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'I think this is all going to blow up': Witness says EU ambassador was running 'domestic political errand'

A former top White House official on Thursday said that the effort to push Ukraine to open investigations into President Donald Trump's political rivals was a "domestic political errand" that came at the expense of US foreign policy.

Posted: Nov 21, 2019 5:29 AM
Updated: Nov 21, 2019 1:34 PM

(CNN) -- A former top White House official on Thursday said that the effort to push Ukraine to open investigations into President Donald Trump's political rivals was a "domestic political errand" that came at the expense of US foreign policy.

Fiona Hill, who served as Trump's top Russia adviser until she left the administration this summer, told lawmakers at the last scheduled public impeachment inquiry hearing that US Ambassador Gordon Sondland was correct to exclude her from his effort for Ukraine to announce investigations — because Sondland's effort had separated from foreign policy into politics.

"But it struck me when (Wednesday), when you put up on the screen Ambassador Sondland's emails, and who was on these emails, and he said these are the people who need to know, that he was absolutely right," Hill said, referencing emails Sondland had sent to officials that included acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. "Because he was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged."

Hill added: "I had not put my finger on that at the moment, but I was irritated with him and angry with him that he wasn't fully coordinating. And I did say to him, 'Ambassador Sondland, Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up.' And here we are."

Hill is testifying on Capitol Hill on Thursday alongside David Holmes, the counselor for political affairs at the US Embassy in Ukraine, who was thrown into the middle of the impeachment inquiry after he told his boss, US diplomat Bill Taylor, that he overheard a call between Trump and US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.

The testimony from Hill and Holmes added to the roster of career government officials who have come forward in the impeachment inquiry to explain how the push for investigations from Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani moved forward outside normal government channels. Over five days of public testimony, multiple witnesses testified that the investigations into Trump's political opponents were conditioned on a White House meeting the Ukrainians wanted, as well as the releasing of $400 million in security aid that had been frozen.

"From May onwards, it became very clear that the White House meeting itself was being predicated on other issues, namely investigations and the questions about the election interference in 2016," Hill said.

Hill also mounted a forceful defense of another key impeachment inquiry witness, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, saying she grew concerned about his role on Ukraine only because things were shifting into a political realm.

"I did not feel he had the political antenna to deal with something that is straying into domestic politics. Not everyone is suited for that," Hill said. "That does not mean in any way that I was questioning his overall judgment, nor I was questioning in anyway his substantive expertise. He is excellent on issues related to Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, on Russian defense issues."

The testimony from Hill and Holmes comes on what could be the final day of hearings before the House Intelligence Committee in the impeachment inquiry, which has now heard publicly from 12 witnesses in seven hearings over five days' worth of testimony.

As one of the final witnesses, Hill delivered a full-throated rebuttal to the "fictional narrative" pushed by President Donald Trump and his GOP allies, including during the impeachment inquiry hearings, that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. And she warned the House Intelligence Committee the Kremlin is prepared to strike again in 2020 and remains a serious threat to American democracy that the United States must seek to combat.

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

Holmes' testimony also pushed back on several of the defenses offered by Trump and Republicans — that the evidence being offered is second-hand and hearsay and that the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky didn't feel pressure from Trump.

The Ukrainians still feel pressure to this day, Holmes testified, as they need US support while Zelensky tries to arrange a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"Although the hold on the security assistance may have been lifted, there were still things they wanted that they weren't getting, including a meeting with the President in the Oval Office," Holmes said. "Whether the security assistance hold continued or not, the Ukrainians understood that that's something the President wanted, and they still wanted important things from the President."

Holmes told lawmakers that he came forward with his account after reading reports on the impeachment inquiry noting "the lack of 'first-hand' evidence" and suggestions that the evidence being offered was "hearsay."

"I came to realize I had first-hand knowledge regarding certain events on July 26 that had not otherwise been reported, and that those events potentially bore on the question of whether 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 President Trump's political opponent," Holmes said.

Rebutting claims of Ukrainian meddling

Hill's testimony included a subtle jab at some of her former colleagues who have refused to do what she is doing: appearing before the impeachment committees and detailing her experience.

"I believe that those who have information that the Congress deems relevant have a legal and moral obligation to provide it," she says in her opening statement. Former national security adviser John Bolton, Hill's former boss, is among those who've refused to cooperate with impeachment investigators' request to testify.

Multiple witnesses have said that the moving forward on the 2016 election interference investigation -- along with a probe into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter -- amounted to conditions placed on the country before roughly $400 million in military aid for the country was released and a key meeting in Washington between Trump and Zelensky could take place.

Both Giuliani and Trump have urged the Ukrainian government to announce probes into any role the country may have had in the 2016 elections, something Trump brought up himself in his now-infamous July phone call with Zelensky. But Hill in her testimony argues that such a theory amounts to a fictional narrative at a time when the US should be focused on the real threat: Russia, which she warns could once again seek to interfere in the 2020 elections while the US is focused on Ukraine.

Hill added: "We should all be greatly concerned about what the Russians intend to do in 2020."

Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, pushed back on Hill's testimony. He suggested that Ukraine did in fact interfere in the 2016 election, while also pointing to the House Republican report on Russia election interference that was released last year. Nunes held up a copy of the 240-page report and passed them out to the witnesses.

"It's entirely possible for two separate nations to engage in election meddling at the same time, and Republicans believe we should take meddling seriously by all foreign countries, regardless of which campaign is the target," the California Republican said.

'More than worthy of your attention'

Holmes' testimony provided some of the most colorful episodes of the impeachment inquiry — as well as direct evidence that Trump was inquiring about Ukraine opening investigations with Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, when he overheard Sondland's call with Trump the day after the President's July call.

Democrats have repeatedly cited Holmes' testimony that Sondland told him Trump "did not give a s--t" about Ukraine, and only cared about "big stuff" that benefits him like the investigation of the Bidens. Sondland on Wednesday did not dispute that he would have said Trump didn't care about Ukraine, but he did disputing bringing up the Bidens.

Holmes was pressed by Republicans on the contents of the call he overheard between Trump and Sondland and why US diplomat Bill Taylor, who revealed the call to the committee last week, didn't tell the committee sooner.

Rep. John Ratcliffe, a Texas Republican, pressed Holmes for details about what Trump said during the call, including how Trump responded when Sondland told him the Ukrainians would go forward with the investigation.

"Good, what about Sweden?" Holmes eventually said.

Asked about the Ukrainian criticisms of Trump during the 2016 campaign, Hill said Trump had a right to be "aggrieved" by some of the criticisms. But she drew a clear distinction between those efforts and the systemic interference campaign that was run by Russia.

A descendant from generations of coal miners from the United Kingdom, Hill testified Thursday about her family's immigrant roots and why she dedicated her career to work on foreign policy, serving under both Democratic and Republican presidents. She said she believes it's her patriotic duty to answer all questions from the committee about the events that she witnessed.

"If the President, or anyone else, impedes or subverts the national security of the United States in order to further domestic political or personal interests, that is more than worthy of your attention," Hill told lawmakers. "But we must not let domestic politics stop us from defending ourselves against the foreign powers who truly wish us harm."

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