House holds first public impeachment hearings

This is a rush transcript from "Special Report," November 13, 2019. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.


REP. JOHN RATCLIFFE, R-TX: What did President Zelensky actually do to get the aid? The answer is nothing. He didn't do anything because he didn't have to.

REP. ADAM SCHIFF, D-CALIF., CHAIRMAN, HOUSE INTELLIGENCE COMMITTEE: Some have argued in the president's defense that the aid was ultimately released. And that is true. But only after Congress began an investigation.

DANIEL GOLDMAN, MAJORITY COUNSEL: Have you ever seen another example of foreign aid conditioned on the personal or political interests of the president of the United States?


REP. JIM JORDAN, R-OH: You didn't listen in on President Trump's call and President Zelensky's call?

TAYLOR: I did not.

JORDAN: You never talked with Chief of Staff Mulvaney?

TAYLOR: I never did.

JORDAN: You never met the president?

TAYLOR: That's correct.

JORDAN: You had three meetings with Zelensky that didn't come up.

TAYLOR: And two of those they never heard about as far as I know, and there's no reason for it to come up.

JORDAN: And President Zelensky never made an announcement? This is what I can't believe. And you're their star witness.


BRET BAIER, HOST: Well, five-and-half hours of testimony, first public hearing in the impeachment inquiry, what about it? Let's bring in our panel, Ben Domenech, publisher of "The Federalist," Jonathan Swan, national political reporter for "Axios," and Tom Bevan, Real Clear Politics co-founder and president. OK, Ben, thoughts of the day?

BEN DOMENECH, "THE FEDERALIST": I feel like this whole day is kind of pointless. We know the ending of this movie. It's not going to be a surprise for us. And from my perspective, if I am a Democrat interested in advancing a political challenge to the president today, I don't feel very good about what I saw. There wasn't anything sexy about it. There was not some big new piece of information that came out that I could seize onto. And I'm looking down the barrel of an impeachment vote that might happen by Christmas, might not, and then six to eight weeks of a Senate trial that is going to remove several of my most significant candidates from the 2020 nomination against this president from the field. I don't feel very good about that.

BAIER: There was one new revelation, at least for folks who follow the inside baseball here, about a phone call that Ambassador Taylor talks about an aide talking to him about. Take a lesson.


TAYLOR: Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26. Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kiev. The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the investigations. The member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Mr. Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden.


BAIER: Now, it goes on, but Jonathan, point being, that would be a direct tie to President Trump if true. Obviously, it's a bank shot of somebody hearing a phone call. The president says he doesn't have any recollection of that call.

JONATHAN SWAN, NATIONAL POLITICS REPORTER, "AXIOS": It doesn't matter because we have a transcript of President Trump bringing up Joe Biden, talking about Joe Biden with the president of Ukraine. So we know the president wanted him to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden. The question is, is that impeachable? And that's the question that is being asked right now. So again, I basically agree with Ben. Democrats going into this, House Democrats, the quote to us was, we need a blockbuster. They said we want a blockbuster opening hearing.

BAIER: Did they get it?

SWAN: They saw Bill Taylor was their best witness. And no, they didn't. They didn't get it. There was tiny slivers of new information, but no new major piece that's going to move this on. To look at it cynically, Democrats are hoping that this is going to be riveting enough that it's going to move public opinion such that those Senate Democrats will move to convict him. We saw nothing today that would do that.

BAIER: One of the big pushbacks from several Republicans, including Jim Jordan, was how this is all hearsay.


TAYLOR: What I can do here for you today is tell you what I heard from people.

JORDAN: Ambassador Taylor recalls that Mr. Morrison told Ambassador Taylor that I told Mr. Morrison that I conveyed this message to Mr. Yermak on September 1st, 2019, in connection with Vice President Pence's visit to Warsaw and a meeting with President Zelensky. We have six people having four conversation in one sentence, and you just told me this is where you got your clear understanding. I've seen church prayer chains that are easier to understand than this.


BAIER: There was Congressman Jordan and Congressman Ratcliffe, perhaps most effective lawmakers on the questioning. The Democrats' response was this from Eric Swalwell.


REP. ERIC SWALWELL, D-CALIF.: Both of you have testified that you are not direct witnesses who have spoken with President Trump. However, you are witnesses to a shakedown scheme that others participated in who spoke with President Trump. However, Ambassador Bolton and Mick Mulvaney both spoke directly to President Trump, and unlike you, they have refused to honor our request for them to be a part of these proceedings.


BAIER: That's a good response for the Democrats. Thoughts on the day?

TOM BEVAN, REAL CLEAR POLITICS CO-FOUNDER: How smart of it was it for Republicans to put Jim Jordan on the committee? He was the star. He made the most effective points on the Republicans' side. And so that was -- turned out to be a very, very smart move.

I agree with these guys. This was not a blockbuster. It was more like the first installment of a long-running miniseries on the Hallmark Channel, or something, that will progressively fewer and fewer people are going to either tune into or be able to follow as we call more and more witnesses and they go around and round. I don't think it is going to move the needle on public opinion, and I don't think it changed any minds whatsoever.

BAIER: Adam Schiff said today he does not know the identity of the whistleblower.

DOMENECH: Don't believe it. Come on. We can't believe this. This is inconceivable. And to Tom's point, I actually think the Hallmark Channel does pretty good ratings. So I think I would disagree a little bit on that front. But again, we know the way that this is going to go and we know the way it is going to end, and --

BAIER: So what is the political fallout? That you hang the albatross of an impeachment from the House around candidate President Donald Trump so that reelection is harder?

DOMENECH: I think that is the calculation, but I think that it's being mismanaged, and it's been mismanaged since day one. This took too long, they started it too late. Now it's going to define the entire election next year. And I think that the president likes those odds and believes that he can overcome the challenge of running for reelection. I don't know that he's right, but I do think that Democrats could have done a much better job with playing their hand.

BAIER: What is the feeling inside that White House?

SWAN: They feel great about today. The White House was pretty disorganized and dysfunctional until pretty recently on this. They have only just started to assemble a team. But they are in a strong position. They know that Republicans are in lockstep. That vote in the House with zero Republicans defecting --

BAIER: That was the big moment.

SWAN: That was the big moment.

BAIER: And they were two Democrats that voted against the inquiry.

SWAN: Correct. That was the big moment. That's when they breathed a big sigh of relief because they had been watching a few of these House Republicans going around and saying things and they were quite nervous that there was going to be a substantial defection in the Senate. And all signs they have at the moment are that that's not going to happen.

BEVAN: I think the vote in the House is done. It is going to wreak havoc on the 2020 primary system, but if there is a silver lining here for Democrats, it's that there will be a trial in the Senate and you will have those vulnerable Republican incumbents, Susan Collins, Cory Gardner, and others will have to go on the record and make a vote.

BAIER: But the question is for House Democrats, 20 plus of them from districts that Trump won, does that vote get tougher considering that may be the case is a little tougher to make over the next week-and-a-half?

BEVAN: Absolutely. I think that will be one of those things. We don't know how the politics of impeachment is going to play out in 2020, and it is going to cut a variety of different ways in the House and the Senate, and, obviously, the presidential race.

BAIER: Harold Ford was on with me the other day on the 3:00 show, former Democratic Congressman from Tennessee. He said if things are going south, Nancy Pelosi could yank this thing.

DOMENECH: I think I do still very much a possibility. And I also think that you have to keep in mind --

BAIER: I don't know. Aren't they far down that road?

DOMENECH: No, look, I think that this is a situation where if you had a blockbuster today, I think you would feel a lot more confident about the whole approach and about letting this define the 2020 cycle. If you are not confident about that, if you think it's damaging the people who might end up being your nominee, do you really want to put them in that position, particularly if you have a much higher likelihood of a bipartisan vote against removal of the president?

BAIER: But today, doesn't it set up Sondland as your key guy that you're going to question after the testimony about that phone call, and all that Taylor essentially says Sondland told him?

SWAN: No. I think the way Democrats see it is they've already got the facts there. They're going to make the biggest argument they can. They're hoping people like Vindman have very powerful testimonies. I think many of them are resigned to the fact that it's going to be a House impeachment and the Senate acquittal. And they're going to their best to try and shape public opinion.

But that's where this all goes. I don't think there is a chance -- I just don't see any world in which Pelosi pulls this. She's now going down this path. It is going to be challenging for some of these Democrats, but I think she's going to, no matter what, keep the conference together and get the votes to impeach. I just -- I don't see a scenario in which she doesn't.

BAIER: Heard the cats. No offense to cat lovers out there.


BAIER: Next up, smoothing over hard feelings between the U.S. and Turkey.



DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT: I hear it's a joke. I haven't watched -- I haven't watched for one minute because I've been with the president, which is much more important as far as I'm concerned. This is a sham and it shouldn't be allowed. It was a situation that was caused by people that shouldn't have allowed it to happen. I want to find out who is the whistleblower.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you recall having a conversation --

TRUMP: I don't recall. No, not at all, not even a little bit. I know nothing about that. First time I've heard it. The one thing I've seen that Sondland said was that he did speak to me for a brief moment, and I said no quid pro quo under any circumstances, and that's true. The other, I've never heard this. In any event, it's more secondhand information.


BAIER: President Trump with the reaction, and the question from our own John Roberts about that Sondland call we referenced in the first panel. But a big moment at the White House today as the Turkish president arrived there. Obviously, it has its own controversy around it with what Turkey did inside Syria and the Kurds.

We are back with a panel. Tom, for some Republicans up on Capitol Hill who have been hawks and really concerned about Turkey, to see the Turkish president there was a little tough to stomach, I think.

BEVAN: I think you are right. And for better or worse, this is how Trump conducts foreign policy. I thought one of the interesting questions that President Erdogan got was, why did you disregard this letter that Trump sent? It's calling him a fool, saying don't be a fool, saying I'm going to obliterate your economy if you don't do what I want, and then turns around and gives him a White House visit. For better or worse, this is how Trump drugs foreign policy. It's one-on-one, it's lots of sticks and some carrots as well. And for traditional foreign policy establishment folks, for folks in the Republican Party, it is a little bit hard to take.

BAIER: Jonathan?

SWAN: So I was talking to a couple of sources who have got information about this meeting. So apparently President Trump played traffic cop in the meeting, and most of the talking was done by the senators. It was quite an interesting move by the president.

BAIER: He had a group of GOP senators.

SWAN: Not just GOP senators, but GOP senators who are some of the toughest critics of Turkey.

BAIER: Like Lindsey Graham.

SWAN: Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Rick Scott. This is a pretty interesting move. And I am told that Lindsey Graham got into it a little bit with Erdogan. There were some pretty tense moments. The senators were not only giving him grief about Syria and the Kurds but also about purchasing Russian, the S400s. And so what I understand from talking to a White House official about this is that President Trump wanted Erdogan to see with his own eyes the problems that he has in Washington. This is really real, that if he doesn't back off he is going to face sanctions, and this is not just a presidential -- the pressure from Congress is overwhelming against Turkey.

BAIER: Here is Lindsey Graham and Mitch McConnell on this.


SEN. LINDSEY GRAHAM, R-S.C.: The purpose of this meeting is to have an American civics lesson for our friends in Turkey. And there is a pony in there somewhere if we can find it.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL, R-KY, SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: I share my colleagues' uneasiness at seeing President Erdogan honored down at the White House. But I would urge this body to remain clear about our nation's vital interests in the Middle East and the fact that advancing them will mean strengthening our relationship with this NATO ally, not weakening it further.


BAIER: So the question, Ben, is if there is a pony in there somewhere?

DOMENECH: There is not a pony in there. But I do think that it is useful as a negotiating tactic for the president to engage these senators, to bring them in, to allow them to say the criticisms that he clearly won't say, and to make clear, as Jonathan said, the kind of pressure that he faces here in Washington, which is of a piece with this impeachment inquiry in the sense that there is a tension between the president and a number of members of the bureaucracy of the administration, many of them experienced people who find his way of doing things very unorthodox and think that it goes afoul of what they believe we ought to do. That's fine to adjudicate, I think, in the court of public opinion. It's not something that plays out well when it goes on behind the scenes.

BAIER: I interviewed Erdogan at the United Nations about a month ago, and you have to remember, it's a NATO ally, but it's also a country that jails journalists. It's got a spotty record.

BEVAN: That's the tension, right. It is a NATO ally. And as Mitch McConnell just said, that carries with it, unless we're going to try to kick them out of NATO, which I don't think anybody is suggesting, that carries with it certain obligations, and we want to try and balance those while keeping pressure on them on the human rights front.

BAIER: Panel, thank you. When we come back, a young man for whom every day is Flag Day.


BAIER: Finally tonight, a patriotic Eagle Scout project.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They are taking the flags that are ready for retirement and draping over the veterans as they are being cremated as a way to honor the veterans.


BAIER: Jacob Johnson is a Scout from Kennesaw, Georgia, spent months collecting worn and tattered American flags. He then donates them to a local funeral home so that any veteran who is cremated will receive the same military honor as those who are buried. They put them right there on the casket. Johnson has already collected 250 flags. His goal is 500. That's a great story for dog and cat lovers.

Thanks for inviting us into your home tonight. That's it for the “Special Report,” fair, balanced, and unafraid. "The Story" hosted by Martha MacCallum starts right now.

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