Impeachment Witnesses Detail Russian Meddling, Pressure on Ukraine

Former White House national security aide Fiona Hill and David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, are sworn in Thursday to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, during a public impeachment hearing of President Donald Trump’s efforts to tie U.S. aid for Ukraine to investigations of his political opponents.(AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

WASHINGTON (CN) — Capping off a whirlwind week of public testimony in the House’s impeachment inquiry, the Intelligence Committee heard Thursday from former top National Security Council expert Fiona Hill and career diplomat David Holmes. Here are the top takeaways from their testimony so far:

 

Hill delivers stern warning about Russia
Instead of delivering a lengthy opening statement restating her prior testimony, Hill used her time speaking to the committee to deliver a warning that Russia’s attempts to meddle in U.S. politics are ongoing and had crept into the inquiry itself.

Former White House national security aide Fiona Hill arrives to testify Thursday before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Hill chastised Republicans for seemingly casting doubt on the U.S. intelligence community’s unanimous assessment that Russia interfered in the 2016 presidential election, a doubt Hill said came through in questions they had asked at previous hearings.

Republicans have throughout the public hearings referenced a discredited conspiracy theory that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 presidential election, suggesting such meddling would justify Trump’s insistence on investigations by Ukraine. Trump mentioned the theory over the phone to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25, in the call that triggered the impeachment inquiry.

But Hill said the idea flows from a “fictional narrative” pushed by Russia itself and urged Republicans not to take the bait.  

“In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” Hill testified.

Hill also warned that the United States is running out of time to counter Russia’s attempts at interfering in the upcoming 2020 election.

At the hearing, Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the committee, worked to undercut Hill’s expected testimony by introducing into the record a report on Russian interference published by House Republicans in March 2018. The report acknowledges that Russians interfered in the 2016 election, but downplays the intelligence community’s finding that the Kremlin preferred for Trump to win.

Hill said the Russian interference in the election was aimed at putting whoever won the election, including Hillary Clinton, “under a cloud” and cautioned lawmakers against giving Russia “more fodder” it could use to interfere in the 2020 election.

“They wanted to make sure that whoever they had bet on, or whoever they tried to tip the scales would also experience some discomfort, that they were beholden to them in some way, that they would create just the kind of chaos that we have seen in our politics,” Hill said.

 

Lifting the hold on U.S. aid was not the end
Holmes is best known in the impeachment inquiry for overhearing U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland speak to President Trump on the phone about the investigations that the White House sought into the energy company Burisma and the 2016 presidential election.

David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, returns from a break Thursday to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Describing the pressure Ukraine felt to conduct the investigations, Holmes noted that Ukraine’s desire for U.S. support did not end when the White House transmitted a $400 million aid package in September after months of delay.

“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 said there were indications after the hold was lifted that Zelensky was going to go forward with announcing the investigations in a CNN interview. Witnesses have testified they understood the announcement of those investigations was a condition for a White House meeting as well as the release of the aid package, and that CNN was the preferred venue for the announcement.

“In short, everybody thought there was going to be an interview and that the Ukrainians believed they had to do it,” Holmes said, though he acknowledged the declaration never happened.

In addition to the coveted White House meeting, Holmes noted Zelensky’s administration is working to secure a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin with the goal of facilitating peace talks.

The testimony about the continued pressure Ukraine felt to announce the investigations goes to a Trump defense in the impeachment inquiry: His allies have said that, because the aid eventually flowed without Ukraine announcing the investigations, there was no harm done.

Three Amigos on a ‘domestic political errand’
Throughout her testimony, Hill was critical of the help Rudy Giuliani got in Ukraine from the self-anointed “three amigos,” Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker.

Ambassador Gordon Sondland, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, testified Wednesday before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Hill described Sondland as not “particularly interested” in the policies that national-security experts thought the United States should be advancing in Ukraine, and recalled her early frustrations over the ambassador’s refusal to involve the National Security Council on meetings related to Ukraine.

But today, Hill said, she realizes Sondland was “absolutely right” because his work was different from what the policy experts were doing and needed to be reported to different people.

“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 testified. “So he was correct. And I had not put my finger on it at the moment, but I was irritated with him that he wasn’t fully coordinating.”

The key piece of Hill’s testimony, which first came out in her closed-door deposition, concerned a July meeting with Ukrainian officials at the White House that her boss, John Bolton, cut short after Sondland mentioned the investigations as a condition of a White House meeting.

At Bolton’s direction, Hill confronted Sondland about his suggestion after the meeting ended and later reported concerns she and Bolton had about his comments to a National Security Council attorney. 

In her testimony Thursday, Hill also undercut Sondland’s testimony from the day before by saying it was clear early on that references to investigations into Burisma were code for investigations into the Bidens.

“It is not credible to me that he was oblivious to this,” Hill said of Sondland.

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