The impeachment testimony from Fiona Hill and David Holmes proved to be yet another captivating affair, following just over a week after the first public impeachment hearings began into Donald Trump’s alleged efforts to coerce Ukraine into opening an investigation into a political rival.
The witnesses — Dr Hill a former Russia expert for the National Security Council, and Mr Holmes a Ukraine diplomat — largely supported what we’ve heard so far in the hearings on the most important points.
That included testimony that Mr Trump demanded, in his own way, a quid pro quo, and a forceful assertion that efforts by the president to cast blame on Ukraine for 2016 election meddling were playing into Russian narratives.
Here are the top takeaways.
Mr Holmes described, in detail, overhearing Mr Trump speaking to Gordon Sondland over the phone
We learned last week through diplomat William Taylor’s testimony before the impeachment inquiry that Mr Trump had called Mr Sondland — the US ambassador to the EU and an individual tapped to help lead Ukraine policy — just one day after the infamous 25 July phone call between the US president and Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky. During that call, according to people who said they could hear Mr Trump speaking on the other end of the phone, the president asked about the investigation into 2016 and the Bidens.
Mr Holmes confirmed having heard this call, saying Mr Trump’s voice was “loud and recognisable”, and that Mr Sondland was forced at one point to hold the phone away from his ear, apparently because it was so loud.
Mr Sondland then told the president that Mr Zelensky would do anything he asked for, because he “loves your ass”.
Mr Holmes testified that he asked Mr Sondland what the president had said, and the EU ambassador said Mr Trump “does not give an ‘expletive’ about Ukraine”, and that he only cars about the “big stuff … like the Biden investigation”.
Ukraine meddling in the 2016 election? That’s a Russian talking point
This point was hit on, hard, by Dr Hill during her opening remarks. It gets to a core point of Mr Trump’s asking Mr Zelensky to open up an investigation — namely that the country had influenced the 2016 election, and that there was more to dig up. It also contradicts Republicans who have pushed that narrative.
Calling the idea a message “propagated by the Russian security services themselves”, Dr Hill, who is at least the third-foreign born American official to testify before the impeachment inquiry, provided the following comments:
“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, apparently referencing Republican efforts to cast doubt on the extent of Russian meddling in the last presidential election. “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 Trump disregarded advice from his senior officials about that Ukraine conspiracy, to listen to Rudy Giuliani
Dr HIll testified that Mr Trump’s senior advisers had told him that the theory that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 election was false.
“So it is it your understanding then that president Trump disregarded the advice of his senior officials about this theory and instead listened to Rudy Giuliani’s views?” asked Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman.
“That appears to be the case, yes,” Dr Hill said.
“No” it is not appropriate for political parties to go to different countries and dig up dirt
During Republican questioning, Devin Nunes asked Dr Hill and Mr Holmes if they thought it improper for US political parties to dig up dirt abroad, referring to a debunked conspiracy theory that a Democratic National Committee operative named Alexandra Chalupa had travelled to Ukraine in 2016 to dig up dirt on Mr Trump.
“Is it appropriate for a political campaign to run operations in a foreign country to dig up dirt on their political opponents?” Mr Nunes asked.
Both said no, they do not think that would be appropriate. The moment is startling considering a couple of things. First, Dr Hill had forcefully told the committee in her opening testimony that Ukraine did not interfere in the 2016 election, and the president’s apparent fixation on that idea plays into Russian talking points. Second, it’s literally what Rudy Giuliani has said he did in Ukraine on behalf of the president, leading up to this very impeachment hearing.
It was “obvious” that Mr Trump wanted an investigation before he would release aid to Ukraine
Mr Holmes, during questioning from congressman Jim Jordan, appeared to get somewhat fed up with the Republican, and explained to him that he and others understood “exactly” what Mr Trump wanted. He wanted an investigation into the Bidens, otherwise he would not release military aid.
The exchange came at the tail end of Mr Jordan’s questioning, and saw the Republican repeatedly interrupting the witness, exacerbating him further. At one point, Democratic chairman Adam Schiff warned him “Mr Jordan, you may not like the witness’ answer, but we will hear it.”
John Bolton refused to be a part of “whatever drug deal” that Mr Mulvaney and Mr Sondalnd were “cooking up”
Dr Hill during her testimony detailed a meeting between herself, former national security adviser Mr Bolton, Mr Mulvaney and Mr Sondland, among others. She said that Mr Sondland leaned in during that meeting and referenced agreed to “investigations”, which caused Mr Bolton to stiffen, she said. She called this body language “unmistakeable”, and that he left the meeting soon after.
She noted that Mr Mulvaney and Mr Sondland had agreed to an investigation “into Burisma”, during a later exchange.
She then said that she had a discussion with Mr Bolton on these matters, and he said, “he was making a very strong point that he wanted to know exactly what was being said, and when I came back and related it to him he had some very specific instructions for me … specific instruction was that I had to go to the lawyers… to basically say, ‘you tell [them] that I am not part of this whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up.’”