WASHINGTON (CN) – President Donald Trump and some House Republicans have aired a theory that U.S. allies in Ukraine, rather than adversaries in Russia, interfered in the 2016 elections. Testifying before Congress on Thursday, former senior National Security Council official Fiona Hill cleared the air.
“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” the Russia expert said.
A career national-security official, Hill also warned that Russia’s attacks on U.S. democracy have not ended.
“The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today,” Hill said. “Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined.”
Narrating her upbringing in England, Hill described her journey as an “American by choice” whose family joined the fight against fascist terror during World War II.
“I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent,” Hill remarked, her northern English dialect on display from her congressional perch.
Becoming a U.S. citizen nearly two decades ago did not spare Hill from xenophobic attacks from Trump’s allies, who have besmirched the character, reputation or patriotism of multiple witnesses.
Trump’s former dirty trickster Roger Stone, now a convicted felon, described Hill as a “globalist leftist [George] Soros insider” on InfoWars, an outlet run by pro-Trump conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
In October, Hill told lawmakers that the anti-Semitic conspiracy tying her to a prominent Jewish financier made her the target of death threats. She likened the smear today as the contemporary equivalent of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Another witness earlier this week, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, had been subjected to a similar whisper campaign that Hill called “very unfortunate.”
“This is a country of immigrants,” Hill affirmed, philosophizing later: “This is what, for me, really does make America great.”
For Hill, being a woman presented another challenge for interacting with officials like Gordon Sondland, Trump’s handpicked ambassador to the European Union who testified on Wednesday.
“When women show anger, it isn’t fully appreciated,” Hill remarked with exquisite restraint. “It’s pushed off as being about emotional issues, perhaps, or deflected to other people.”
An assured and charismatic witness undermining Trump’s theories of Ukrainian meddling, Hill made for a star witness for the Democrats for several other reasons. She had been one of two officials who witnessed then-national security adviser John Bolton make the explosive remark: “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and [Trump Chief of Staff] Mulvaney are cooking up.”
Democrats subpoenaed Bolton to testify in the House probe, but the former national security adviser joined a group of officials taking the matter to court. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters at her weekly press conference on Thursday the inquiry will not wait on these rulings and that the chamber has not requested additional witnesses.
If a judge sends those officials to the congressional hot seat, Bolton will certainly be asked to explain another remark attributed to him about the president’s personal attorney.
“Rudy Giuliani is a hand grenade that is going to blow everybody up,” Bolton has been quoted telling Hill, who explained that remark to lawmakers under questioning.
“[Giuliani] was frequently on television making quite incendiary remarks about everyone involved in this and he was clearly pushing forward issues and ideas that would clearly come back to haunt us,” Hill explained.
“In fact, that’s where we are today,” she added.
Career diplomat David Holmes, who overheard Sondland place a phone call to Trump from restaurant in Kyiv, also delivered the blow-by-blow of that conversation during his testimony alongside Hill.
“Gordon Sondland holding for the president,” the ambassador periodically announced on his unsecured line inside a restaurant, Holmes recounted.
Sondland selected the wine for the dining diplomats, and Trump’s booming voice supplied the theatrics. Holmes testified that he could hear the president’s distinctive voice even though the call was not on speaker. Sondland “winced” and moved his ear away from the phone “presumably because of the loud volume,” Holmes said.
“I then heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?’” Holmes recalled. “Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to.’”
This was the same conversation where Sondland told Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass.”
As Trump’s chat with Sondland on an unsecured line turned to A$AP Rocky, an American rapper then incarcerated in Sweden, Holmes remembered neither of the men being optimistic about the musician’s fate.
“Ambassador Sondland told the president that the rapper was ‘kind of f—d there,’ and ‘should have pled guilty,’” Holmes narrated, adding that Sondland advised Trump later to “let him get sentenced, play the racism card, give him a ticker-tape when he comes home.”
“You can tell the Kardashians you tried,” Sondland added, according to Holmes.
For Holmes, the subject matter also made the Trump-Sondland chat indelible.
“They were addressing a topic that led to the recall of my former boss, the former ambassador,” Holmes testified, referring to ousted Marie Yovanovitch. “And here was [Sondland], who said he had direct contact with the president of the United States and here, he is now talking to the president of the United States about this investigation I’ve been hearing about.”
That probe had been the effort to smear Trump’s likely 2020 opponent Joe Biden with allegations related to his son Hunter, who sat on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma.
Like several other impeachment witnesses, Holmes effusively praised Yovanovitch and denounced the smear campaign against her by Trump and Giuliani. Holmes emphasized that their politics sidelined his anti-corruption work with Yovanovitch.
“Specifically, the three priorities of security, economy and justice – and our support for Ukrainian democratic resistance to Russian aggression – became overshadowed by a political agenda being promoted by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a cadre of officials operating with a direct channel to the White House,” Holmes testified.
Holmes, who spent more than a decade in the foreign service, told Congress this was a new experience.
“The barrage of allegations directed at Ambassador Yovanovitch, a career ambassador, is unlike anything I have seen in my professional career,” Holmes said, who noted at the end of his statement that today’s hearing coincided with a solemn anniversary.
“Today marks exactly six years since throngs of pro-Western Ukrainians spontaneously gathered on Kyiv’s Independence Square to launch what became known as the Revolution of Dignity,” Holmes said.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, typically known for his poise and restraint, delivered an uncommonly angry, sarcastic and thundering speech as the week’s impeachment proceedings ended.
Skewering the Republican ranking member Devin Nunes for minimizing the Kremlin’s attack on U.S. democracy as the “Russia hoax,” Schiff noted that Nunes and his colleagues were not so noisy when Trump had been criticized for his submissive performance alongside Vladimir Putin in Helsinki.
“They were silent,” Schiff nearly shouted, spitting out that final word that echoed across the majestic chambers.
Repeatedly invoking the specter of Richard Nixon’s impeachment, Schiff called Trump’s behavior far worse.
“This isn’t a third-rate burglary,” Schiff noted, referencing the break-in at the Watergate Hotel.
As Trump continues to find nearly lockstep support from Republicans in the House, Chairman Schiff invited his colleagues to find this era’s Howard Baker, referring to a then-leading Republican senator on the committee handling the Watergate investigation in 1973.
“What did the president know and when did the president know it,” Baker famously asked.
“Where are the people willing to look beyond their party,” Schiff asked, “To look to their duty?”
The United States’ reputation as a beacon of democracy for those fighting authoritarianism from Turkey to Tahrir Square is on the decline under the Trump White House, Schiff intoned, following a week replete with themes of corruption and state-sponsored smear campaigns.
The chairman’s gloomy message ended on a note of hope.
“We are better than that,” Schiff declared, sharply tapping his gavel to adjourn the proceedings and drawing echoes of applause from the gallery.