing remains

Alex Moe

There are fewer than 10 members left to ask questions of Cooper and Hale, which means this hearing should wrap in about an hour barring any breaks. Nunes and Schiff can make closing remarks after the five-minute member round ends.

Quigley notes State and DoD haven't complied with subpoenas to hand over docs

Alex Moe

Rep. Quigley pointed out during his questioning that the Defense and State departments have not complied with subpoenas issued by the House Intel, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees for documents as part of the impeachment inquiry, so the committee doesn’t have the emails Cooper referenced tonight.

Carolyn Maloney chosen as first woman to lead House Oversight panel

Associated Press

Veteran New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney was elected Wednesday to lead the powerful House Oversight and Reform Committee, the first woman to hold the job in the panel’s 92-year history.

Maloney defeated Virginia Rep. Gerry Connolly by a 133-86 vote in a secret ballot among the full Democratic caucus. She succeeds Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, who died last month.

As Oversight chief, Maloney, 73, will play a key role in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump.

The committee has a broad portfolio, including oversight of the Trump administration’s handling of the census and immigration matters, as well as investigations into Trump’s business dealings and security clearances granted to White House officials.

Read the story.

It happens. Rep. Ratcliffe says aid has been frozen to Lebanon, Pakistan, other countries

Rebecca Shabadis in Washington, D.C.

Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, argued Wednesday that the U.S. occasionally withholds security assistance from foreign countries for a variety of reasons. 

Ratcliffe said that Hale had characterized in his previous testimony during a closed-door deposition that it’s a "normal" occurrence. 

"It is certainly an occurrence. It does occur," Hale confirmed Wednesday. 

Ratcliffe then listed a number of countries whose aid the U.S. froze over the last year and asked Hale to confirm or elaborate about those cases.

Hale said, for example, that U.S. aid to Pakistan was withheld "because of unhappiness over policies and (the) behavior of the Pakistani government toward certain proxy groups in conflicts with the U.S."

He also said that aid has been withheld over the last year from three countries in northern Central America, including Honduras. Lastly, U.S. aid to Lebanon has been and still is being withheld for reasons that are unknown, Hale said. 

Ratcliffe was attempting to normalize what occurred in Ukraine in which the Office of Management and Budget halted the U.S. assistance on July 18 and released it again on Sept. 11. A number of key witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, however, have testified that the release of the aid was contingent on Ukraine announcing investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 presidential election. 

During further questioning by Schiff, Hale agreed that it would be unusual and inappropriate to withhold aid in exchange for some conditionality.

State Department contradicts Sondland, says he has 'full access' to his records

The State Department is disputing Sondland’s sworn testimony from Wednesday morning that he could not access records, such as emails, relevant to the impeachment inquiry. 

“Ambassador Sondland, like every current Department of State employee called before Congress in this matter, retained at all times, and continues to retain, full access to his State Department documentary records and his State Department e-mail account, which he has always been fully free to access and review at will,” a State Department official said Wednesday evening. 

But that is not what Sondland said just a few hours earlier. 

“I have not had access to all of my phone records," Sondland said in his opening statement. "State Department emails, and other State Department documents. And I was told I could not work with my EU Staff to pull together the relevant files. Having access to the State Department materials would have been very helpful to me in trying to reconstruct with whom I spoke and met, when, and what was said.” 

At Wednesday's impeachment second hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, asked Undersecretary of State David Hale to respond to the State Department’s comment, asking if that sounded like standard department policy.

“I hadn't seen it until shortly before entering this hearing room, but it sounds accurate, yes,” Hale said.

Timing of Ukraine's knowledge of hold is a key point, journos note

Cooper says Ukrainians were aware of hold on July 25, contradicting GOP

Cooper, in a straightforward opening statement that focused almost entirely on procedure, explained how and when she became aware of the hold on the military aid to Ukraine. 

But in an addendum to her prepared statement, she explained that she’s learned of the existence of multiple emails that had been sent to her office (but that she hadn’t received) pertaining to questions she had been asked during her October deposition about whether she knew if the Ukrainians had known about the hold or had asked any questions about it. 

Cooper said that her staff later showed her two unclassified emails from the State Department. Both were sent two hours apart on the afternoon of July 25. The first, Cooper said, showed that the Ukrainian Embassy was “asking about the security assistance,” and the second suggested that “Hill knows about the [aid freeze] situation.”

Cooper said that a third email, on July 3, from the State Department, showed that the “CN [congressional notification] was being blocked from OMB [White House Office of Management and Budget].”

Schiff, a moment later, asked Cooper whether her sharing the existence of those emails meant that the Ukrainians “knew there was something going on with” the aid.

“Yes, sir,” she replied.

This means that Cooper is saying the Ukrainians were, in fact, aware of the aid hold on the same day as the well-documented July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy. This contradicts the argument by Republicans, including Trump, that the Ukrainians had no idea of the hold this early — meaning, according to that argument, that there could not have been a quid pro quo.

Hale, unlike all previous public inquiry witnesses, did not deliver an opening statement.

Hale and Cooper are sworn in before their testimony

Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Laura Cooper, right, and Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale are sworn in before their testimony before the House Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry on Capitol Hill on Nov. 20, 2019.Olivier Douliery / AFP - Getty Images

Nunes plays the greatest hits

Nunes, in his opening statement, hit on many of the same topics he’s mentioned in his past opening statements in the previous hearings.

He said that Democrats “accused us” of trying to out the whistleblower during the hearings on Tuesday, “even though they claim they don’t even know who it is.”

He also accused Democrats of “sparing” Hunter Biden from under-oath questioning and alleged that they have employed “petty tricks” in the hearings.

“What exactly are the Democrats impeaching the president for?” he said in closing.

“None of us here actually know,” he added.

Schiff opens second public hearing of the day

Schiff, in his opening statement of the second of two hearings of the day, summarized the case House Democrats are building in their impeachment inquiry and explained how the testimony of the next two witnesses, Laura Cooper, the top Pentagon official overseeing U.S. policy regarding Ukraine, and David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs, plays into it.

“Cooper, along with others, learned about the freeze” in a series of interagency meetings in July, Schiff explained.

Hale, he said, “was witness to the smear campaign against Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and the efforts by some in the State Department to help her.”

And Sondland made his flight back to Brussels...he'd been worried about that during his lengthy testimony and the ambassador's lawyer expressed his concern to Schiff about it as the appearance dragged on more than six and a half hours...But here Sondland is at the airport, on his way...

Cooper arrives for testimony before House Intel

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Laura Cooper arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019.Julio Cortez / AP

Schiff gavels in second hearing with Cooper, Hale

Alex Moe

Chairman Adam Schiff gaveled in the second impeachment inquiry hearing of the day with Hale and Cooper at roughly 5:40 p.m. We expect opening statements from the chair and ranking member followed by the witnesses and then to go right into five-minute member questions. A roughly 2.5 hour hearing is expected. 

Format changed for upcoming impeachment witnesses, cutting length of hearing

Alex Moe

The hearing format has been revamped for the testimony this evening of Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense, and David Hale, undersecretary of state for political affairs.

There will be no extended question round for the Intelligence Committee chairman and the ranking Republican members, or their staff lawyers. That means following opening statements, the hearing will move straight to lawmakers' questions.

The hearing is therefore likely to run about 2.5 to 3 hours, not the more than 6.5 hours like the earlier Sondland session.     

The Michigan lawmaker left the GOP in July, remaining in Congress as an independent.

Prior to that decision, he was the first congressional Republican to conclude that Trump had engaged in "impeachable conduct" after viewing the findings of special counsel Robert Mueller's report on Russian interference in the 2016 election.  

Sondland says all the president's men focused on Biden probe

Gordon Sondland flipped on President Donald Trump — and all the president's men — Wednesday.

"We followed the president's orders," he told lawmakers at the House impeachment inquiry hearing.

The U.S. ambassador to the European Union described in detail how Trump and several of his top lieutenants — including personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former National Security Adviser John Bolton, Secretary of Energy Rick Perry and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney — were all "in the loop" on a policy that increasingly focused on securing the announcement of investigations affecting American politics.

Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee are pushing to gather enough evidence to justify an article of impeachment involving bribery, and they believe Sondland's testimony moved them further in that direction.

But even short of that, he provided a mountain of fresh details about the breadth and depth of the administration's focus on using the powers of the executive branch for what they say are partisan political purposes — justification, perhaps, for articles based on "high crimes and misdemeanors."

Read the full analysis.

Pence, Pompeo and Perry say Sondland should refresh his memory again

Sondland doesn’t know what he’s talking about, representatives for Pence, Pompeo and Perry all asserted Wednesday after the ambassador tied each of the three men closer to Trump’s push to have Ukraine investigate the Bidens and a debunked conspiracy theory about the 2016 election and Democrats.

Sondland testified Wednesday that Pence and Pompeo were “in the loop” on Trump and Giuliani’s efforts regarding the Ukrainian probes. Sondland said he worked with Giuliani "at the express direction of the president," whose demands amounted to a "quid pro quo."

"They knew what we were doing and why," Sondland said. The ambassador testified that he discussed the investigation into Burisma — which he claims he did not at the time connect to the Bidens — with Pence before the vice president met with Zelenskiy on Sept. 1. Sondland said he told Pence "before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations."

Regarding Pompeo, Sondland said that as late as Sept. 24, Pompeo had directed Volker to speak with Giuliani. And he testified that he updated Perry, one of the “three amigos” — along with Sondland and Volker — that a meeting between Zelenskiy and Trump was dependent on the announcement of those investigations. Sondland added that Perry and Volker “did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani,” but were playing “the hand we were dealt.”

Administration responds

All three of their offices pushed back on Sondland's testimony.

Pence’s chief of staff, Marc Short, said in a statement that Pence “never” had such a conversation with Sondland “about investigating the Bidens, Burisma, or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations” and that the two were never alone during the Sept. 1 trip to Poland.

“This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened,” Short said.

State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said Sondland “never told” Pompeo he believed Trump “was linking aid to investigations of political opponents.”

“Any suggestion to the contrary is flat out false,” she added.

And Energy Department press secretary Shaylyn Hynes said Sondland “misrepresented” Perry’s interactions with Giuliani and the “direction” Perry got from Trump.

“As previously stated, Secretary Perry spoke to Rudy Giuliani only once at the president’s request,” Hynes said. “No one else was on that call. At no point before, during or after that phone call did the words ‘Biden’ or ‘Burisma’ ever come up in the presence of Secretary Perry.”

In Wednesday’s hearing, Turner pressed Sondland on whether anyone explicitly told him that nearly $400 million in military aid was tied to the political investigations. Sondland replied no one had made that  connection explicit.

Sondland hearing ends after nearly 7 hours

Closing statements from Nunes and Schiff have brought Wednesday's first public hearing to an end — nearly seven hours after it was gaveled in.

Nunes thanked Sondland for “indulging” his committee’s questions and pointed to Sondland’s response in his original deposition that Trump on a September phone call had told him, “I want nothing,” as proof that there was no quid pro quo.

Schiff, in his closing remarks, said Sondland’s testimony was “deeply significant and troubling,” calling it a “seminal moment in our investigation.”

He wrapped up his lengthy remarks by saying he felt that no blame lay with any of the witnesses — and that their testimony all points to only “one person” being responsible.

“Donald J. Trump, president of the United States,” Schiff said.

“The president was the one who decided whether a meeting would happen, whether the aid would be lifted — not anyone who worked for him,” he said.

State Dept. denies Sondland told Pompeo that aid was tied to investigations

“Gordon Sondland never told Secretary Pompeo that he believed the president was linking aid to investigations of political opponents," State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said Wednesday. "Any suggestion to the contrary is flat-out false.” 

During Sondland’s opening statement this morning, he testified that Pompeo had direct knowledge of the alleged efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens and the 2016 election.

Sondland also gave the House committee emails between him and Pompeo and a top aide to the secretary of state that suggest a quid pro quo might have occurred.

Sondland said he had only one ‘formal’ meeting with Mulvaney. That doesn’t square with Fiona Hill’s testimony.

Rebecca Shabadis in Washington, D.C.

Sondland said Wednesday that he had only one “formal” meeting with acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who multiple impeachment witnesses testified coordinated an alleged quid pro quo effort that involved the dangling of a White House meeting in exchange for investigations desired by Trump. 

Sondland said that that formal meeting with Mulvaney wasn’t about Ukraine. That claim doesn’t line up, however, with testimony from the former Russia adviser on the National Security Council, Fiona Hill, who answered lawmakers’ questions behind closed doors in the impeachment inquiry in mid-October. 

“Sondland said repeatedly he was meeting with chief of staff Mulvaney,” Hill told lawmakers on the three congressional committees conducting the inquiry. 

Asked how she knew that, Hill said, “because I know that from Mulvaney’s staff.” 

Hill added that people who worked for then-national security adviser John Bolton “could see Gordon Sondland going into Mulvaney’s office. The guards could see Ambassador Sondland going into Mulvaney’s office.” 

Hill testified behind closed doors that she had a “very good relationship” with Sondland in the beginning, but then she “had a blow-up with him” in June of this year when Sondland told Hill that he was in charge of Ukraine policy — adding it was a decision made by Trump.

Mulvaney suggested during a press conference in October that there was a quid pro quo, suggesting to reporters in the White House briefing room that Trump had held up U.S. military assistance to Ukraine in order to get it to investigate a conspiracy theory involving Ukraine influencing the 2016 presidential election.

Hayes: The big problem with GOP's focus on Hunter Biden

Maloney, Sondland spar as hearing nears end

Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., went after Sondland hard in his questioning, criticizing him for how long it took him to be completely forthright.

Maloney pushed Sondland to answer the question of who would benefit from Ukraine investigating the Bidens. After several attempts to avoid answering — and amid constant pushing from Maloney — Sondland finally said the answer was that Trump would benefit.

“Didn’t hurt a bit!” Maloney exclaimed, sarcastically congratulating the witness for his ultimate response.

Sondland, apparently taking offense, said he resented Maloney’s reaction, adding he’d spent hours testifying, both privately and publicly, and had been “forthright” today.

Maloney — referring to the fact that Sondland had to correct his closed-door testimony and that he provided new information today only after several other witnesses contradicted his prior testimonies — hit back with a curt reply.

“Let’s be really clear on what it took to get that out of you,” he said.

Watch: Top moments from Sondland testimony at impeachment hearing

OPINION: Hearings reveal extent of damage Trump's inflicted on our national security

Brett Bruen

We are in real danger. There are certainly many conclusions to be drawn from the recent days of detailed testimony by officials on the National Security Council and at the State Department in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. But beyond the political points scored and the possibility of removing a president, there's an even more unsettling feeling that I can’t shake. These hearings have laid bare just how crippled the staff, systems and structures designed to protect our country really are.

This troubling state of insecurity ought to jolt even the most jaded member of Congress into sitting up straight and starting to think about how to straighten it out really fast. But instead of trying to address the damage to our defenses, Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting the inquiry, opt to exacerbate matters. They are trying to use this broken system to discredit and undermine the witnesses who are testifying to Trump’s bad behavior.

Repeatedly, these members of Congress have asked the public servants testifying — who have information about Trump allegedly pressuring Ukraine into investigating a major political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son in exchange for aid and a White House visit — whether they themselves had ever met the president. The implication they hope will be drawn from their answers that they never once met him is that these individuals lack the stature and direct knowledge to be credible. 

Read the full piece.

Twitter compares and contrasts photo of a poised Sondland

This dramatic shot of Sondland giving testimony quickly went viral online, where Twitter users incorporated it into existing memes and contrasted it with similar photos.

Image: Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland during his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 20, 2019.
Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland during his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 20, 2019.Matt McClain / The Washington Post via Getty Images

10 members left for questioning

Alex Moe

There are 10 House Intel members left to question Sondland during the member round. Nunes and then Schiff can give closing remarks after all members are done. So we are looking at roughly another 50 to 60 minutes of this first hearing of the day. 

GOP focuses on Sondland's 'presumption' to discredit his testimony

Republicans are focusing on Sondland's “presumption” as a line of attack against his testimony.

Rep. Mike Turner repeatedly asked Sondland if anyone explicitly told him that Trump “tied the investigation to the aid,” suggesting that if “everyone was in the loop,” as Sondland testified, the directive would have been acknowledged out loud at some point.  

“I have said repeatedly, congressman, that I was presuming,” Sondland responded.

“No one on this planet told you that Donald Trump was tying this aid to the investigation? ... Yes or no?” Turner continued, telling Sondland he did not have any actual evidence. 

“Yes,” Sondland acknowledged. 

Republicans on the dais looked visibly pleased with his response; even Nunes had a smile on his face. 

GOP Rep. Brad Wenstrup picked up on this line of argument, saying that presumptions do not “equal” facts. 

Schiff then jumped in and pointed out that a quid pro quo does not need to be explicitly stated for it to occur. It's not like Trump was going to say, “Ambassador Sondland, I am telling you I'm not going to give the aid unless they do this,” Schiff argued.

Laughter at the hearing as Trump is rated 'five Pinnochios'

Speier got a round of applause and laughs from the audience after a back-and-forth with Conaway ended with her saying Trump gets "five Pinocchios on a daily basis."

Speier and Conaway had been speaking about a Washington Post fact check that gave three Pinnochios to the Democratic claim that the whistleblower has a statutory right to anonymity. The Post said the "argument that whistleblower-protection laws implicitly provide anonymity is more nuanced, and debatable, than what Schiff said in a nationally televised hearing," although it noted that Trump's director of national intelligence and intelligence community inspector general said the whistleblower followed the law and should stay anonymous.

After Speier read a section detailing why the whistleblower remaining anonymous is good practice, Conaway cut her off, highlighting that The Post said "three Pinocchios."

"The president of the United States has five Pinocchios on a daily basis," Speier responded. "So let's not go there."

Some in the audience began laughing and clapping.

Sondland clarifies how many times he and Trump have spoken

6 things we learned from Gordon Sondland's impeachment testimony so far

Sondland, a key figure in Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, shared new — and sometimes shocking — pieces of information in testimony Wednesday. After five hours before the House Intelligence Committee, he's not out of the witness chair yet.

Here are six things we learned from his public appearance so far.

'Thank God': Putin thrilled U.S. 'political battles' over Ukraine is taking focus off Russia

Associated Press

Russian President Vladimir Putin says he’s pleased that the “political battles” in Washington have put accusations that Russia interfered in U.S. elections on the back burner.

"Thank God,” he told an economic forum in the Russian capital on Wednesday, “no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore; now they’re accusing Ukraine."

Some Republicans have used the public hearings to tout a discredited conspiracy theory that blames Ukraine, not Russia, for interfering in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Jordan goes off on Sondland

Jordan railed against Sondland, yelling at the ambassador for not having included in his lengthy opening statement details from a Sept. 9 phone call with Trump on which Trump said there was “no quid pro quo.”

“Why didn’t you put that statement in your opening statement?” Jordan demanded to know. 

“Couldn’t fit in a 23-page opener?” he added.

“The most important statement about the subject matter at hand? The president of the United States in a direct conversation with you … says… ‘I want nothing, I want no quid pro quo.’”

“You can’t find the time to fit that in a 23-page opening statement?” Jordan yelled.

Sondland looked on, smiling, and then, bemused. He said the omission “wasn’t purposeful.”

Trump claims Sondland testimony exonerates him: 'It's all over'

Trump claimed Wednesday that testimony Sondland gave in the House impeachment inquiry, exonerated him, saying that "it's all over."

Addressing reporters as Sondland publicly testified in front of the House Intelligence Committee, Trump recounted a conversation he had with the ambassador and claimed that, "I just noticed one thing and I would say that means it's all over."

"'What do you want from Ukraine,' he asks me," Trump said, holding a notebook and papers, appearing to read from a part of Sondland’s testimony. "'What do you want from Ukraine? I keep hearing all these different ideas and theories.' This is Ambassador Sondland speaking to me, just happened, to which I turned off the television."

"And now here’s my response that he gave. Ready? Do you have the cameras rolling? ‘I want nothing. That’s what I want from Ukraine.'" Trump said, continuing to read from his notes. "I said it twice."

Read the full story.

Melber: Thin line between Sondland as witness, co-conspirator

Trump, White House scramble to respond to Sondland 'quid pro quo' testimony

President Donald Trump and his allies were left scrambling Wednesday morning after impeachment inquiry testimony by U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland dealt a blow to the argument at the heart of the White House's defense.

Sondland allegedthat a White House visit by Ukraine's president had indeed been linked to the announcement of political investigations into Trump political rival Joe Biden and his son, an apparent contradiction of his assessment in an earlier closed-door deposition the White House has repeatedly cited.

The claim sent the president’s defenders racing to revise talking points that have depended on a “no quid pro quo” defense, said Trump allies outside the White House, delivering a significant setback to Republican pushback.

President Trump himself seized on Sondland's recollection of a September phone conversation between the two men, re-enacting the conversation for reporters on the South Lawn of the White House Wednesday as the hearing continued. "I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelenskiy to do the right thing," the president said he told the ambassador then.

Read the full story.

Giuliani criticizes GOP counsel

McFaul: Sondland's assertion that he did not connect Burisma, Biden is 'insulting to our intelligence'

Pompeo says he has not seen Sondland’s testimony

Secretary of State Mike Pomeo dodged a question about Sondland’s testimony from a reporter at a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday 

“I didn’t see a single thing today, I was working,” Pomepo said when asked for comment on today’s hearing. “I was in meetings all day and haven't had a chance to see any of that testimony.”

During his hearing, Sondland testified that Pompeo was aware of the efforts in Ukraine and was more deeply involved than previously known. 

Pompeo, who usually does not answer shouted questions from reporters, ignored additional questions on Wednesday related to Sondland’s testimony.

Johnson: 'This is a slow motion explosion'

House Intel members begin question round

Alex Moe

The break has concluded. The House Intelligence Committee is now beginning the five-minute member round of questions. The committee has 22 members, so this should take about two hours, barring any other breaks. At this point, the afternoon hearing is going to be delayed from the planned 2:30 p.m. start time. It's unclear when that will start. 

Chuck Todd: Sondland testimony 'cements impeachment' for Democrats

Photographer captures Trump's handwritten talking points responding to Sondland

The president brought his own talking points, written out by hand, possibly with one of those Sharpies he's known to prefer.

President Donald Trump, departing the White House on his way to Texas to visit an Apple factory, stopped in front of reporters to defend himself amid testimony by the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, by reading from handwritten notes insisting he did not want a "quid pro quo."

Image: President Donald Trump holds notes on Ambassador Gordon Sondland's testimony as he departs the White House on Nov. 20, 2019.
President Donald Trump holds notes on Ambassador Gordon Sondland's testimony as he departs the White House on Nov. 20, 2019.Erin Scott / Reuters

Trump began reading notes of what he says he spoke about during an early September phone call with Sondland, who was trying to figure out whether roughly $400 million in military aid was being linked to investigations into the Bidens.

At least some of Trump's talking points were captured by a Reuters photographer outside the White House.

"I want nothing/I want nothing/I want no quid pro quo/Tell Zellinsky (sic) to do the right thing," Trump's notes show, apparently referring to testimony from Sondland that that was the president's response when asked what he wanted from Ukraine.

Read the story.

Members to start questioning after a brief break

Alex Moe

The second staff round of staff questions has concluded. Schiff just announced a brief break — 30 minutes — from the Sondland hearing. When the committee returns, the five-minute member round will begin. 

Katyal: Sondland further confirmed there was a quid pro quo

Now it's Dems who've left the hearing room

Alex Moe

Several Republicans have now returned to the hearing room, but many Democrats have left. Just Schiff, Speier, Demings and Krishnamoorthi, plus Goldman, are here now. (Members are permitted to come and go from hearings as they wish.) 

Wallace: Sondland has the body language of a liberated man with nothing to lose

White House: Trump, on Sondland call, ‘wanted nothing’ from Ukraine

“Ambassador Sondland’s testimony made clear that in one of the few brief phone calls he had with President Trump, the president clearly stated that he ‘wanted nothing’ from Ukraine and repeated ‘no quid pro quo' over and over again," White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Wednesday in response to the ambassador's testimony.

"In fact, no quid pro quo ever occurred. The U.S. aid to Ukraine flowed, no investigation was launched, and President Trump has met and spoken with President Zelenskiy. Democrats keep chasing ghosts.” 

Nunes says Democrats have ‘Watergate fantasies’

Rebecca Shabadis in Washington, D.C.

Nunes suggested during his second round of questioning that Democrats are trying to make the impeachment inquiry into Trump as significant as Watergate. 

Democrats have “Watergate fantasies,” he said. 

“I guess they fantasize this at night,” he added.

In fact, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said last week that Trump’s actions in Ukraine makes what happened during Watergate “look small.”

Sondland being careful to not get 'knocked with perjury'

Giuliani accuses Sondland of 'speculating'

Giuliani later deleted this tweet, which others had captured.

Most Republicans have left the room

As we work our way through this second round of staff questions, almost all the Republicans have left the hearing room.

Still present: Castor, Jordan, Ratcliffe and Stefanik. 

Everyone else has left. 


Sondland's 6 most important lines during impeachment testimony

Sondland delivered explosive testimony in the House impeachment inquiry Wednesday. Here are some of his best lines:

1. "I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a 'quid pro quo'? With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes."

2. "We followed the president's orders.”

3. "Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret" — on how Pence, Pompeo, Bolton and others were aware of his efforts in Ukraine.

Read the best lines.

GOP calls Sondland’s testimony unreliable because of lack of documents. They're blocked by State and WH.

Rebecca Shabadis in Washington, D.C.

Republicans tried to use Sondland’s lack of documents and records to their advantage, suggesting his recollection of events is simply just “speculation.” 

“You don’t have records,” Castor said. “This is the trifecta of unreliability.” 

Sondland made clear in his lengthy opening statement that the State Department and White House have blocked his access to relevant documents and communication logs pertaining to his work on Ukraine. 

“What I’m trying to do today is to use the limited information” I have, said Sondland, who added that his recollections have been “refreshed by subsequent testimony” and text messages to which he does have access. 

“A lot of it is speculation,” Castor shot back. “A lot of it is your guess.” 

Castor said that the evidence for an impeachment inquiry “ought to be pretty darn good” and pointed out that while other impeachment witnesses have taken meticulous notes, Sondland said in his opening statement that he is not a note-taker. 

Sondland, however, defended his testimony, saying that the only presumption he has made was regarding the link between the withheld aid to Ukraine and the demand for Ukraine to announce investigations. He suggested the text messages he has, on the other hand, are definitive and reliable. 

Trump reads his Sondland hearing notes to press, underscores ‘I want no quid pro quo’

Schiff allows second round of staff questions

Alex Moe

Schiff announced there will be a second round of staff questions for Sondland. Democrats and Republicans will each get an additional 30 minutes for staff questions, but each side does not have to use the entire allotted time. After this round concludes, we expect to begin the five-minute round for member questions. 

Image: President Trump Departs White House En Route To Austin, Texas
President Donald Trump holds his notes while speaking to the media before departing from the White House on November 20, 2019.Mark Wilson / Getty Images

‘I was shocked,’ Sondland says about claim he was involved in ‘drug deal’ with Ukraine

Rebecca Shabadis in Washington, D.C.

During an exchange with GOP counsel Stephen Castor, Sondland was asked what his reaction was when he heard about earlier closed-door testimony from another key witness that former national security adviser John Bolton said Sondland was involved in a “drug deal” with Ukraine. 

“I was shocked,” Sondland testified Wednesday. 

Castor was referring to testimony by former Russia adviser on the National Security Council, Fiona Hill, who said after a July 10 meeting with Sondland, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, other U.S. officials and Ukrainians, that Sondland was pushing the investigations. 

Hill then said Bolton told her to report what she had seen and heard to NSC counsel John Eisenberg.

“Go and tell Eisenberg that I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this,” Bolton said, according to Hill’s testimony. 

The Nunes moment that has Twitter meming

The moment of the hearing so far — aside from the various bombshells dropped by Sondland — is Nunes’ reaction going into the first break.

As Schiff called the break, Nunes sneaked a look at Stephen Castor, the staff attorney for the GOP at the impeachment hearings. 

It’s already getting remixed.

Rebecca Shabadis in Washington, D.C.

Pence disputes Sondland testimony that he knew about concerns over delayed aid

NBC News

Pence's office responded to Sondland's assertion that he told the vice president about concerns that aid to Ukraine had been frozen because of investigations of the Bidens and the 2016 election sought by the Trump administration:

"The Vice President never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations," a statement from the VP's chief of staff, Marc Short, said.  

"Ambassador Gordon Sondland was never alone with Vice President Pence on the September 1 trip to Poland.  This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened. Multiple witnesses have testified under oath that Vice President Pence never raised Hunter Biden, former Vice President Joe Biden, Crowdstrike, Burisma, or investigations in any conversation with Ukrainians or President Zelensky before, during, or after the September 1 meeting in Poland."

Image: Mike Pence
Mike Pence speaks on the future of the US relationship with China at the Wilson Center's inaugural Frederic V. Malek Public Service Leadership lecture, in Washington, on Oct. 24, 2019.Nichola Kamm / AFP - Getty Images

Sondland says he's a ‘proud’ amigo; Volker, not so much

Nunes used part of his questioning to ask Sondland if he was part of the “three amigos” — a nickname for the alleged shadow policy team in Ukraine of Sondland, Perry and Volker.

“I’m a proud member of the three amigos,” Volker replied, smiling.

Nunes responded, “and that’s the same thing Ambassador Volker said yesterday.”

Actually, it’s not.

Volker, in fact, said, “I never used that term — and frankly cringe when I hear it.”

“For me, the ‘three amigos’ will always refer to Sen. John McCain, Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Sen. Lindsey Graham, in reference to their work to support the surge in Iraq,” Volker said Tuesday.

Volker added that he was “never aware” of “any designation by Trump or anyone else” putting himself, Sondland or Perry “or the three of us as a group in charge of Ukraine policy.”

Schiff calls Sondland testimony: 'Very important moment' in impeachment inquiry

Sondland: Trump and Giuliani wanted Ukraine to announce, not actually do, the probes

In a key moment of his testimony on Wednesday, Sondland said that, as he understood it, Zelenskiy simply had to announce the probes into Burisma and the debunked conspiracy into Democrats and the 2016 election — not actually do them.

“He didn't actually have to do them, as I understood it,” Sondland said, noting that Zelenskiy simply had to announce them “in some form” publicly.

Sondland said Giuliani and the president at no point made clear they were interested in the progression of those investigation, just that they wanted to see them announced.

That makes it seem clear that the interest in announcing the probes would be to have a cloud of scandal hang over Biden and others, not to weed out corruption in Ukraine.

And on Tuesday, Vindman testified that his anticorruption talking points were ignored by Trump in his initial April call with Zelenskiy, implying that corruption was not a concern for Trump until he became invested in pushing investigations. Plus, as Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, noted last week in questioning witnesses, the Trump administration did not place any hold on aid the prior two years. That signals the Trump administration only recently became concerned with corruption — a longstanding problem in Ukraine.

Sondland, Volker try to convince investigators they had no idea Burisma and Biden were linked for months

Sondland and Volker have made a somewhat unconvincing argument that they did not come to know that “Burisma” was shorthand for an investigation into the Bidens.

Asked about embassy official David Holmes’ testimony that, after a July 26 phone call between Sondland and Trump, Sondland said the president only cared about “big stuff” like the Biden probe, Sondland said he didn’t think he would’ve made the connection to Biden then, instead saying Burisma, because he did not know the two were linked.

Trump, meanwhile, was talking specifically about Biden on his call with Zelenskiy the day before. And, the connection between Burisma and Biden, whose son Hunter sat on the company’s board, was made explicitly clear in numerous media reports in the beginning of May — before, according to Sondland, the efforts to have Ukraine announce the probes began.

Meanwhile, Volker on Tuesday said he now understood Burisma to mean the Bidens. But he also testified that he knew, while the investigation push was ongoing, that Hunter had sat on the board of the Ukrainian gas company.

“So this smart guy, along with Volker, never connected Burisma with Bidens until they saw readout of Trump’s call?” former Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., an NBC News and MSNBC analyst, tweeted. “Simply not believable. Period.”

NBC News

What Sondland came to believe about the 'quid pro quo' over military aid

Goldman is pressing Sondland again over whether military aid to Ukraine was conditioned on the launching of the investigations desired by the White House — and whether such a directive came directly from Trump.

"The aid was my own personal guess," Sondland said.

He added, "My testimony is I never heard from President Trump that aid was conditioned on announcement" of the investigations into Burisma/the Bidens and the 2016 election.

But a moment later, Sondland said that "by Sept. 8, I was absolutely convinced it was."

Goldman then asked whether Sondland, by Sept. 9, understood that Trump, "either himself or through his agents required" that Zelenskiy make a public announcement "into the two investigations that President Trump cared about in order to get both the White House meeting and to release the security assistance."

"I believe that is correct," Sondland said.

Earlier in the questioning, Sondland had said only that it was his "personal presumption" that the military assistance to Ukraine was being withheld pending an announcement by Zelenskiy to open investigations.

Goldman points out direct line between Sondland and Trump

Goldman, in emphasizing that Sondland had a direct line to Trump, appears to be pointing out that Sondland’s account could be the clearest yet about what Trump desired when it came to the launching of investigations into Burisma and the 2016 election.

“You had direct access to President Trump, yes?” Goldman asked.

Sondland replied that he does when Trump “decides” to take his calls.

“He certainly took your call twice as it related to Ukraine,” Goldman said.

Sondland nodded affirmatively.

Trump, Sondland communicate in 'four-letter words'

Goldman is pressing Sondland on a July 26 call he held with Trump that was overheard by Holmes.

As Sondland said in his opening statement, he repeated that he was not going to dispute what Holmes "did or didn’t hear."

Goldman pointed out that one thing Holmes testified that he had overheard was Sondland telling Trump that Zelenskiy "loves your ass."

Sondland replied, smiling, "That's how Trump and I communicate … a lot of four-letter words."

"In this case, three letters," he added.

Sondland said he thought release of military aid was contingent on investigation announcement

Rebecca Shabadis in Washington, D.C.

During an exchange with Schiff, Sondland said he ultimately thought the military assistance to Ukraine was being withheld pending an announcement by Zelenskiy to open the sought-after investigations.

“That was my presumption — my personal presumption, based on the facts at the time. Nothing was moving,” Sondland said, referring to the frozen security assistance. 

Asked again whether the release of the nearly $400 million in military aid was contingent on the investigations announcement, Sondland replied, “That was my belief.” 

Meet the two seasoned staff prosecutors now in impeachment spotlight

Dartunorro Clark

Dartunorro Clark and Dareh Gregorian

The fast-moving impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump's efforts to get Ukraine to investigate his political rivals is not only putting the partisanship on the House Intelligence Committee on full display, it's also catapulting the lead lawyers for both parties into the national spotlight.

Daniel Goldman is the Democrats' lead counsel and Steve Castor represents the Republicans. Both lawyers have extensive experience in Washington and in the courtroom and led the questioning of the closed-door depositions of witnesses in the inquiry. Both will have 45 minutes to grill witnesses on behalf of their respective sides as the inquiry moves forward.

Read the full story.

Lawmakers read along with Sondland, with the exception of Nunes

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Both Democratic and Republican members appeared to be reading along as Sondland read his statement. The exclusion was Nunes who was mostly looking straight ahead and sometimes talking to his counsel, Castor, sitting to his left. Castor was following along the opening statement. You could see him flipping through the packet when it's time to turn a page.

Schiff emphasizing key points made by Sondland

Schiff is using his questions, presumably, to bring attention to key points from Sondland’s opening statement. 

Schiff referred to the “quid pro quo” mentioned by Sondland involving a White House meeting for Zelenskiy in exchange for the launching of investigations by Ukraine into Burisma and the 2016 election.

Schiff also mentioned Sondland’s statement that Mulvaney, Pompeo and others were all aware of these conditions.

“Correct,” Sondland replied each time.

Sondland failed to bring up his call with Trump during deposition. He confirmed it today.

Rebecca Shabadis in Washington, D.C.

Sondland confirmed Wednesday that he did speak with Trump by phone at a restaurant in Kyiv the day after the Trump-Zelenskiy phone call. 

This was a key admission; he did not mention this phone call during his closed-door deposition on Oct. 17, when he appeared under subpoena. 

“I spoke by phone with President Trump. The White House, which has finally shared certain call dates and times with my attorneys, confirms this,” Sondland said Wednesday. 

Sondland said that the phone call lasted five minutes and he recalled that he was at a restaurant. Responding to the testimony by David Holmes, a foreign service officer at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, about that phone call, which Holmes said he overheard, Sondland said, “I have no reason to doubt that this conversation included the subject of investigations.”

“Other witnesses have recently shared their recollection of overhearing this call. For the most part, I have no reason to doubt their accounts,” Sondland added.

Sondland said he can’t remember precise details of the conversation — which occurred during a lunch attended by Holmes and two other State Department staffers — and that the White House “has not allowed me to see any readouts of that call.” 

This comes after Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, testified last week and revealed information regarding this phone call for the first time, after Holmes had told him about it during the week prior. 

Holmes testified about this phone call in a closed-door deposition Friday and will testify about it publicly on Thursday. 

FBI seeks to interview the whistleblower

The FBI has asked to interview the CIA whistleblower whose complaint touched off the Ukraine impeachment investigation, a source directly familiar with the matter told NBC News.

The whistleblower has not yet agreed to an interview, the source said.

The FBI request was first reported by Yahoo News, which said that some FBI officials were disturbed that the Justice Department declined to investigate the whistleblower's complaint after a criminal referral was sent over from the inspector general of the intelligence community.

Read the story.

Is Trump watching the Sondland testimony?

Hallie Jackson

Where's the president this morning, and is he watching the impeachment hearing?

"He has calls and meetings as always, but I'm sure he will catch some of it in between," said White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham. "And of course he departs here in about an hour to head to Texas."

Trump is traveling to Austin for a visit to the Apple plant there.

Image:  Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland takes his seat to testify before a House Intelligence Committee on Nov. 20, 2019.
The ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, takes his seat to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Sondland reads opening statement

Sondland is reading his explosive opening statement word for word. 

Nunes: Sondland here 'to be smeared'

Rebecca Shabadis in Washington, D.C.

Ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., bashed Democrats and their inquiry in his opening statement, calling it another day "of this circus.” 

Nunes accused Democrats of “exploiting the Intelligence Committee” and said that “no conspiracy theory is too outlandish for the Democrats.”

“You have to give them points for selling this absurdity as an impeachment offense,” Nunes said. 

Nunes also said that Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was testifying at the hearing “to be smeared” — not addressing any of the issues raised in Sondland's opening statement.

Nunes added that Republicans -- who don’t have the power to issue subpoenas -- requested that Democrats subpoena Hunter Biden and the whistleblower for closed-door depositions.

Lawmakers give initial reactions to Sondland's blockbuster testimony

Leigh Ann Caldwell

Rep. Denny Heck, D-Wash., told me he read Sondland’s statement and that it’s good “anytime more of the truth comes out.”

“Kaboom,” he added.

Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., told NBC News congressional reporter Alex Moe that as he skimmed his opening just now his eyes “kept getting wider and wider.”

Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., said she’s trying “to focus on the substance.” 

Pompeo ignores questions about Sondland testimony tying him to Ukraine deal

Abigail Williams

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is in Brussels for a NATO meeting, on Wednesday ignored reporters' questions about whether Ambassador Gordon Sondland kept him in the loop about efforts to do a "quid pro quo" deal with Ukraine.

Pompeo rarely responds to questions at photo-ops.

Schiff opens with summary of case he’s building

Schiff is using his opening statement to summarize the broader case that House Democrats are attempting to build and is highlighting Sondland’s fresh testimony. 

Referring to Sondland’s prior testimony, he called the ongoing saga “a continuum," adding that it “became more insidious over time.”

Sondland is sworn in

Image: Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on Nov. 20, 2019.
Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland is sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on Nov. 20, 2019.Andrew Harnik / AP

Schiff gavels in hearing

Alex Moe

House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff gaveled in the fifth impeachment inquiry hearing, with the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, at roughly 9:09 a.m. ET. At this point, we do not know of any planned breaks during this first of two hearings today. We expect the Sondland hearing to conclude between 1:30 and 2 p.m. ET

Read Sondland's explosive opening statement