Trump defense undercut
Ex-White House expert on Russia tells panel of EU envoy’s back-channel efforts
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.”
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.
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.