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Why Gordon Sondland’s public testimony was ‘extraordinary’

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified to the House Wednesday that there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine and that he followed President Trump’s orders to work with Rudy Giuliani. Sondland also implicated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence in a pressure campaign. Nick Schifrin, Yamiche Alcindor and Lisa Desjardins join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The most anticipated moment yet in the impeachment inquiry.

    U.S. Ambassador to the European Union and Trump campaign donor Gordon Sondland testifies that there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine, as he followed the president's orders to work with Trump's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. And Sondland implicates Secretary of State Pompeo and Vice President Pence in that pressure campaign.

    There is a lot to unpack from today.

    Lisa Desjardins is at the Capitol for us. Yamiche Alcindor is at the White House. And Nick Schifrin is here with me at this table.

    So much to talk about with all three of you.

    But let's start by hearing just a bit of Gordon Sondland's opening testimony.

  • Gordon Sondland:

    First, 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 were playing the hand we were dealt. We all understood that if we refused to work with Mr. Giuliani, we would lose a very important opportunity to cement relations between the United States and Ukraine.

    So we followed the president's orders.

    Second, although we disagreed with the need to involve Mr. Giuliani, at the time, we did not believe that his role was improper.

    Third, let me say, precisely because we did not think that we were engaging in improper behavior, we made every effort to ensure that the relevant decision-makers at the National Security Council and the State Department knew the important details of our efforts.

    The suggestion that we were engaged in some irregular or rogue diplomacy is absolutely false.

    I have now identified certain State Department e-mails and messages that provide contemporaneous support for my view. These e-mails show that the leadership of the State Department, the National Security Council, and the White House were all informed about the Ukraine efforts from May 23, 2019, until the security aid was released on September 11, 2019.

    Fourth, as I testified previously, Mr. Giuliani's requests were a quid pro quo for arranging a White House visit for President Zelensky.

    Mr. Giuliani demanded that Ukraine make a public statement announcing the investigations of the 2016 election, DNC server and Burisma. Mr. Giuliani was expressing the desires of the president of the United States, and we knew these investigations were important to the president.

    Fifth, in July and August of 2019, we learned that the White House had also suspended security aid to Ukraine. I was adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid. I was adamantly opposed to any suspension of aid, as the Ukrainians needed those funds to fight against Russian aggression.

    Finally, at all times, I was acting in good faith. I was acting in good faith. As a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the president.

    We worked with Mr. Giuliani because the president directed us to do so. We had no desire to set any conditions — we had no desire to set any conditions on the Ukrainians. Indeed, my own personal view, which I shared repeatedly with others, was that the White House and security assistance should have proceeded without preconditions of any kind.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick Schifrin, let me start with you.

    What do you primarily take away from Sondland's testimony?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right, two big takeaways let's focus on right now.

    One is that Sondland brought these allegations to the door of the president of the United States at the very least, if not in the room, by connecting the president, through Rudy Giuliani, very specifically.

    "We followed the president's orders and worked with Giuliani. When the president tells us to talk to Giuliani, I assume what Giuliani says comes from the president."

    The reason that's important is, he says that Giuliani requests a — quote — "quid pro quo," as we just heard, for arranging the White House meeting for President Zelensky of Ukraine.

    The quid pro quo was meeting President Trump, and, in return, Ukraine announces investigations into 2016 and Burisma, the energy company where Hunter Biden served on the board.

    He used the term quid pro quo three times. That's a lot farther than he went in the past and a lot farther than any other witness has gone.

    And then the second big point that he had to make was that Ukrainians knew that they had to make these investigations, or at least announce these investigations.

    And why is that important, is that that goes against the Republican argument that there could be no quid pro quo because Ukrainians didn't feel any pressure. Ambassador Sondland said, no, Ukrainians knew exactly what they had to do, and they felt that pressure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa Desjardins, you were in the hearing room all day long, as you have been for every day of this impeachment inquiry.

    Give us a sense of the dynamics there.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I have to say, Judy, I have been to many important high-level national interest hearings. It's a privilege, a responsibility with this job, but today was the first time during this impeachment inquiry where I felt like this was a hearing that was extraordinary, this was a hearing that might be historic.

    It had that feeling in the room. You could see members, witnesses and lawyers sitting on the edge of their seats at very — very many times.

    And I think you also could see what's happened over the last two or three days, which is that some members have gotten better at doing this.

    Some of the counsel has gotten better. There's more energy on both sides. They're a little bit more deliberate.

    And I think, as a result of that, you also got a little bit more of what exactly the boiled-down messages were today.

    From Republicans, what I got, their argument, Judy, essentially is, this was all a big misunderstanding. Gordon Sondland, Kurt Volker, everyone involved either misunderstood what was happening or miscommunicated what was happening.

    From Democrats, could not be more different. They say, clearly, the president was signaling, if not outright directing, that his political opponent should be investigated by a foreign power, and he was withholding aid from that foreign power.

    Of course, the question still is how directly the president communicated that or not.

    But I will tell you, being in that hearing room today felt different. And you can tell that Democrats certainly feel like that they made a good case today. Republicans are trying to also eke out some messages of their own.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Yamiche, to the White House, clearly, they are watching this very closely. What are they saying?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president and White House aides were watching Ambassador Sondland's testimony very closely.

    And Ambassador Sondland said he wasn't directly told by President Trump to hedge this $391 million of military aid to Ukraine for an investigation into Joe Biden and the Democrats.

    However, he said that he was — he felt like he was doing everything at the direction of the president. As a result, the White House is really seizing on the first part of that, and that is that the president says, I never actually directed Ambassador Sondland to do that.

    He also walked out onto the White House lawn early in the day as Ambassador Sondland was testifying. And he had handwritten notes. This was kind of extraordinary, because the president didn't take questions, but he was looking down. And his paper said, "I want nothing."

    And he was quoting Ambassador Sondland's testimony before lawmakers, where he said that President Trump told him there should be no quid pro quo and I want nothing.

    I also want to just play for some — for the viewers what President Trump said on the lawn of the White House.

  • President Donald Trump:

    I'm going to go very quickly, just a quick comment on what's going on in terms of testimony with Ambassador Sondland.

    And I just noticed one thing. And I would say, that means it's all over.

    "What do you want from Ukraine?," he asks me, screaming. "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.

    "What do you want from Ukraine? I keep hearing all these different ideas and theories. What do you want? What do you want?"

    It was a very short and abrupt conversation that he had with me. They said, he was not in a good mood. I'm always in a good mood. I don't know what that is.

    He just said — now he's talking about what my response — so, he's going: "What do you want? What do you want? I hear all these theories. What do you want?" Right?

    And now here's my response that he gave, just gave. Ready? You have the cameras rolling?

    "I want nothing." That's what I want from Ukraine. That's what I said. I want nothing. I said it twice.

    So, he goes — he asks me the question: What do you want? I keep hearing all of these things. What do you want? He finally gets me — I don't know him very well. I have not spoken to him much. This is not a man I know well. Seems like a nice guy, though. But I don't know him well.

    He was with other candidates. He actually supported other candidates, not me, came in late.

    But here's my response. Now, if you weren't fake news, you'd cover it properly.

    I say to the Ambassador in response: "I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky — President Zelensky — to do the right thing."

    So here's my answer: "I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing."

    Then he says: "This is the final word from the president of the United States. I want nothing."

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, that was some of what President Trump had to say today as these hearings were going on.

    And, Nick Schifrin, it wasn't just the president, of course, that Ambassador Sondland was referring to today. He brought up a number of senior figures in the Trump administration, the secretary of state, a number of others.

    What are they saying in reaction?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, to mix metaphors, this is the escalating ladder of throwing people under the bus.

    So, Secretary of State Pompeo, the vice president, Secretary of Energy Perry, acting Chief of Staff Mulvaney — let me focus on the secretary of state just for a second.

    What Gordon Sondland said is that, in early September — in early September — sorry — in early September, Gordon Sondland came up to the Ukrainians and said, look, you have to do these investigations before you can get military aid released, right?

    He said today that he said that because Secretary of State Pompeo gave him the green light. We hadn't heard that before.

    He also detailed earlier e-mails to Pompeo in August, on August 11, August 22, got no objection from Secretary of State Pompeo, and was asked: "Was Pompeo aware of the quid pro quo?" Answer: "Yes."

    So, Pompeo was asked about this today, didn't really answer. And now his spokeswoman, Morgan Ortagus, has released this statement: "Gordon Sondland never told Secretary Pompeo that he believed the president was linking aid to investigations of political opponents. Any suggestion to the contrary is flat-out false."

    And just to leave that up there for a second, investigations of political opponents, that's not exactly what Sondland said today. All Sondland said is that he and Pompeo talked about Burisma and 2016. He doesn't say that he talked about Biden and all. And that's the distinction that he tried to make today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    An important distinction.

    So, Yamiche, other senior figures in this administration were mentioned by Ambassador Sondland.

    What are they saying?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, what was extraordinary about today was that it wasn't just the White House really having a rapid response, responding in real time to Ambassador Sondland, but it was a number of agencies.

    And, as Nick said, Ambassador Sondland was really naming names of high-ranking officials. He talked about the acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. He talked about the former National Security Adviser John Bolton. He talked about Rudy Giuliani.

    And he talked about Vice President Mike Pence. He said that, on September 1 — this was before the military aid was released to Ukraine — that he went to Vice President Pence in Warsaw, while the vice president was visiting, and he said, I have concerns about this aid possibly being tied to an investigation into the Bidens.

    But here's what Mike Pence's office said. I'm going to read to you a statement from his chief of staff.

    He — the chief of staff says: "The vice president never had a conversation with Gordon Sondland about investigating the Bidens, Burisma," which is the Ukrainian company that Hunter Biden was serving on, "or the conditional release of financial aid to Ukraine based upon potential investigations. This alleged discussion recalled by Ambassador Sondland never happened."

    So you have the vice president of the United States, through his chief of staff, saying, what Ambassador Sondland testified today never happened.

    You also have Rudy Giuliani, the personal attorney of President Trump. He put out a number of tweets, again reacting in real time. And he said, look, I was talking to Kurt Volker, the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine. I was talking to these people about what the president wanted, but I was really sharing my opinion,. I wasn't making any demands, so there was no quid pro quo.

    So, again, a number of officials pushing back on Ambassador Scotland in real time.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All of this so interesting.

    So, let's listen to another exchange today with Ambassador Sondland. This one — this is showing that he was grilled by a number of Republicans. This one happens to be with Congressman Mike Turner of Ohio.

  • Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio:

    Is Donald Trump your friend?

  • Gordon Sondland:

    No, we're not friends. I — we have a…

  • Rep. Mike Turner:

    Do you like the president?

  • Gordon Sondland:


  • Rep. Mike Turner:


    Well, you know, after you testified, Chairman Schiff ran out and gave a press conference and said, he gets to impeach the president of the United States because of your testimony. And if you pull up CNN today, right now, their banner says "Sondland Ties Trump to Withholding Aid."

    Is that your testimony today, Mr. — Ambassador Sondland, that you have evidence that Donald Trump tied the investigations to the aid?

    Because I don't think you're saying that.

  • Gordon Sondland:

    I have said repeatedly, Congressman, I was presuming. I also said that President Trump…

  • Rep. Mike Turner:

    So no one told you, not just the president.

    Giuliani didn't tell you, Mulvaney didn't tell you — nobody — Pompeo didn't tell you, nobody else on this planet told you that Donald Trump was tying aid to these investigations; is that correct?

  • Gordon Sondland:

    I think I already testified to that.

  • Rep. Mike Turner:

    No, answer the question. Is it correct, no one on this planet told you that Donald Trump was tying this aid to the investigations?

    Because if your answer is yes, then the chairman's wrong and the headline on CNN is wrong. No one on this planet told you that President Trump was tying aid to investigations, yes or no?

  • Gordon Sondland:


  • Rep. Mike Turner:

    So, you really have no testimony today that ties President Trump to a scheme to withhold aid from Ukraine in exchange for these investigations?

  • Gordon Sondland:

    Other than my own presumption.

  • Rep. Mike Turner:

    Which is nothing.

    I mean, that's what I don't understand. So you know what hearsay evidence is, Ambassador? Hearsay is when I testify what someone else told me.

    Do you know what made-up testimony is? Made-up testimony is when I just presume it.

    I mean, you're just assuming all of these things, and then you're giving them the evidence that they're running out and doing press conferences, and CNN's headline is saying that you're saying the president of the United States should be impeached because he tied to investigations.

    And you don't know that, correct?

  • Gordon Sondland:

    I never said the president of the United States should be impeached.

  • Rep. Mike Turner:

    Nope, but you did — you have left people with the confusing impression that you were giving testimony that you did not. You do not have any evidence that the president of the United States was tied to withholding aid from Ukraine in exchange for investigations.

    I yield back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it wasn't just Republicans who had pointed questions for Ambassador Sondland.

    Here now is an exchange with a Democratic congressman. He is Sean Patrick Maloney of New York.

  • Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y.:

    Who would benefit from an investigation of the president's political opponent?

  • Gordon Sondland:

    Well, presumably that — the person who asked for the investigation.

  • Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney:

    Who's that?

  • Gordon Sondland:

    If the president asked for the investigation, it would be he.

  • Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney:

    Well, it's not a hypothetical, is it, sir? We just went around this track, didn't we? The president asked you about investigations. He was talking about the Bidens.

    When he — when he asked you about the Biden investigation, who was he seeking to benefit?

  • Gordon Sondland:

    He did not ask me about the Biden investigation.

  • Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney:

    When he asked you about investigations.

  • Gordon Sondland:

    I said that about 19 times, Mr. Maloney.

  • Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney:

    Sir, sir, we just went through this. When he asked you about investigations, which we all agree, now, means the Bidens — we just did this about 30 seconds ago. It's a pretty simple question isn't it? I guess – I guess I'm having trouble, why you can't just say…

  • Gordon Sondland:

    When he asked about investigations, I assumed he meant the company.

  • Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney:

    I know what you assume.

  • Gordon Sondland:


  • Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney:

    But who would benefit from an investigation of the Bidens?

  • Gordon Sondland:

    They're two different questions.

  • Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney:

    I'm just asking you one. Who would benefit from an investigation of the Bidens?

  • Gordon Sondland:

    I assume President Trump would benefit.

  • Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney:

    There we have it. See?



  • Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney:

    Didn't hurt a bit, did it? Didn't hurt a bit. Let me ask you something.

  • Gordon Sondland:

    Mr. Maloney?

  • Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney:

    Hold on, sir.

  • Gordon Sondland:

    Excuse me. I have been very forthright, and I really resent what you're trying to do.

  • Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney:

    Fair enough. You've been very forthright. This is your third try to do so, sir.

    Didn't work so well the first time, did it? We had a little declaration come in after you. Remember that? And now we're here a third time, and we've got a doozy of a statement from you this morning. There's a whole bunch of stuff you don't recall.

    So, all due respect, sir, we appreciate your candor, but let's be really clear on what it took to get it out of you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So that's just a sampling of what the Republicans and the Democrats on the committee were — were saying to Ambassador Sondland.

    Lisa Desjardins, back to you.

    What does this say about the strategies that the two parties had?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I think, for Democrats, there's increasing confidence about the case that they're making. Pretty much behind the scenes, they all feel like this is a road toward impeachment, though, obviously, they haven't made that decision yet.

    It's pretty clear that's where their minds are at, at this moment.

    Republican, Judy — I spent a lot of time after that hearing talking to Republicans off the floor — off the House chamber floor. And I specifically went after different groups of Republicans.

    It's interesting. What I heard from rank-and-file members was different than what I heard in that hearing, that strategy that you heard about trying to establish that there wasn't a direct link to the president, there might not have been a quid pro quo.

    That's not what I heard from rank-and-file Republicans. Instead, I heard from Representative Peter King, who's in a swing district in New York. He's retiring, which is one reason I wanted to talk to him.

    He does think the president did nothing wrong, but he argues something different. He says: It's because the president has the right to launch any investigation he want. I don't have a problem with it.

    Then, Judy, I talked to a different Republican, Francis Rooney of Florida. He is known as a swing member who does not always vote with the president and the rest of his Republicans. He is undecided on impeachment.

    He said today did feel like a big day to him. But he also said he heard conflicting testimony.

    When I asked what the conversation was like for Republicans at large, he said: "That's what it is. We all feel there was conflicting testimony on — for both sides, from Ambassador Sondland. We're still working it out."

    So I think this is a moment where it's not clear where Republicans will end up. You hear a lot of different arguments in the hearing room, but Republican mind-sets from the rank and file may be somewhere else.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, certainly, the Democrats are not finished yet. More testimony tonight, and, of course, we know there will be in coming days.

    But what I want to do now is share just a little bit of what the closing remarks were today.

    After the questions of Ambassador Sondland, the chairman of the committee, Adam Schiff, made his own statement.

    And here's a part of that.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    I have said a lot of things about President Trump over the years. I have very strong feelings about President Trump, which are neither here nor there.

    But I will say this on the president's behalf. I do not believe that the president would allow himself to be led by the nose by Rudy Giuliani, or Ambassador Sondland, or anybody else.

    I think the president was the one who decided whether a meeting would happen, whether aid would be lifted, not anyone who worked for him.

    And so, the answer to the question who was refusing the meeting with Zelensky that you believed should take place, that Ambassador Volker believed should take place, and everybody believed should take place? The only question was when.

    Who was the one standing in the way of that meeting? Who was the one refusing to take that meeting?

    There's only one answer to that question. And it's Donald J. Trump, 45th president of the United States. So, who was holding up the military assistance?

    Was it you, Ambassador Sondland? No, it wasn't. Was it Ambassador Volker? No. Was it Ambassador Taylor? No. Was it Deputy Secretary Kent? No. Was it Secretary of State Pompeo? No.

    Who had the decision to release the aid? It was one person, Donald J. Trump, president of the United States.

    Now, my colleagues seem to think, unless the president says the magic words that "I hereby bribe the Ukrainians," that there's no evidence of bribery or other high crimes and misdemeanors.

    But let's look to the best evidence of what's in the president's head. What's his intent? What's the reason behind the hold on the meeting and on the aid? Let's look at what the president has to say. Let's look at what's undisputed about what the president has to say.

    And you know how we know what the president has to say? Not because what you have represented, or others have represented, but because we have a record of his conversation. And with who? The one who really matters, with the other president, Zelensky.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Lisa Desjardins, back to you.

    What did you make of that, those comments?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Well, I think we have known before that Chairman Schiff is very strong, especially in his closing arguments.

    And I think he's been speaking to the American people. As we know, Speaker Pelosi has said all along that it's kind of the will of the public here that matters the most.

    I was talking to a Republican strategist here on the Hill, also in the last couple of hours, who said to me — this is a moderate — who said, this really is still a jump ball. It's about 15 percent of the American public.

    And the question is, are they really paying attention? Is this too much information, and it's distracting and overload, or is it so many questions about the president that it does influence Americans?

    And I think that's what Chairman Schiff is trying to do.

    One other quick piece of note. I just got news from Republicans that the two kind of dominant Republicans on this committee, chairman — Ranking Republican Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan, have now sent a letter to Democrats saying they into tend to subpoena the whistle-blower and Hunter Biden for testimony.

    That is their language. However, they do not have that subpoena power right now as it stands, so, conflict ahead here, Republicans essentially just raising the idea that they would like these witnesses to testify.

    They're using the word subpoena, but they don't have that power, as far as I understand it right now.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we heard the ranking Republican, Nunes, mention that, that that was something they very much wanted to do it in his opening remarks today.

    But quickly to you, Yamiche. Your reaction from the White House to what Chairman Schiff said.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    White House officials continue to stress the fact that Ambassador Sondland never directly connected President Trump to this quid pro quo.

    He said that, I felt like I was following the directions of President Trump, but that President Trump never directly told me that this needed to be an exchange, that if we didn't provide this military aid, that they would have to do these investigations in order for us to have this military aid and this White House meeting with President Zelensky, the president of Ukraine.

    So, in some way, the White House feels even though that this might be — have been damaging and Democrats want to point to specific quotes from Ambassador Sondland, they overall feel like this is still the president having distance between this alleged bribery, alleged extortion that Democrats are trying to say happened.

    The other thing to note is that there is, of course, a list of White House officials who are still not wanting to comply with subpoenas and requests for them to come before Congress.

    And there are some critics of the president who say, if they — if the White House really wanted to make the case that the president was not directing people to do a quid pro quo, they could allow Mick Mulvaney, the acting chief of staff, to come before the committee, to come before Congress to say, look, here's exactly what the president told me.

    That isn't happening as of yet. The president has said that he was open to answering questions, written questions. But I have been talking to White House officials who also say that that's not likely.

    So, at this point, moving forward, the White House is going to continue to put out statements that point out that the president, when he was talking Ambassador Sondland, said, I don't want a quid pro quo.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, back to you, Nick.

    These hearings are ongoing right now. Two more witnesses are testifying on the Hill. What do we know about the individuals who are there right now?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, the questions for them are, what did Secretary of State Pompeo know, and what did Ukraine know, and when did it know?

    So, the first official testifying is David Hale. He is the undersecretary for political affairs at the State Department, which makes him number three. He has served more than a 30-year career under Republican and Democratic administrations.

    Republicans called him, Judy, because they believe that he's going to testify that there was no linkage, as far as he knew, between the suspension of aid and those political investigations.

    But there are questions about what Secretary Pompeo knew and didn't know. And we talked about that earlier. Gordon Sondland made a lot of new allegations. He will have to answer those.

    The second official is Laura Cooper, one of the top officials at the Department of Defense working on Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, long-term strategy on Russia and Ukraine for the Department of Defense, has been there almost 20 years.

    She warned the White House that freezing this aid to Ukraine might be illegal. And her insight is into how she tried to persuade the White House to release the aid. And her insight is also into, when did Ukraine know that the aid was frozen?

    And she is testifying right now that they knew about July 25. And the reason that's significant is that, on July 25, that is when President Zelensky talks to President Trump.

    If Ukraine really knew that the military aid was frozen as of July 25, that undercuts the White House argument that the Ukrainians couldn't have been asked for a quid pro quo because they felt no pressure because they didn't know the military aid had been frozen.

    So, her testimony is, July 25, Ukrainians knew already that the aid was frozen.

    And just a reminder, Judy, these are lethal arms. This is a real policy toward Ukraine you're talking about that was delayed for 55 days, essential for U.S. national security, according to U.S. officials. And that was at the heart of the delay. And that's at the heart of this impeachment testimony.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    All right, and that is ongoing right now. And we will be reporting on all that later.

    Thank you to all three of you, a marathon today.

    Nick Schifrin, Yamiche Alcindor, and Lisa Desjardins, thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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