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Julián Castro: Gordon Sondland’s Testimony Is “Nail in the Coffin” of Trump’s Defense

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During Wednesday’s impeachment hearing, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told lawmakers that he was ordered by Trump to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Sondland also acknowledged there was a quid pro quo tying U.S. military aid to investigations, and said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence were aware of the Ukraine pressure campaign. Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro joins us to discuss these latest developments in the impeachment inquiry, which he describes as “blockbuster testimony” that could serve as “a nail in the coffin” of Trump’s defense. Castro was excluded from the Democratic presidential debate Wednesday because his campaign did not meet polling thresholds recently established by the Democratic National Committee.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: “We followed the president’s orders.” Those were the words of U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland Wednesday as he told lawmakers that he helped pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Sondland acknowledged there was a quid pro quo tying U.S. military aid to Ukraine with Ukraine’s announcement of a probe into the Bidens. Sondland also said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Vice President Mike Pence were aware of the campaign. Sondland testified the officials knew that President Trump conditioned the release of nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid and an Oval Office meeting with the Ukrainian president on a statement about the Bidens.

AMY GOODMAN: This is part of Ambassador Sondland’s opening testimony Wednesday.

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 emails and messages that provide contemporaneous support for my view. These emails 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 23rd, 2019, until the security aid was released on September 11th, 2019. I will quote from some of those messages with you shortly.

Fourth, as I testified previously — 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.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testifying before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. Former National Security Council official Fiona Hill and U.S. diplomat David Holmes testify today beginning at 9 a.m.

AMY GOODMAN: And Democracy Now! will live-stream at democracynow.org. But right now we turn to Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro, who served as housing secretary under President Obama. In a moment, we’re going to ask him about last night’s presidential debate, the first he wasn’t participating in.

But first we go to the impeachment inquiry, which you’ve also been talking about and tweeting about, Secretary Castro. Can you talk about the significance of yesterday’s testimony, what was considered to be the most important? The front-page headline of The New York Times, across all five columns: “We Followed the President’s Orders.”

JULIÁN CASTRO: It was blockbuster testimony, was, I believe, a nail in the coffin of Donald Trump and the case that he has tried to make. I mean, how many times have we heard the president say over and over again that there was no quid pro quo? And here we have Ambassador Sondland, that everybody acknowledges had the most direct contact with the president, knew what was going on, was part of also email chains, saying very specifically, very directly, that there was a quid pro quo and that the president was holding up military aid until President Zelensky of Ukraine would announce an investigation of Burisma. So, you know, it really couldn’t be more clear that the president has violated his oath of office. He’s abused his power. And, you know, this was just some of the testimony. There was plenty of other testimony to back that case up. And, of course, Fiona Hill is going to testify today. So it’s very damning to the president.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And do you believe, Secretary Castro — I mean, now many people believe that, of course, Trump was guilty of this, but do you think everyone is persuaded that this is an impeachable offense and that he is, in any sense, likely to be impeached?

JULIÁN CASTRO: I believe so. I believe anybody that’s looking at this, you know, in a neutral way — that includes the majority of the American people. There are a number of polls that have suggested that more than 50% of Americans believe that the president should be impeached and removed from office because of what he did. I have no doubt that he’s going to have — he has had his defenders in the House of Representatives; he will certainly have Mitch McConnell and his defenders in the Senate. I’m not naive. I don’t believe that Mitch McConnell and his buddies are going to take an impeachment from the House, if the president is impeached in the House — and I believe he will be — they’re not going to take that and turn that into a removal. However, the American people are paying attention. And I believe that if they don’t remove him, it’s going to have dire consequences for them in November of 2020.

AMY GOODMAN: While you’re out on the campaign trail, your brother, your identical twin brother, Joaquin Castro, is, of course, on the House Intelligence Committee that is questioning the candidates [sic]. I want to go to a lighter moment in the hearings, when Congressman Castro begins to question Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman during Tuesday’s impeachment hearings.

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO: Colonel Vindman, thank you for your service, and it’s great to talk to a fellow identical twin. I hope that your brother is nicer to you than mine is to me, and doesn’t make you grow a beard.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Congressman Joaquin Castro. Secretary Julián Castro, do you care to defend yourself?

JULIÁN CASTRO: No, you know, well, I said on Twitter that if I had known it was going to look that bad on him, I wouldn’t have suggested it.

AMY GOODMAN: The beard.

JULIÁN CASTRO: No, I’m — I sent my brother a text yesterday, I think before he asked his questions, just telling him to make sure that he didn’t look rumpled on TV, that everybody is watching. But, actually, I’m very proud of Joaquin. This is his fourth term representing the 20th Congressional District of Texas. For those who have been watching the impeachment hearings, he’s had excellent questions, including yesterday. I think he used some of the footage of Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney talking, basically admitting, before Ambassador Sondland said it on the record — admitting that there was a quid pro quo. So, he’s doing a great job. And so are all of the Democrats on that committee. I mean, they’re trying to get at the truth, unlike, unfortunately, what we see on the other side with people like Representative Jordan and Representative Nunes, who are living in another world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, I wanted to turn now from the impeachment hearings to the debate, the fifth Democratic presidential candidate debate, that was held last night. It was the first one that you were not a part of. Can you explain why you were not invited to be part of this 10?

JULIÁN CASTRO: Well, as a lot of your viewers know, this is the first year that the Democratic National Committee has imposed certain thresholds, polling thresholds and fundraising thresholds, in order for candidates to get on that debate stage. And the thresholds for the November and December debates were that you had to get four polls at 3% either nationally or in one of the four early states, or two 5% polls nationally. And, you know, we did not hit those thresholds.

You know, I understand their thinking, in terms of bringing order to a race that has more Democrats running than ever before. At the same time, I think they’re going to have to go back and reevaluate these thresholds, because it’s clear that people can buy their way onto that debate stage. You can buy an increase in polling at those kinds of numbers. Polling itself, when you’re dealing in those kinds of numbers, is not that precise. All of that — 2%, 3%, 4% — is within the margin of error. And on top of that, I question whether — when we get to November, December, you’re right near the Iowa caucus — whether they should have kept increasing the threshold in the first place.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I wanted to ask you about this key issue of polling and also the first two primary and caucus states, of being among the whitest states in the country. And this is a question you’ve been asked before. But during the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice earlier this month in South Carolina, I had a chance to ask one of your political rivals about this, Senator Elizabeth Warren, about the order of the primaries and caucuses.

bq. *AMY GOODMAN: Senator Warren, just 30 seconds left. But speaking about racial injustice, do you think the order of the primary states should change? You have Iowa and New Hampshire —

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Wait, let me make — let me just — before you finish, are you actually going to ask me to sit here and criticize Iowa and New Hampshire?

AMY GOODMAN: No, I’m asking about the order.

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: No, that is what Iowa and New Hampshire are all about.

AMY GOODMAN: But let me just ask. They’re two of the whitest states in the country, and then we move to South Carolina with a very significant population of people of color, and it means the candidates spend so much of their time catering to those first two states. Overall, do you think that should change?

SEN. ELIZABETH WARREN: Look, I’m just a player in the game on this one. And I am delighted to be in South Carolina. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you so much.

MUSTAFA ALI: Thank you, Senator.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Senator Elizabeth Warren’s comment. And, of course, candidates do not want to disparage states or talk about changing order when this is the key states. A number of candidates drop out after these first two primaries and caucuses. And in the lead-up, the longest lead-up in history of a presidential pre-primary season, these candidates — and I’m sure including you, Secretary Castro — go endlessly to these two states, going to so many different areas, addressing their concerns. Can you talk about whether you see this as a major problem?

JULIÁN CASTRO: Yeah. And, you know, I’ve been there, to New Hampshire and Iowa, a number of different times, on many occasions now, as you can imagine. We’re pretty deep into the presidential primary — I mean, primary campaign cycle. And the people are wonderful. I’ve said I’ve been pleased with the way that we’ve been received. Everybody has been very nice.

But, Amy, you’re correct in the concerns that you raised in, you know, that forum, which is that these two states, Iowa and New Hampshire, simply do not reflect the diversity of the Democratic Party or of the United States. And Iowa has been the first to vote since 1972. And our country has changed a lot, our party has changed a lot since 1972.

Further, the Democratic Party, justifiably, has pressed the case against Republicans for trying to suppress the votes of people of color in different ways, whether voter ID or gerrymandering or throwing people off the rolls or closing early voting polls on Sundays, when there’s a greater proportion of African Americans that go to vote, in Souls to the Polls drives across the country. So, we should do that. But we can’t just do that and then turn around and start our primary process, our nominating process for president, in two states that hardly have any black people, hardly have any people of color, that does not reflect the values that we say we espouse. And my point has been, I understand the tradition, but, look, it’s a different day and age, and we need to have the DNC change that primary ordering process and give other states an opportunity to go first.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, Secretary Castro, I want to ask you about the discrepancy in funding between white and other candidates who are running for the nomination. Earlier this month, Axios ran a piece titled “The racial wealth gap among 2020 Democrats.” It revealed, quote, “The leading white candidates in the Democratic presidential primary combined have nearly four times as much cash on hand as all five non-white candidates.” Secretary Castro?

JULIÁN CASTRO: Well, I mean, I think that’s a function of the fact that right now these candidates are the leading candidates. And, you know, these two things go together, right? They’re raising more money now because they’re near the top of the polls. They’re near the top of the polls because, in part, they’ve been able to raise more money.

I think that, you know, one of the biggest challenges of the 2020 cycle for some of us who are running is that right now, for a decent percentage of the voters — and certainly there’s a media, mainstream media, narrative that’s been created, and this mainstream media narrative is that it’s going to take a certain type of candidate that can appeal specifically to a white Midwestern voter, that that’s what’s going to beat Donald Trump. And because of that, I think that folks are gravitating toward certain types of candidates.

My point all along has been that if we want to win this election, we actually have to electrify that Obama coalition, a diverse coalition of people of different backgrounds, working-class people, young and old, from every part of the country. That’s how we’re going to win, not — we’re not going to win if we believe that we only have to or we can just appeal to one certain type of voter in one part of the country. If we do that, we’re actually risking giving the election back to Donald Trump, because if our candidate, if our nominee can’t appeal to a whole cross-section of voters, yeah, you may increase your take, your share of voters in one part of the country, of one profile, but, you know, you’re going to lose a lot of people in other places, and you’re going to lose the election.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, Julián Castro, do you think the primary order should change? Is there any reason that this should continue as it is? We interviewed the head of the Democratic Party in Texas, Gilberto Hinojosa, and he said he can’t get the candidates down for forums in Texas, a major state in the United States, far larger than the first two primary states, and, of course, a majority-minority state. But they’re too busy in Iowa and New Hampshire.

JULIÁN CASTRO: Oh, of course that order should change. And I’ve made that point very clearly and bluntly. And you know what? I believe that there are a lot of people in Iowa and New Hampshire that appreciate a candidate telling the truth. And I would say to them, “Look, I just told you the truth about what we need to do.” And I was in Iowa when I did it. I’ll tell you the truth now, and if I’m elected president, I’m going to tell you the truth when I’m president. And we need to change the order of those states to reflect the diversity of our country and of the Democratic Party.

AMY GOODMAN: Julián Castro, I want to thank you for being with us, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development from 2014 to 2017. Are you staying in the race?

JULIÁN CASTRO: I am. I’m working and fighting through Iowa. And all throughout this campaign, we’ve been speaking up for the most marginalized, people that are often forgotten, the poor. And I’m going to keep doing that.

AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much. When we come back, we will be joined by a roundtable of people to talk about what was raised and wasn’t raised in last night’s fifth Democratic presidential primary debate. It was held in Atlanta, Georgia. Stay with us.

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