Trump de­fense un­der­cut

Ex-White House ex­pert on Rus­sia tells panel of EU en­voy’s back-chan­nel ef­forts

Orlando Sentinel - - FRONT PAGE - By Karoun Demirjian and Elise Viebeck

WASHINGTON — House Democrats on Thurs­day con­cluded a 72-hour blitz of im­peach­ment in­quiry hear­ings with tes­ti­mony from two wit­nesses who re­in­forced that Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump likely with­held mil­i­tary aid and a cov­eted White House meet­ing from Ukraine to sway that coun­try to in­ves­ti­gate his po­lit­i­cal ri­val.

The tes­ti­mony from Fiona Hill, a for­mer White House ad­viser on Rus­sia, and David Holmes, a coun­selor in the U.S. Em­bassy in Ukraine, closed a dra­matic week in which law­mak­ers sum­moned nine wit­nesses to de­scribe what Democrats be­lieve was a self­serv­ing ef­fort by Trump and his al­lies to co­erce Ukraine into an­nounc­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion into for­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den — to the detri­ment of U.S. na­tional se­cu­rity in­ter­ests.

Their tes­ti­mony might be the

last the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee takes pub­licly as part of its im­peach­ment in­quiry. The com­mit­tee has be­gun writ­ing a re­port sum­ma­riz­ing its find­ings, ac­cord­ing to peo­ple fa­mil­iar with the mat­ter who spoke on the con­di­tion of anonymity to dis­cuss the Democrats’ next moves. Once that has been com­pleted, pro­ceed­ings will move to the House Ju­di­ciary Com­mit­tee, which will draft spe­cific ar­ti­cles of im­peach­ment.

Hill and Holmes de­tailed tense be­hind-thescenes de­lib­er­a­tions among Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials, pre­sent­ing fresh per­spec­tive on how the col­lec­tive ef­fect of ef­forts by the pres­i­dent and his al­lies ul­ti­mately ben­e­fited Rus­sia, which backs Ukrainian sep­a­ratists fight­ing the gov­ern­ment in Kyiv.

In ad­di­tion to press­ing for in­ves­ti­ga­tions, the pair tes­ti­fied, those aligned with the pres­i­dent — par­tic­u­larly Trump’s per­sonal lawyer Rudy Gi­u­liani — un­der­cut Marie Yo­vanovitch, a re­spected U.S. diplo­mat who served as the am­bas­sador to Ukraine, and spread un­founded al­le­ga­tions that Ukraine, rather than Rus­sia, in­ter­fered in the 2016 U.S. pres­i­den­tial elec­tion.

“This is a fic­tional nar­ra­tive that has been per­pe­trated and prop­a­gated by the Rus­sian se­cu­rity ser­vices,” Hill said.

The two wit­nesses were the last who had been for­mally sched­uled for pub­lic hear­ings — though oth­ers could be added, and the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee is still ex­pected to re­lease the re­main­ing tran­scripts of its pri­vate de­po­si­tions.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., de­clined to say Thurs­day whether she has heard enough to move the im­peach­ment process for­ward, though she as­serted that Democrats would not wait on the courts to com­pel the ap­pear­ance of sev­eral other po­ten­tial wit­nesses. In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee Chair­man Adam Schiff, D-Calif., seemed to make Democrats’ next step clear, say­ing Trump’s ac­tions were “be­yond” even what Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon did in the Water­gate scan­dal that forced him to re­sign.

De­spite some dam­ag­ing tes­ti­mony sug­gest­ing the pres­i­dent wanted a for­eign power to in­ves­ti­gate a U.S. cit­i­zen as part of a quid pro quo, Re­pub­li­cans, so far, have been un­moved.

Rep. Devin Nunes of Cal­i­for­nia, the high­est rank­ing Repub­li­can on the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee, as­serted that Democrats were mak­ing an “at­tempt to over­throw the pres­i­dent.”

Like other wit­nesses be­fore them, Hill and Holmes said they grew in­creas­ingly dis­mayed, start­ing in the spring and sum­mer, as their ef­forts to ar­range a meet­ing be­tween Trump and Ukrainian Pres­i­dent Volodymyr Ze­len­skiy were stymied by Gi­u­liani and oth­ers.

The of­fi­cials said they would come to learn the White House was also with­hold­ing roughly $400 mil­lion of se­cu­rity as­sis­tance from Ukraine, and Holmes said it was his “clear im­pres­sion” that was be­cause Ze­len­skiy would not an­nounce in­ves­ti­ga­tions as Trump and Gi­u­liani wanted.

“While we had ad­vised our Ukrainian coun­ter­parts to voice a com­mit­ment to fol­low­ing the rule of law and gen­er­ally in­ves­ti­gat­ing cred­i­ble cor­rup­tion al­le­ga­tions, this was a de­mand that Pres­i­dent Ze­len­skiy per­son­ally com­mit, on a ca­ble news chan­nel, to a spe­cific in­ves­ti­ga­tion of Pres­i­dent Trump’s po­lit­i­cal ri­val,” Holmes tes­ti­fied.

Hill and Holmes de­scribed how dif­fer­ent of­fi­cials in the U.S. gov­ern­ment seemed to be work­ing at dif­fer­ent pur­poses — and with dif­fer­ent in­struc­tions — in their deal­ings with Ukraine.

In one of the most no­table ex­changes of the day, Hill — un­der ques­tion­ing from com­mit­tee Re­pub­li­cans’ lawyer — de­scribed grow­ing an­gry with Gor­don Sond­land, the U.S. am­bas­sador to the Euro­pean Union, who had told her that Trump tapped him per­son­ally to work on Ukraine is­sues.

In his tes­ti­mony Wed­nes­day, Sond­land ex­plic­itly linked Trump, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and other se­nior of­fi­cials to what he said he came to be­lieve was a cam­paign to pres­sure a for­eign gov­ern­ment to in­ves­ti­gate Bi­den in ex­change for a White House meet­ing and mil­i­tary aid.

Hill said that she con­fronted Sond­land for not co­or­di­nat­ing with her and that he re­sponded he al­ready was brief­ing Trump, act­ing White House chief of staff Mick Mul­vaney, Sec­re­tary of State Mike Pom­peo and na­tional se­cu­rity ad­viser John Bolton.

“Who else,” Hill said Sond­land asked her, “do I have to deal with?” Hill said that watch­ing Sond­land’s tes­ti­mony, she came to un­der­stand he was “ab­so­lutely right.”

“He wasn’t co­or­di­nat­ing with us be­cause we weren’t do­ing the same thing that he was do­ing,” Hill said. “He was be­ing in­volved in a do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal er­rand. And we were be­ing in­volved in na­tional se­cu­rity for­eign pol­icy.”

Hill said she told Sond­land: “Gor­don, I think this is all go­ing to blow up.”

“And here we are,” Hill said.

Fo­cus­ing on the no­tion that Rus­sia in­ter­fered in the 2016 elec­tion, Hill of­fered a blunt warn­ing about the 2020 cam­paign, say­ing the Krem­lin has “geared up to re­peat their” at­tacks and “we are run­ning out of time to stop them.”

She said she raised such is­sues be­cause Rus­sia’s goal was to put the U.S. pres­i­dent — no mat­ter who it might be — “un­der a cloud.”

“This,” she said, “is ex­actly what the Rus­sian gov­ern­ment was hop­ing for.”

ALEX BRAN­DON/AP

For­mer White House na­tional se­cu­rity aide Fiona Hill and David Holmes, a U.S. diplo­mat in Ukraine, ar­rive to tes­tify be­fore the House In­tel­li­gence Com­mit­tee on Capi­tol Hill on Thurs­day.

MATT MC­CLAIN/GETTY

Rank­ing mem­ber Rep. Devin Nunes, right, makes an open­ing state­ment as Chair Rep. Adam Schiff, left, lis­tens be­fore tes­ti­mony by Fiona Hill and David Holmes on Capi­tol Hill on Thurs­day.

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