Washington, DC – Two key witnesses told the United States House of Representatives impeachment inquiry that a number of officials openly pushed Ukraine for partisan investigations with the knowledge and backing of President Donald Trump as US military aid was being withheld from the Eastern European country.
Fiona Hill, the former senior director for Russia and Europe at the White House National Security Council, and David Holmes, the top political counsellor at the US embassy in Kyiv, testified on the fifth day of public hearings in the impeachment inquiry.
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Trump is likely to face an impeachment vote in the House of Representatives in mid-December. If he is impeached, he would face a lengthy trial on the charges in the Republican-majority US Senate in January and February just months before the 2020 presidential election.
Holmes and Hill, both career foreign service officers, gave first-hand accounts of meetings and conversations at the White House and in Kyiv that Democrats said were damning to the president’s claims he did nothing wrong. Trump has repeatedly asserted he did not pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation of Trump’s US domestic rival, former Vice President Joe Biden.
House Democrats leading the impeachment probe have focused on a July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the actions leading up to and following the call of three top officials Trump had been directed to work on Ukraine policy.
The three officials – who jovially called themselves the “Three Amigos” – were Energy Secretary Rick Perry, EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Ukraine Special Envoy Kurt Volker.
“The president did, in fact, have knowledge that those senior officials were using the levers of our diplomatic power to induce the new Ukrainian president to announce the opening of a criminal investigation against Trump’s political opponent,” Holmes told the impeachment inquiry.
Holmes described a key meeting in Kyiv on July 26, the day after Trump asked Zelenskyy in the phone call to open an investigation of Biden and a conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, had hacked Democratic Party emails in 2016.
Perry, Sondland and Volker met with Zelenskyy and his top advisers at the Presidential Administrative Building in Kyiv. Zelenskyy was seeking a commitment from the Americans to a White House meeting with Trump. During the meeting, Zelenskyy noted that “three times Trump had mentioned sensitive issues”, later understood to mean the Biden and 2016 investigations, Holmes said.
After the group meeting, Sondland – who had been pushing the Biden and 2016 investigations for Trump – met one-on-one behind closed doors with Andriy Yermak, a top aid to Zelenskyy.
Holmes said he was prevented by Yermak’s assistant from joining the meeting as the US embassy’s representative and was told that “Ambassador Sondland and Mr Yermak had insisted that the meeting be one-on-one, with no note-taker,” Holmes told the inquiry.
Sondland, Holmes and two other aides then went to lunch at Kyiv restaurant where Sondland ordered wine for the table and placed a cellphone call to Trump “to give him an update”, Holmes recalled.
Sondland told Trump that Zelenskyy “loves your a**”, Holmes said.
Trump was then overheard asking “So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” Holmes testified.
Sondland replied, “He’s gonna do it”, adding that Zelenskyy would do “anything you ask him to”, the official said.
Democrats asked Hill to recount a July 10 White House meeting with Ukrainian security officials.
Near the end of the meeting, convened by former National Security Adviser John Bolton, Sondland raised the president’s interest in the political investigations. Bolton “stiffened” and ended the meeting, Hill said.
After the meeting, Hill said Bolton told her: “Rudy Giuliani is a hand grenade that is going to blow everyone up.”
The problem from Bolton’s perspective was that Giuliani was “frequently on TV bringing up troublesome issues” and “making incendiary comments about everyone involved” with Ukraine, Hill said.
“It became very clear that the White House meeting itself was being predicated” on Ukraine announcing investigations of Biden and 2016, Hill told the inquiry.
Bolton instructed Hill to report Sondland’s inquiry to the Ukrainians to a White House lawyer with the instruction, “I’m not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up.”
Mick Mulvaney is the acting White House chief of staff.
Hill told the inquiry that a narrative being pushed now by Republicans in defence of Trump that Russia did not intervene in US 2016 elections, it may have been Ukraine “is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves”.
Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, argued that it was legitimately within Trump’s authorities as president to express concerns to Ukraine about what happened in the 2016 election and Biden’s role.
“Isn’t that the commander-in-chief’s authority,” Nunes said.
Democrats have sought to impeach Trump from the beginning of his presidency, Nunes said.
Republican Will Hurd allowed that after five days the impeachment testimony showed Trump administration had made mistakes but the president had not committed an impeachable act.
“I disagree with this sort of bungling foreign policy,” Hurd said, but added, “I’ve not heard evidence the president committed bribery or extortion.”