Three key witnesses testify in impeachment inquiry

By Meg Wagner, Veronica Rocha, Amanda Wills, Mike Hayes and Fernando Alfonso III, CNN

Updated 8:04 p.m. ET, November 20, 2019
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10:41 a.m. ET, November 20, 2019

Sondland confirms he said Trump only cares about the "big stuff"

Alex Brandon/AP
Alex Brandon/AP

EU ambassador Gordon Sondland was asked by Chairman Adam Schiff about testimony from diplomat staffer David Holmes that Sondland told him that Trump only cares about "big stuff."

Schiff asked Sondland if he disputes Holmes' testimony that Trump "only cares about big stuff that relates to him personally."

Sondland said he didn't dispute Holmes' recollection of this conversation.

More context: Last week, Holmes testified in a closed-door deposition that he overheard a July 26 call between Trump and Sondland where they discussed investigations in Ukraine. Sondland confirmed this call with Trump during his testimony today. According to Holmes, after Sondland got off the phone with Trump he told Holmes that the President doesn't care about Ukraine and only cares about "big stuff" that relates to Trump personally.

Watch the moment:

10:42 a.m. ET, November 20, 2019

Sondland: The investigation request went from "vanilla" to specific

Andrew Harnik/AP
Andrew Harnik/AP

US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland said at first, there was a "very generic" request for an investigation into Ukraine corruption — but it got more specific over time.

House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff asked Sondland about the "continuum of insidiousness" he previously testified about.

"In your deposition, you testified that you found yourself on a continuum that became more insidious over time. Can you describe what you mean by this continuum of insidiousness?" Schiff asked.

Here's how he responded: 

"Well, Mr. Chairman, when we left the oval office I believe on May 23rd, the request was very generic for an investigation of corruption in a very vanilla sense and dealing with some of the oligarch problems in Ukraine, which were long-standing problems. And then as time went on, more specific items got added to the menu — including the Burisma and 2016 election meddling, specifically, the DNC server, specifically — and over this, over this continuum, it became more and more difficult to secure the White House meeting, because more conditions were being placed on the White House meeting."

Watch more:

10:23 a.m. ET, November 20, 2019

President Trump is watching Sondland testify

From CNN's Jim Acosta

Doug Mills/Pool via AP
Doug Mills/Pool via AP

President Trump is watching Ambassador Gordon Sondland's testimony, according to a White House official.

The President is traveling today and won’t see all of it, so the official says Trump will be briefed on the testimony by staff later today.

10:18 a.m. ET, November 20, 2019

Sondland: "Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret"

Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union, told lawmakers that he had discussed the investigation in a July 19 email sent to several top US officials. This came days before President Trump's call with the Ukrainian leader.

Here's who was on the email, according to Sondland:

  • Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
  • Energy Secretary Rick Perry
  • Perry's acting chief of staff
  • Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney
  • Mulvaney's senior adviser and one other person

"Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret. Everyone was informed via email on July 19, days before the presidential call," Sondland said.

"As I communicated to the team, I told President Zelensky in advance that assurances to 'run a fully transparent investigation' and 'turn over every stone' were necessary in his call with President Trump," he said.

Here what he said was in the email:

“I talked to Zelensky just now… He is prepared to receive Potus’ call. Will assure him that he intends to run a fully transparent investigation and will ‘turn over every stone’. He would greatly appreciate a call prior to Sunday so that he can put out some media about a ‘friendly and productive call’ (no details) prior to Ukraine election on Sunday.”

He said Mulvaney responded: “I asked NSC to set it up for tomorrow.”


10:12 a.m. ET, November 20, 2019

Vice President Pence left the DC area just minutes after Sondland started testifying

From CNN's Betsy Klein

Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP/Getty Images

Vice President Mike Pence is getting far away from Washington. It's his latest effort to distance himself from the impeachment inquiry as US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testifies that he raised concerns with him about freezing security aid to Ukraine.

Pence took off on Air Force Two from Joint Base Andrews minutes after Sondland’s testimony began. 

What he's doing today: He is due to land in Green Bay, Wisconsin, around 11 a.m. ET. He will tour the USS Cooperstown and deliver remarks at Fincantieri Marinette Marine. Pence then travels to his native Indianapolis, where he’ll deliver remarks at the Strada Education Network's National Symposium, returning to Washington later in the evening.

The challenge for Pence throughout the impeachment inquiry, as it's always been in the administration, is balancing the need to appear loyal to Trump with staying clear of the President's countless controversies. 

The plan to protect him, according to sources close to the vice president, has been to get him on the road. Pence has traveled frequently in the weeks since the House launched its investigation, from touting the administration's US-Mexico-Canada trade agreement to meeting Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.

10:09 a.m. ET, November 20, 2019

Sondland ties Trump, Pence and Pompeo to Ukraine pressure campaign

Susan Walsh/AP
Susan Walsh/AP

US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland's opening statement explicitly tied President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to the campaign to put pressure on Ukraine to investigate the Bidens.

Here's what Sondland said about each, according to a copy of his prepared remarks:

  • Trump: "Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the President of the United States. We did not want to work with Mr. Giuliani. Simply put, we played the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose an important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine. So we followed the President's orders."
  • Pence: "I mentioned to Vice President Pence before the meetings with the Ukrainians that I had concerns that the delay in aid had become tied to the issue of investigations ... During the actual meeting, President Zelensky raised the issue of security assistance directly with Vice President Pence. The Vice President said he would speak to President Trump about it."
  • Pompeo: "Even as late as September 24, Secretary Pompeo was directing Kurt Volker to speak with Rudy Giuliani. In a WhatsApp message, Kurt Volker told me in part: 'Spoke w Rudy per guidance from S.' S means the Secretary of State."
10:22 a.m. ET, November 20, 2019

Sondland brings up troubling WhatsApp texts involving Giuliani and Pompeo

Andrew Harnik/AP
Andrew Harnik/AP

In his opening statement, EU ambassador talked about WhatsApp conversations that he had with other officials that concerned Rudy Giuliani's dealing with corrupt former Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko. Those conversations also involved Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's directions to US diplomats to continue to deal with Giuliani on Ukraine.

Sondland said he and top diplomat Kurt Volker discussed Giuliani's manuevers in the July exchange on WhatsApp.

Sondland wrote:

"Just had a meeting with Andriy and Vadym," referring to Ukraine Foreign Minister Vadym Pristaiko. Taylor said the Ukrainians were, quote: "Very concerned about what Lutsenko told them — that, according to RG" — meaning Rudy Giuliani — "the ZE- POTUS meeting will not happen."

Volker responded:

"Good grief. Please tell Vadym to let the official USG representatives speak for the U.S. [L]utsenko has his own self-interest here."

Sondland said "three things" were critical about this WhatsApp exchange:

"First, while the Ukrainians were in Washington at the White House, Mr. Guiliani had been communicating with Ukrainians without our knowledge. Ambassador Taylor, Ambassador Volker, and I were all surprised by this. Second, Mr. Giuliani was communicating with the reportedly corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor Lutsenko and discussing whether a Zelensky-Trump meeting was going to happen, again without our knowledge. And third, with this alarming news, Ambassador Taylor briefed Ulrich Brechbuehl, who is the Counselor to Secretary of State Pompeo. Even as late as September 24, Secretary Pompeo was directing Kurt Volker to speak with Rudy Giuliani."

On Pompeo, Sondland added: "In a WhatsApp message, Kurt Volker told me in part: 'Spoke w Rudy per guidance from S.' S means the Secretary of State."

Watch Sondland read the messages:

10:15 a.m. ET, November 20, 2019

Sondland on his infamous call with Trump: I knew the investigations were important to him

Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

In his opening statement, EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland described his July 26 call with Trump — which took place one day after Trump's call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky where Trump raised the topic of investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden.

"The call lasted five minutes. I remember I was at a restaurant in Kiev, and I have no reason to doubt that this conversation included the subject of investigations," Sondland said.

He continued: "Again, given Mr. Giuliani's demand that President Zelensky make a public statement about investigations, I knew that the topic of investigations was important to President Trump. We did not discuss any classified information."

Sondland said he had no recollection of discussing former Vice President Biden or his son, Hunter Biden.

Why this is big: Last week, diplomat Bill Taylor revealed that this call took place. Taylor said one his staffers, David Holmes, overheard this exchange between Trump and Sondland. Holmes later confirmed this in a closed-door deposition.

Hear Sondland's description:

10:07 a.m. ET, November 20, 2019

Sondland: State Department's refusal to hand over materials is making impeachment inquiry "less than fair"

From CNN's Jennifer Hansler

Andrew Harnik/AP
Andrew Harnik/AP

US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland turned the State Department’s argument that the impeachment hearings process has been unfair back at them, suggesting they have made the process less fair and transparent by not allowing him to access his department phone records, emails and other documents. 

“I also must acknowledge that this process has been challenging and, in many respects, less than fair,” Sondland testified in his opening statement. “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.” 

He continued: “My lawyers and I have made multiple requests to the State Department and the White House for these materials. Yet, these materials were not provided to me. They have also refused to share these materials with this Committee. These documents are not classified and, in fairness, should have been made available. In the absence of these materials, my memory has not been perfect,” Sondland said. “And I have no doubt that a more fair, open, and orderly process of allowing me to read the State Department records would have made this process more transparent.”

Some context: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has repeatedly denounced the House impeachment inquiry as unfair, specifically noting that the department has not been permitted to have its counsel in the room during closed door hearings.

“What’s been so troubling is that this inquiry has been conducted in a way that is fundamentally unfair, fundamentally unfair to the State Department,” Pompeo told KWCH-TV in Wichita in late October.

Moments ago, during his opening statement, House Intelligence Chair Adam Schiff mentioned that the State Department has not yet turned over a single document.

Watch the moment: