- House investigators leading the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump heard testimony from Fiona Hill and David Holmes on Thursday.
- Hill, the former top Russia adviser on the National Security Council, offered a scathing picture of shadowy efforts to urge Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rivals.
- Holmes is a top staffer at the US Embassy in Ukraine and worked closely with Marie Yovanovitch while she was serving as the US ambassador to Ukraine.
- Hill and Holmes said they were “shocked,” “saddened,” and “disappointed” after they read a summary of Trump’s July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, during which Trump repeatedly pressured Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and a conspiracy theory suggesting Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
- They also forcefully defended Yovanovitch’s record and said Trump’s and Rudy Giuliani’s “smear campaign” against her was “shameful.”
- Scroll down to follow Insider’s live coverage and watch the hearing.
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Fiona Hill, the former director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council, and David Holmes, a top staffer at the US Embassy in Ukraine, testified before House investigators Thursday for the public impeachment hearings into President Donald Trump.
Watch the hearing here:
Hill gives a masterclass on what it means to be a fact witness.
Throughout the hearing, Hill made it a point to walk straight down the middle. She sometimes disagreed with Democrats and sometimes disagreed with Republicans.
She expressed her support for the president. She denounced the attacks on him during the 2016 campaign and after as “unfair.” She said a Politico story describing Ukrainian officials’ support for Hillary Clinton during the election was credible.
Hill sympathized with Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, who has received threats from her critics, and she praised Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup for his service to the country and his “elegant” and “eloquent” statements at the hearing.
At the same time, the former NSC official made it a point to delineate the unusual and dangerous nature of a pressure campaign against Ukraine based on political reasons. She shot down the notion that Russian interference in 2016 is a “hoax.”
She made a powerful statement denouncing the notion of any president asking a foreign power to investigate a political rival. She forcefully defended a US ambassador who Hill said was subjected to a “shameful” and unfortunate “smear campaign” from the president and his lawyer.
She laid out, in dramatic and minute detail, the troubling way the president deployed his men to strongarm an ally into delivering political dirt while withholding vital military aid and a White House meeting.
Through it all, she emphasised that she and Holmes testified as “fact witnesses” and nothing more.
Hill: “It is not credible to me” that Sondland didn’t know “Burisma” was code for “Biden” when he testified.
Hill cast doubt on Sondland’s claim that he didn’t know that Burisma was a code word for Biden while he was carrying out Trump’s pressure campaign in Ukraine.
“It is not credible to me that he was oblivious,” Hill said of Sondland.
This was indeed a dubious claim from Sondland, given that Giuliani was all over the mainstream media since earlier this year calling for the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens for corruption based on Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma Holdings.
Holmes and Hill say asking a foreign power to investigate a domestic political rival “sets a very bad precedent.”
Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas asked the two witnesses “if the Congress allows a president of the United State now or later to ask a foreign government, head of state, to investigate a political rival, what precedent does that set for American diplomacy, for the safety of Americans overseas, and for the future of our country?”
“It’s a very bad precedent,” Hill said.
Holmes echoed her: It’s “a very bad precedent, and going forward, if that were ever the case, I would raise objections.”
Hill was asked about a story from her childhood during which someone set her hair on fire while she was taking a test, she put it out with her hands, and went on to finish the test.
Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier asked Hill about an anecdote from her childhood during the hearing that was described in a New York Times profile of the former NSC official.
When Hill was a young girl, a boy she went to school with set her pigtails on fire while she was taking a test. Hill then put the fire out with her own hands and went on to finish the test.
She testified that she was “a bit surprised to see that pop up today.”
“It’s one of the stories I occasionally tell because it had some very unfortunate consequences afterward. My mother gave me a bowl haircut. So for the school photograph later in that week, I looked like Richard the Third,” Hill said as there was a smattering of laughter across the room.
Speier interjected and said the story shows “the fact that you speak truth” and that “you are steely, and I truly respect that.”
Hill makes a powerful statement to the nation: “We need to be together again in 2020 so the American people can make a choice about the future and … make their vote in a presidential election without any fear that this is being interfered in.”
Hill interjected after Republican Rep. Brad Wenstrup finished making his five-minute statement and several other GOP failed to ask her or Holmes any questions.
After Wenstrup ended by denouncing the “Democrat coup” against Trump, Hill asked if she could speak, and Schiff gave her the floor.
“We came as fact witnesses,” Hill said, referring to herself and Holmes. She added that they had both a legal and moral obligation to speak out, and said, “I don’t believe there should be any interference of any kind in our election.”
She also acknowledged that it was unfair of Trump’s critics to attack him during the 2016 campaign, and that “this has put a huge cloud over this presidency and also over our whole democratic system.”
We need to be together again in 2020 so the American people can make a choice about the future and … make their vote in a presidential election without any fear that this is being interfered in … from any quarter whatsoever.
Hill draws a sharp distinction between a smattering of Ukrainian officials disliking Trump, and Russia’s top-down campaign to meddle in the 2016 election
Hill acknowledged that there were some officials in the Ukrainian government who expressed distaste toward Trump during and after the 2016 election.
But she said this was distinctly different from what Russia did, which she described as a “top-down” effort by Putin, one that included the Russian military and intelligence community, to interfere in the 2016 election.
She added that Trump’s dislike of Ukraine was puzzling, given that there were officials from many other countries, including allies, who “said some pretty hurtful things” about Trump.
The difference, however, is that “hasn’t had any major impact on his feelings towards those countries.”
“I’ve also heard the president say … that ‘Ukraine tried to take me down,'” Hill continued. But officials from other countries did the same, “and it did not affect security assistance, having meetings with them. If it would, there’d have been a lot of people he wouldn’t have met with.”
Holmes rolls his eyes as GOP attack dog Jim Jordan questions him
Ohio congressman Jim Jordan has emerged as the tip of the Republican spear in the impeachment inquiry.
On Wednesday, he began asking Holmes about how he told multiple people about Trump’s July 26 phone call with Sondland, where the two discussed that status of the investigations the president wanted.
The call took place one day after Trump’s phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump repeatedly pressured Zelensky to pursue the investigations into Burisma, the Bidens, and the 2016 election.
As Jordan ticked off a list of people Holmes said he told about the call, Holmes rolled his eyes.
It was quite a moment.
David Holmes' eyeroll is a ~ mood ~ as we approach the end of this very long week pic.twitter.com/QDkvQukC2Y
— Vera Bergengruen (@VeraMBergen) November 21, 2019
“At no point,” Jordan said, did Holmes tell Bill Taylor, his boss and the US’s chief envoy in Ukraine, about the July 26 call. “Why?”
Holmes replied, “So, immediately when I went back to the embassy after this lunch on the 26th, I told my direct superviser, the deputy chief of mission. I would have told Ambassador Taylor immediately, except that he was on the front lines” of Ukraine’s war with Russia that afternoon.
“I then went on, as I’ve testified, my vacation on Saturday, came back the following Monday, and on Tuesday, I was back in the ambassador’s office where I referred to the call,” Holmes said.
That same week, Holmes said he assumed the deputy chief of mission would have told others about the phone call, and when he, Holmes, later told Taylor about the call – after Taylor’s deposition – “Ambassador Taylor nodded knowingly, as though he had been briefed on it.”
“So I referred to the call, and I mentioned some of my takeaways from the call and at the time, my main takeaway from the call was, the president doesn’t care about Ukraine, so we’re going to have a tough road ahead to convince him that it’s important enough for him to schedule an Oval Office meeting for President Zelensky and ultimately, to release this hold on security assistance,” Holmes testified.
Hill: Vindman was “justifiably alarmed” when he heard Sondland convey to the Ukrainians that a White House meeting was conditioned on Ukraine publicly committing to the investigations Trump wanted
Hill described the July 10 meeting at the White House with Ukrainian officials and US officials that’s a key data point in the impeachment inquiry.
She said Vindman was “justifiably alarmed” when he heard Sondland convey to the Ukrainians that a White House meeting for Ukraine’s president was conditioned on him publicly committing to the investigations into Burisma and the 2016 election that Trump wanted.
“At this point, I cut it off immediately,” Hill said, referring to the meeting. “By this point, it was clear that Burisma was code for the Bidens because Giuliani was laying it out there.”
“I could see why Col. Vindman was alarmed,” she added. “And he said, ‘This is inappropriate, we’re the National Security Council, we can’t be involved in this.'”
Hill denounces GOP attacks on Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman suggesting he has dual loyalty: “This is a country of immigrants” and it’s what “really does make America great.”
Schiff asked Hill about the attacks on Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the NSC’s top Ukraine expert who’s testified in the impeachment inquiry.
Vindman has been subjected to baseless attacks from the GOP and right-wing media suggesting that he has a dual loyalty because his family immigrated to the US decades ago. They arrived as refugees after fleeing the Soviet Union.
Hill denounced the attacks on Vindman as “very unfortunate.”
“This is a country of immigrants,” Hill said. “This is what, for me, really does make America great. This is, for me, this is the essence of America. It’s why I wanted to be here and why I wanted to stay here.”
Hill told Sondland, “I think this is all going to blow up.”
Hill testified that she and Sondland had several “testy” exchanges because she was angry he wasn’t “coordinating with us” on Ukraine policy.
She went on to say that after reading Sondland’s deposition, she realised he wasn’t coordinating with the regular channel because “we weren’t doing the same thing that he was doing.”
“He was being involved in a domestic political errand,” Hill said. “We were involved in national security, foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged.”
She continued and said that while she hadn’t put her “finger on that at the moment,” she was “irritated” with Sondland and “angry 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: “I was not” encouraged by my last day in office that US policy toward Ukraine “was headed in the right direction”
Hill’s last day serving in the White House was July 19. She found out about the freeze in security assistance to Ukraine the day before.
She testified that she was “concerned about two things in particular.”
Yovanovitch’s sudden removal that had happened two months earlier.
- “I was very concerned about the circumstances in which her reputation had been maligned, repeatedly … and I thought that was completely unnecessary. If the president wanted to remove an ambassador – which he did quite frequently, there was a number of ambassadors who were removed that were not political but career officials – that was done but without these kinds of interventions,” Hill said.
- The “different channel” that was “in operation” with respect to Ukraine. Hill described this channel as being “domestic and political in nature” and “very different” from the regular channel focused on bilateral relations and US foreign policy toward Ukraine. Those channels had “diverged” by the time Hill left, she testified.
Hill describes a tense conversation with Sondland about his oversize and unusual role being ‘in charge of Ukraine’ policy
Hill testified that Sondland’s role “grew larger” after Yovanovitch’s ouster in May.
“I asked him quite bluntly, in a meeting we had in June of 2019… when I had seen that he had started to step up in much more of a proactive role in Ukraine, you know, what was his role here?”
“And he said he was in charge of Ukraine,” Hill testified, referring to Sondland.
“And I said, well, who put you in charge, Ambassador Sondland?” Hill continued. “And he said the president.”
Hill said she was surprised by Sondland’s statement because “we’d had no directive” about his role overseeing Ukraine policy, which he said consisted of a “very broad portfolio” that came directly from Trump.
In her testimony, Hill recounted a very tense July 10 White House meeting in which Sondland emphasised he had an agreement with Mulvaney to get Ukraine to announce an investigation into Burisma.
In an episode Hill also described in her closed-door October 14 deposition, Hill said that Bolton “stiffened” when Sondland raised the prospect of Ukraine announcing an investigation into Burisma in exchange for a White House meeting.
After Bolton abruptly ended the meeting, Hill said she tried to intercept Sondland and make clear to him there should be no discussion of investigations with Ukranian officials.
Hill testified that when she recounted the conversation with Sondland to Bolton, he told her to report it to NSC counsel John Eisenberg immediately, saying, “You go and tell Eisenberg that I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this.”
Hill also defended the ousted Ambassador Yovanovitch, saying the way Yovanovitch was “smeared and attacked” was “shameful.”
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Hill said she was “shocked and saddened” to read the White House’s notes of the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call, and see that Trump had brought up the Biden investigations.
Hill left the White House on July 19, six days before the call took place. She also said there was “no basis” for the theory Trump pushed on the July 25 Zelensky call that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
On the July 25 call, Trump also referenced a discredited conspiracy – also heavily pushed by Giuliani – that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election to benefit Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and that Ukraine was somehow in possession of a DNC server.
“I would like you to do us a favour though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it. I would like you to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike … I guess you have one of your wealthy people … The server, they say Ukraine has it,” Trump said on the call.
In the call, Trump was referencing the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike, which the DNC retained to help them respond to Russia’s breach of its servers during the 2016 election. In reality, there is no single, physical DNC server, and there is no evidence that Ukraine’s government “hid” it from investigators or was in any way involved in the 2016 US presidential election.
In her opening statement, Dr. Fiona Hill slammed the conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election as “a fictional narrative” that plays into Russian hands.
“I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimise an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary and that Ukraine-not Russia-attacked us in 2016. These fictions are harmful even if used for domestic purposes,” Hill said.
She added: “The Russians have a vested interest in undermining Ukraine,” and that the Russian government was “hoping for” a situation that would “put one side of our electorate against the other.”
Fiona Hill addressed Republican members of Congress promoting the conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election: "This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves." pic.twitter.com/1czUtCeWVT
— BuzzFeed News (@BuzzFeedNews) November 21, 2019
Holmes recalled overhearing a July 26 phone call between Sondland and Trump where Trump asked if Zelensky would do “the investigations” into Burisma, and Sondland confirmed he would.
Holmes also testified that Sondland told Trump that Zelensky “loves your arse,” and that Trump and Sondland further discussed rapper A$AP Rocky’s detention in Sweden.
Holmes said he could clearly hear Trump’s voice and the two men were “clearly addressing” Holmes’ area of expertise, with Sondland making it clear that
Holmes also said that Sondland told him that Trump cared about “big stuff” in Ukraine as it related to the Bidens, and not major national security issues, like the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia.
Holmes later said that he learned the aid freeze was intended to express Trump’s dissatisfaction with the lack of investigations into Burisma, and Zelensky was set to “commit on a cable news channel to a specific investigation of President Trump’s political rival “just days after the hold on the aid ended up being lifted.
#DavidHolmes testifies that he was "shocked" that Trump's emissaries made such a "specific demand" that President Zelensky give an interview on CNN to commit publicly "to investigate President Trump's political rival," Joe Biden. #ImpeachmentHearings
— Doug Sovern (@SovernNation) November 21, 2019
Holmes said he was “shocked” to learn during a meeting on July 18 that the US had placed a hold on a previously appropriated aid package to Ukraine.
He added: “the order to freeze aid came from the president and had been conveyed to OMB by Mr. Mulvaney, with no further explanation,” referring to acting White House chief of staff and former OMB Director Mick Mulvaney.
Holmes said that when the transcript of the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call was publicly released on September 25, said he was “deeply disappointed” to learn that Trump had not raised any of the US’ security priorities in the call.
Holmes also recalled US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland complaining about Giuliani’s interference and saying, “Dammnit Rudy, every time Rudy gets involved he f— everything up.”
Holmes described in detail how Sondland, US Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and former US special representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker- termed “the three amigos” – committed themselves to securing a White House meeting between Trump and Zelensky.
Holmes confirmed that it was “made clear” that Ukraine announcing investigations into Burisma was a necessary precondition for a White House meeting, but Holmes said he became increasingly worried that a meeting in which the US did not express sufficient support for Ukraine would be “worse than no meeting at all.”
U.S. diplomat in Ukraine David Holmes: "It became apparent that Mr. Giuliani was having a direct influence on the foreign policy agenda that the 'Three Amigos' were executing on the ground in Ukraine." https://t.co/3BHb2Irq0t #ImpeachmentHearings pic.twitter.com/aTk4DY0hGl
— ABC News (@ABC) November 21, 2019
In his opening statement, diplomat David Holmes praised former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch’s “dedication, determination, decency, and professionalism”
Holmes is a career foreign service officer who currently works as the director of political affairs at the US Embassy in Kyiv.
In his opening statement, he praised former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, a veteran diplomat who was suddenly recalled from her position this spring, and described how Trump’s personal attorney became involved in US-Ukraine policy and ousted Yovanovitch.
Holmes testified that the US’ diplomatic and security interests in Ukraine “became overshadowed by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a cadre of officials with a direct channel to the White House,” Holmes said, then describing how former Ukrainian prosecutor Yuriy Lutensko spread smears and false allegations against Yovanovitch.
“The barrage of allegations directed at Ambassador Yovanovitch, a career ambassador, is unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my professional career,” Holmes said.
He also pushed back forcefully on the conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election to benefit the Democrats. The theory, which is being promoted by Trump and his Republican allies, has no factual basis and stems from Russian propaganda.
What Hill and Holmes testified to behind closed doors
Hill was the top adviser on Russia in the White House until she left the administration over the summer.
Her testimony could offer the clearest picture of how the national security adviser John Bolton responded to shadow efforts to pressure Ukraine to launch investigations into Trump’s rivals. Bolton, who has refused to testify, was apparently disconcerted by these efforts, according to Hill’s closed-door testimony.
The Russia expert testified privately that Bolton, who exited the White House in early September, once said he didn’t want to be part of whatever “drug deal” the US ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, and the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, were “cooking up” with regard to Ukraine.
Bolton did not initially realise the extent to which Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was involved in these matters, Hill said.
Hill said Bolton described Giuliani as a “hand grenade that is going to blow everybody up” and instructed her to communicate with the NSC’s lawyer about the efforts to pressure Ukraine to launch the investigations.
She offered a particularly scathing assessment of the smear campaign that ultimately led Marie Yovanovitch to be removed as the US ambassador to Ukraine.
Yovanovitch’s removal was a “result of the campaign that Mr. Giuliani had set in motion,” Hill testified. She said there was “no basis” for removing Yovanovitch.
The impeachment inquiry spiraled out of a whistleblower complaint that centered on a July 25 phone call in which Trump urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden as well as a baseless conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election.
The White House released a memo that summarized the call. Hill said she was “very shocked” and “very saddened” when she read the memo.
Hill is a widely respected academic and expert on Europe and Russia, directing the Centre on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution from 2009 to 2017. She began working in the Trump administration in April 2017 and also served as national intelligence officer for Russia and Eurasia at the National Intelligence Council from 2006 to 2009.
Holmes, who testified to House investigators in a closed-door hearing last week, was a last-minute addition to the list of witnesses in this week’s impeachment inquiry schedule. As a top staffer at the US Embassy in Ukraine, he’s worked closely with Yovanovitch as well as another key impeachment witness – the acting US ambassador to Ukraine, Bill Taylor.
In his closed-door testimony, Holmes told House investigators that he overheard Sondland mention investigations in a July 26 phone call with Trump, which was one day after the call with Zelensky that prompted the whistleblower complaint. He was sitting with Sondland at a restaurant in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv at the time of the call.
Holmes testified that he overheard Sondland tell Trump that Zelensky “loves your arse” and that the Ukrainian president planned to move forward with “the investigation.”
“I then heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?’ Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to,'” Holmes said.
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