WASHINGTON – Former National Security Council Russia expert Fiona Hill and diplomat David Holmes testified in what may be the final public impeachment hearing Thursday, reinforcing previous witnesses’ assertions that President Donald Trump directly linked a White House meeting and military aid to Ukrainian investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 election.
Hill said she realized she had been cut out of diplomatic discussions because, while she was engaged in national security matters, Gordon Sondland, American ambassador to the European Union, was on a “domestic political errand” in Ukraine on behalf of Trump.
“I had not put my finger on that at the moment, but I was irritated with him and angry with him that he wasn’t fully coordinating. And I did say to him, ‘Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up.’ And here we are,” Hill said.
In a direct rebuke to Trump and his GOP defenders, Hill also debunked claims of Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election.
“Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country – and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” she said. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
“Right now, Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election,” Hill warned. “We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
The hearing’s most incendiary revelation came from Holmes, who serves as political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. He provided a firsthand account – previously shared with the committee behind closed doors – of a Trump telephone call inquiring about a potential investigation into Biden and his son Hunter’s involvement with a Ukrainian natural gas company, Burisma.
Holmes said that on July 26 – one day after the notorious phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens – he went out for lunch at a restaurant in Kiev with Sondland. Gordon Sondland, American ambassador to the European Union.
During the lunch, Holmes said Sondland called Trump at the White House from his personal cell phone to update him on progress in Ukraine. “I could hear the president’s voice from the earpiece of the phone,” Holmes said. “The president’s voice was very loud and recognizable.”
“I then heard President Trump ask, ‘So (Zelensky’s) gonna do the investigation?’” Holmes continued. “Ambassador Sondland replied that, ‘he’s gonna do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to.’”
Holmes’s testimony challenged the Republican line of defense that Trump did not personally direct efforts to have Ukraine investigate the Bidens.
His statement came one day after Sondland’s bombshell testimony, in which the E.U. ambassador said Ukraine was pressured to launch investigations “at the express direction” of Trump, and that “everyone was in the loop.”
Hill served as a top aide to former National Security Adviser John Bolton. She left the National Security Council July 19, shortly before Trump’s pivotal phone call with Zelensky.
In addition to voicing strong concerns about Russia, Hill told Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman that she was present in a meeting where Sondland mentioned the Ukraine investigations and later said they were being pushed by him and Trump’s chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney.
“‘We have an agreement that certain investigations will be moving forward,’” she recalled Sondland saying. Hill then said she was urged by Bolton to meet with NSC lawyers and tell them he was not “part of whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland (were) cooking up.”
Republicans largely circumvented the substance of Hill and Holmes’ charges, instead hammering away at the origins of the FBI’s and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigations into the 2016 presidential election and the soundness of the witnesses’ recollections.
Trump tweeted at the start of the day: “Corrupt politician Adam Schiff’s lies are growing by the day. Keep fighting tough, Republicans, you are dealing with human scum who have taken Due Process and all of the Republican Party’s rights away from us during the most unfair hearings in American History.”
White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham later said in a statement that Holmes and Hill relied “heavily on their own presumptions, assumptions and opinions. These two witnesses… have no personal or direct knowledge of why U.S. aid was temporarily withheld.”
Republican counsel Steve Castor seized on this point, asking, “Is it fair to say that stops and starts in aid like this sometimes do happen?”
Hill responded in the affirmative, but stressed that Sondland’s increasingly direct involvement with Ukraine and concurrent meetings with top Trump administration officials made the withholding highly unusual.
“I was angry… that he wasn’t fully coordinating with us.” Hill said. “(Sondland) said, ‘I’m meeting the President. I’m meeting with Chief of Staff Mulvaney. I’m meeting with Secretary (Mike) Pompeo.’”
California Rep. Devin Nunes, the panel’s ranking Republican member, disparaged the integrity of the impeachment proceedings, and referenced the apocryphal Steele dossier, which he said helped launch an FBI investigation into the Trump campaign’s alleged ties to Russia in 2016.
“From the Russia hoax to this shoddy Ukrainian sequel, the Democrats got caught,” he said. “The Democrats and the Clinton campaign were the source of funds for the Steele dossier.”
And fervent Trump defender Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, grilled Holmes on why Ukraine Ambassador William Taylor didn’t mention the call in Kiev where Holmes said he heard Trump asking about investigations into the Bidens during Taylor’s testimony last week. (In fact, Taylor revealed that previously unknown call during his Nov. 13 testimony before the panel.)
“You said you went on vacation and told several friends and family about the call. You said you came back and told Ambassador Taylor about the call,” Jordan said in a raised voice.
Holmes said he reported the call to his direct supervisor, and would have briefed Taylor himself, but the ambassador was away. He said he believed other embassy officials would have briefed Taylor on the call during Holmes’ absence.
And when he referenced what he called the “takeaway” from the call – that Trump “(didn’t) care about Ukraine,” his colleagues nodded knowingly.
Intelligence committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-California made clear his position that Trump “sought to weaken Biden and refute the fact that his own election had been helped by Russian hacking.”
Schiff said that if the president abused his power and aimed to pressure a foreign nation to influence our elections, “it will be up to us to decide whether those acts are compatible with the office of the presidency.”
Goldman focused his questioning on the sequence of events surrounding the Kiev phone call and Sondland’s shadow diplomacy in Ukraine.
Both witnesses expressed alarm at what they called a smear campaign led by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and Ukraine’s former Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, which disparaged former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and resulted in her ouster.
“The barrage of allegations directed at Ambassador Yovanovitch, a career ambassador, is unlike anything I have seen in my professional career,” Holmes said.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, called the accusations “career assassination,” and asked Holmes whether Zelensky’s failure to secure a meeting with Trump made Ukraine look weak and benefited Russia.
“Absolutely,” he said.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, told reporters “we haven’t made any decisions yet” about whether to move forward with articles of impeachment.
But she was clearly satisfied with the intelligence panel proceedings.
“The evidence is clear,” Pelosi said, “that the president has used his office for his own personal gain and in doing so undermined the national security of the United States by withholding military assistance to the Ukraine, to the benefit of the Russians.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-California, told MSNBC that the intelligence panel planned to continue its investigation but no more public hearings were scheduled for now.
If the House ultimately passes articles of impeachment against Trump, the case would be tried in the Senate.