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'It's going to blow up': Trump impeachment witnesses describe scheme to use US government for domestic political means

Former White House adviser Fiona Hill has testified that the vast majority of the American diplomatic and intelligence community believed a central thrust behind Donald Trump’s demands that Ukraine launch an investigation were based on a “fictional narrative” pushed by Russians intent on casting a dark cloud over the American electoral system, and that the unconventional American effort to pursue it was "going to blow up".

The damning remarks undercut a central element of the Republican argument against the impeachment narrative — that the president had good reason to ask for a foreign leader to effectively interfere and dig into American elections – and came amid hours of testimony from Dr Hill, alongside evidence from David Holmes, a top staffer at the US embassy in Ukraine.

Throughout the hearing, Democrats quizzed the witnesses on what they had seen, heard, and done over the course of this year, as Mr Trump oversaw an effort to apparently compel Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden and the most recent presidential election. Republicans, meanwhile, sought to cast the hearings once again as a partisan attack on a president who acted within the bounds of the law, if unusually.

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And, early on, Dr Hill undermined Republican messaging that seeks to defend Mr Trump seeking an investigation into 2016 from Ukraine, and suggested it showed enduring damage caused by Russia that year. 

“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,” Dr Hill — who specialises in Soviet, Russian and European affairs —told the committee. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

She continued: “The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. This is the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies, confirmed in bipartisan Congressional reports. It is beyond dispute, even if some of the underlying details must remain classified.”

Mr Holmes, during his sometimes contentious testimony, told the House Intelligence Committee that he had been near EU ambassador Gordon Sondland when he spoke to Mr Trump by phone in a Kiev restaurant, just one day after the now infamous 25 July phone call. Miming Mr Sondland’s behaviour on the phone call, Mr Holmes said that he was able to overhear Mr Trump, “loud and recognisable”, ask not about Ukraine corruption, but rather as to whether Mr Zelensky would announce an investigation into the Bidens.

He “does not give a ‘expletive’ about Ukraine,” Mr Sondland said after that phone conversation in a Ukrainian restaurant, according to Mr Holmes. He only cares about the “big stuff … like the Biden investigation.”

It was a part of the testimony that Mr Trump himself had already preempted. On Twitter, he had claimed in the morning that he had never in his life overheard someone speaking on the phone when not on speaker phone — an assertion that gleaned considerable ridicule, and prompted a CNN anchor to disprove the general argument on live TV by calling his own mother and seeing if a colleague could overhear her.

“I have been watching people making phone calls my entire life. My hearing is, and has been, great. Never have I been watching a person making a call, which was not on speaker phone, and been able to hear or understand a conversation,” Mr Trump tweeted. “I’ve even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!”

Responding to Mr Sondland’s testimony from Wednesday, Dr Hill recognised that the two had clashed previously, when they had a testy exchange because he was not including the US diplomatic and foreign policy community in on decisions related to Ukraine. But, she said that, having heard his Wednesday testimony, she realised that they were not working on the same issues.

“And what I was angry about was that he wasn’t coordinating with us. I now actually realise, having listened to his deposition, that he was absolutely right. That he wasn’t coordinating with us because we weren’t doing the same thing that he was doing,” she said of the effort by Mr Sondland and others to fulfil the president’s demands for a Ukraine investigation.

She later added: “Because he was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those things had just diverged.”

Fiona Hill confirms the story that at age 11 a boy set her pigtails on fire during a test

But Dr Hill also said she predicted that that divergence would not end well. “I did say to him, Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is going to blow up. And here we are,” she said.

But beyond the testimony came the political spin, with House members on both sides of the aisle attempting to explain what they had heard to fit the narrative they wanted as the two sides continue the fight over public opinion.

Dean Phillips, a Democrat from Minnesota, told The Independent that the testimony — which included point-blank confirmation from Mr Holmes of a “quid pro quo” — amounted to the latest signal that things were looking up for Democrats.

“These pieces of the puzzle are being put together. The timeline, the corroboration, the authenticity of all the witnesses are very helpful to me as I piece it together,” Mr Phillips said.

He continued: “The intelligence community has articulated the same perspective that Dr Hill has today for sometime. This does not seem to have to been digested by many, and whether that changes anything I don’t know. But to hear someone who has served under both Republican and Democratic administrations share that truth is important, and it’s important [for] Americans to know in an era where it’s so difficult for so many to ascertain facts.”

Fiona Hill and David Holmes take their seats before giving evidence at the public impeachment hearings into Donald Trump (AP)

Raja Krishnamoorthi, of Illinois, lauded the witnesses: “I think these witnesses are incredibly brave. They have no reason to lie and in some cases they’re risking their careers coming here, and they’ve provided tremendous testimony that has filled in a lot of holes. The people that aren’t coming in are relying on different defences or just flat-out obstructing, and we’re not going to wait on them because based on what everyone said, there may be ongoing offences in this White House today and we have to do everything we can to put a stop to it.”

He continued: “We can’t let foreign policy ever be run the way that it has been, and we just need to move forward and hold people accountable as necessary.”

Republicans, meanwhile, downplayed the testimony they had just heard.

“I haven’t heard anything that would suggest there’s an ‘a-ha!’ moment,” Mark Meadows, Republican from North Carolina, told The Independent.

Mr Meadows also took issue with the notion that Ukrainians did not try to influence the 2016 election, since officials had run op-eds that were not in support of Mr Trump. When asked how those efforts are similar to the email hacking and disinformation campaign conducted by Russia, he responded: “Since it hasn’t been investigated, how would we know? Has anyone investigated Ukraine’s influence in the 2016 election?”

Republican Scott Perry, of Pennsylvania, said that the testimony was all show, and little reliable substance. “Predictable. Just perceptions and secondhand information — maybe a little first-hand information. It’s testimony that’s meant to be inflammatory, meant to be derogatory … and very little has anything to do with the president directly.”

“The testimony was consistent with their depositions,” said Michael Conaway, Republican of Texas.

The session was the last scheduled impeachment hearing. Democrats have indicated that they would like to move quickly with the investigation, even though much of the evidence presented to them so far could lead them to further witnesses, including the likes of John Bolton or Mick Mulvaney, both of whom would likely result in damaging and cumbersome legal battles.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi said during her weekly news conference that she believes the evidence already before the committee shows clearly that Mr Trump used the American government as leverage for his own personal gain. She also indicated Democrats could introduce articles of impeachment before the end of the year.

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ICO