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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.

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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.

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

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.

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

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.