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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:

Trump impeachment explained.

Trump impeachment timeline.

Who are the attorneys questioning the witnesses?

Transcript of Trump's conversation with Ukrainian president

Download the NBC News mobile app for the latest news on the impeachment inquiry

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

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.

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

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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

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

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

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.

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?

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'

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

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

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

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

Sondland arrives for testimony before House Intel

Image: Gordon Sondland
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, center, arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on Nov. 20, 2019.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Sondland testimony targets Trump, Pompeo and confirms deal with Ukraine

Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the E.U., is pointing the finger at President Donald Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former national security adviser John Bolton in explosive public testimony on Wednesday in which he says explicitly that there was a "quid quo pro" linking a White House visit by Ukraine's president to investigations into a political opponent of the president.

Under fire from all sides after multiple witnesses contradicted his earlier deposition, Sondland blames everyone but himself for the pressure campaign on Ukraine now driving impeachment proceedings against Trump. He plans to show up for his televised hearing with reams of new text messages and emails he said prove the highest levels of the White House and the State Department were in on it.

"They knew what we were doing and why," Sondland plans to tell the House Intelligence Committee, according to his opening statement obtained by NBC News. "Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret." 

He says he knows House members have asked "was there a quid pro quo," adding that when to comes to the White House meeting sought by Ukraine's leader, "The answer is yes."

Read the full story here.

Get ready for a huge day in American politics

If you thought the political news was already intense, dizzying and historic, brace yourself for what’s happening today.

Beginning at 9 a.m. ET on Capitol Hill, Amb. to the European Union Gordon Sondland testifies in the impeachment probe — the most highly anticipated public hearing yet in the proceedings. Then, at 2:30 pm ET, Laura Cooper of the Defense Department and David Hale of the State Department have their turns before the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry.

And at 9 p.m. ET from Atlanta, 10 Democratic presidential candidates — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Pete Buttigieg, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang, Amy Klobuchar, Tulsi Gabbard, Cory Booker and Tom Steyer – participate in the fifth round of Dem debates, this one hosted by MSNBC and the Washington Post.

Phew.

Sondland’s testimony is significant because it comes after the State Department’s David Holmes revealed behind closed-door testimony that he overheard a phone conversation between the E.U. ambassador and President Trump, in which the two men discussed “the investigation” — ostensibly into Joe Biden.

Get the rest of First Read's take.

Trump tweets praise of Ohio rep. for one question in particular

Where things stand so far in the impeachment inquiry, by the numbers

House Democrats are quickly racking up testimony from the many witnesses in their impeachment inquiry. Here's where things stand so far:

  • 38 subpoenas issued (1 withdrawn).
  • Four public hearings.
  • About 20 hours of public testimony from seven witnesses. 
  • 15 closed-door depositions; two closed-door transcribed interviews.
  • More than 120 hours of testimony behind closed doors with 17 witnesses. 

ANALYSIS: Witnesses take a toll on Trump's impeachment defenses

They both wore the uniforms of their country during congressional testimony, but Alexander Vindman struck the reverse image of Oliver North.

Thirty-two years ago, North — then a Marine lieutenant colonel on the National Security Council staff — testified before Congress about his role in defying Congress to deliver aid to Nicaraguan rebels. On Tuesday, Vindman, currently an Army lieutenant colonel on the National Security Council staff, told House impeachment investigators that it was "improper" for President Donald Trump to "demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent."

Had Vindman stood alone — under attack as he was from Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and other allies of the president — he would have made for a compelling accuser. But later in the day, his conclusion was supported by two witnesses — former special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and former National Security Council staffer and longtime GOP Hill aide Tim Morrison — who said that it was not "appropriate" for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate an American citizen, particularly one, former Vice President Joe Biden, who is a political rival of the president.

In the end, Vindman was just the most riveting of four witnesses who delivered testimony that was deeply damaging to Trump's remaining defenses against allegations that he was personally involved in pushing for an arms-for-investigations deal.

Read the full analysis.

10 things we learned from a marathon day of impeachment testimony

Over a jam-packed, nearly 12-hour stretch on Tuesday, four key figures at the center of the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry testified publicly before the House Intelligence Committee.

First, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, a special adviser on Europe and Russia to Vice President Mike Pence — who both listened in on the July 25 call between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskiy — said that call gave them cause for concern, while Vindman faced repeated personal attacks by Republicans on the committee.

Next, Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine who resigned after his name appeared in the whistleblower complaint about Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, made a significant revision to his testimony, and Tim Morrison, a former National Security Council staffer, expressed worry about ties between military aid to Ukraine and the opening of investigations that would be politically advantageous to Trump.

Here are our 10 takeaways from today's public hearings.