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How Trump is reacting to newly released testimony from Sondland and Volker

On Tuesday, transcripts of impeachment inquiry testimony from Ambassador Gordon Sondland and former Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker were released. Nick Schifrin and Lisa Desjardins break down the details of the newly released transcripts, including how Sondland revised some of his original answers, and Yamiche Alcindor joins William Brangham to discuss how President Trump is reacting.

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  • William Brangham:

    To help us make sense of what these transcripts mean for the impeachment inquiry, I'm joined by our own Nick Schifrin and Lisa Desjardins, who have been closely following this investigation.

    Welcome back to you both. Thank you again for poring through all of these pages of transcripts that have come out.

    Lisa, let's talk first about these changes that Sondland made his testimony. How significant are they? What are they?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Let me use a prop to explain. This is the full — Sondland's testimony, double-sided.

  • William Brangham:

    That's your day today.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is our day today, part of it.

    But, of this, it's really these few five pages we're talking about, his revisions. And here's why it's important. It speaks to this idea of whether there was a quid pro quo.

    Let's look at exactly what he changed here. First of all, he said that, before today, he didn't recall any conversations where he was tying aid to these investigations of the Bidens in 2016. His revision, however, now he says he does remember talking with a leading Ukrainian, really the contact point for President Zelensky.

    And he also said now he does remember specifically telling the Zelensky aide that aid was unlikely unless they made a statement saying that Ukraine would investigate 2016 and also the Bidens.

    So this really speaks to the idea of whether the U.S. was demanding something from Ukraine in exchange for aid money. Gordon Sondland's testimony is that he personally did tell them that.

  • William Brangham:

    That is a pretty big revision today to see.

    Nick, can you zoom out a little bit more? Tell us a little bit more about Sondland. I mean, he was a supporter of the president, as Lisa reported, a big GOP donor. And he's been a defender of the president all along as well.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    A supporter of the president, a defender of the president, and someone who had access to the president, really the only one we have been talking about who regularly talked to the president.

    He testified that he talked to the president three times specifically about this and, in each of those times, the president didn't mention Vice President Biden. And Sondland was asked at one point in this story by another diplomat, hey, this seems crazy. Is the president really withholding aid before Ukraine investigates Biden?

    And so he called the president. And we saw what he said on that phone call with the president. He said: "I asked the president an open-ended question. 'What do you want from Ukraine?' He said: 'I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. I want Zelensky to do the right thing.' And I said, 'What does that mean?' And he said, 'I want him to do what he ran on.'"

    And that was the end of the conversation. That is what the president was saying today. There was no quid pro quo at all, because the president told Sondland this.

    And not only that, that the Ukrainians didn't know that the president had actually withheld any of this military aid. And that's where the timeline that Lisa comes in is so important. One month after that phone call, we see Sondland now admitting that he did tell the Ukrainians, and that's why that revision and the timeline of that revision is so important.

  • William Brangham:

    So, Lisa, about this timeline that Nick is talking about, that's something else that our team noticed in these transcripts, some interesting timing-related issues there.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Sondland says very specifically that, for a long time, what he knew was, there was a general corruption investigation, we wanted Ukraine to be less corrupt, that that was the push.

    But he says in his testimony — let's look — that, in fact, something changed, as he knew it, around August, and that that thing that changed was that the general corruption concerned — he calls it vanilla corruption — became concerned about 2016 and Burisma.

    So this idea of changing how Ukraine operates, making it less corrupt shifted into a specific concern about these two investigations. Now, as to the timeline that Nick is talking about, what's amazing about all this is that that same day that he himself, Sondland, says he told the Ukrainians, hey, we have to now get these investigations that he says are now front and center, proof from you that you're doing them, that's the same day that Vice President Pence was meeting with President Zelensky in Poland.

    Now, who knows whether Mike Pence knew anything or not, but this is the reason that conversation happened. And we see here a key aide becoming more and more aware that someone wants these investigations front and center. And he says this to the Ukrainians on that day.

  • William Brangham:

    So interesting.

    Nick, let's step back again to Ambassador Volker. He was working closely with Ukrainian officials throughout this process. What did he say about what they were doing with regards to these corruption investigations?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    He makes the same distinction that Lisa was just making that Sondland makes, between vanilla corruption and let's just call it not-so-vanilla corruption.

    So the vanilla corruption, if you will, is what the U.S. has been going after for the last five years, right? The Obama administration, the Trump administration, all wanted Ukraine to tackle endemic corruption.

    Under the Obama administration, that effort was led by Vice President Biden, but it continued and had the same targets under the Trump administration.

    What changed was Rudy Giuliani. This wasn't vanilla. He wanted an investigation into whether Ukraine hacked into the DNC in 2016, which the U.S. intelligence community says is not what happened. And he wanted an investigation into Burisma, this Ukrainian company where Hunter Biden was on the board.

    What Volker testified today was that the Ukrainians who were telling Giuliani this, who were kind of whispering into his ear and egging him on, that they were self-serving, that they actually were hoping to appear important and telling Giuliani what he thought they wanted — what he — what they thought he wanted to hear, in order to somehow save their jobs or be seen as useful by the Trump administration.

    Volker testified, Vice President Biden wasn't corrupt, that the Ukrainians who worked with him and Hunter Biden were. The Ukrainian corruption, that's what everyone wanted investigated, until Giuliani stepped in.

    And it ended up that we had this temporary hold on military aid. And we're investigating this and talking about this right now.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's a picture of many outside forces manipulating U.S. policy, not necessarily — not the diplomats, in this testimony.

  • William Brangham:

    Lisa Desjardins, Nick Schifrin, thank you again for getting us up to speed on all of this.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

  • William Brangham:

    We want to turn now to how the Trump administration is reacting to this latest set of transcripts.

    And so I am joined by our White House correspondent, Yamiche Alcindor.

    Yamiche, so this is the second day of transcripts that have come out. I know you have been tracking how the president has been reacting to this. And I also understand you have been in touch with Gordon Sondland's — this gentleman we have been hearing about from Lisa and Nick — his attorney as well.

    What can you tell us about these — their reactions to all this?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    So, the White House is essentially saying that these two transcripts really prove that President Trump shouldn't be a target of an impeachment inquiry.

    Let me read to you what White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham put out just a couple minutes ago. It says — she says in a statement: ""Both transcripts released today show that there is even less evidence for this illegitimate impeachment sham than previously thought. The president has done nothing wrong."

    She goes on to say, essentially, that Gordon Sondland didn't know — Gordon Sondland being the E.U. ambassador — he didn't know the actual details of this — this military aid being held up from — by Ukraine.

    Of course, his revisions today say something different. They say he was actually an official who was talking to Ukrainian officials about that military aid being tied to the investigation of the Bidens — or that wanted investigation of the Bidens.

    Then you have the White House pointing to Kurt Volker, who was the U.S. envoy to Ukraine. And they say that , essentially, he said, Ukraine — Ukrainians didn't know that this money was being held up, so there couldn't be a quid pro quo.

    Now we know that Ukraine knew as early as August that this was something that was holding up this money, this investigation of the Bidens that President Trump wanted.

    It's important to also point to kind of some conflicting facts in these transcripts. It's — these transcripts really are about both parties being able to pick and choose what they want that makes their party look good.

    So here's — if you look at kind of what Gordon Sondland said to the investigators — I'm going to read you another exchange.

  • It says:

    "I testified that it would be improper to do that." That's military aid being connected to the investigation of the Bidens. The question: "And illegal, right?"

    "I'm not a lawyer, but I would assume so."

    Then Kurt Volker, again, the U.S. envoy to Ukraine, he says: "I was surprised." That was when he's talking about the call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine. The question: "Were you troubled at all by what you read?"


    So as the White House is essentially pointing to these testimonies, saying, they prove our case, Democrats are pointing and saying, actually, it proves that the president was involved in a quid pro quo.

    And Gordon Sondland's attorney essentially told me he didn't want to go too far past what the president — what Gordon Sondland put out. But he said, essentially, that it's — it would be wrong for people to read into that Gordon Sondland was really trying to correct himself and was really trying to say that he had some sort of ulterior motive.

  • William Brangham:

    Yamiche, I know you have been tracking the president since he became the president.

    These accumulated transcripts do give us a window into how he runs his foreign policy. And I wonder what sense you're getting of the view that this reflects of the president's policy and the impact it has on the people enacting that policy.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    This really shows that President Trump really takes foreign policy personally.

    In both transcripts, he's heard saying that Ukraine was filled with bad people that tried to take him down and were really trying to hurt his 2016 presidential campaign.

    Democrats say that that's a debunked claim. But what we have essentially is the president saying, this country was trying to go after me, and, as a result, I don't like these people.

  • William Brangham:

    And, lastly, we know the president has been railing from the get-go against this impeachment inquiry.

    Has he said anything recently, yesterday or today, about these most recent developments?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president has been making his case to the American public in rallies. Just yesterday, he was in Kentucky trying to get people to support the governor there who's up for reelection tonight.

    Here's what he had to say:

  • President Donald Trump:

    The Bidens got rich while America was robbed. And let me tell you, the fake news will not put it in.

    What is unsubstantiated? He is on tape doing a real quid pro quo.

  • William Brangham:

    Yamiche, thank you very much.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    There is no evidence of Joe Biden doing any wrongdoing.

    But that's — but that's pretty much all we can say about that, that there's no evidence of what the president was just saying.

  • William Brangham:

    All right, Yamiche Alcindor, as always, thank you.

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