Impeachment Hearing Live Updates: Fiona Hill Calls Ukraine Pressure Campaign a ‘Domestic Political Errand’
Fiona Hill, President Trump’s former top adviser on Russia, and David Holmes, an embassy official in Kyiv, will testify in front of the House Intelligence Committee.CreditCredit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times
Here’s what you need to know:
Hill: Ukraine pressure campaign was a ‘domestic political errand.’
Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert on the National Security Council, arriving to testify on Thursday.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert on the National Security Council, said President Trump’s demands for Ukraine to announce investigations into former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the 2016 elections amounted to a “domestic political errand” that diverged from American foreign policy goals.
Her testimony during Thursday’s impeachment hearing made it clear that Dr. Hill, a longtime Russia expert, saw the pressure campaign on Ukraine as a purely political effort that had nothing to do with the longstanding United States goal of confronting corruption in Ukraine, the explanation that Mr. Trump and Republicans have frequently given for his actions.
Under questioning from the top Republican counsel on the House Intelligence Committee, Dr. Hill said she confronted Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, days before she left the White House on July 19 about his failure to coordinate with other members of the administration.
She said she later realized that Mr. Sondland 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.”
Dr. Hill said she had told Mr. Sondland at the time that, “this is all going to blow up. And here we are.”
Hill denounced ‘fictional’ claim that Ukraine meddled in 2016 election, saying it played into Russia’s hands.
Fiona Hill Calls Claim of Ukraine Interference a ‘Fictional Narrative’
Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert on the National Security Council, told the House Intelligence Committee that Russia, not Ukraine, “systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016.”
Based on questions and statements I’ve 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. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves. 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. The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today. Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career Foreign Service is being undermined. U.S. support for Ukraine, which continues to face armed Russian aggression, has been politicized. The Russian government’s goal is to weaken our country, to diminish America’s global role and to neutralize a perceived U.S. threat to Russian interests. President Putin and the Russian security services aim to counter U.S. foreign policy objectives in Europe, including in Ukraine, where Moscow wishes to reassert political and economic dominance. I say this not as an alarmist, but as a realist. I do not think long-term conflict with Russia is either desirable or inevitable. I continue to believe that we need to seek ways of stabilizing our relationship with Moscow even as we counter their efforts to harm us. Right now, Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.
Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert on the National Security Council, told the House Intelligence Committee that Russia, not Ukraine, “systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016.”CreditCredit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times
Dr. Hill criticized Republicans on Thursday for propagating what she called a “fictional narrative” that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 elections, denouncing a theory embraced by President Trump.
She argued that the story was planted by Russia and dangerously played into Moscow’s hands, by sowing political divisions in the United States that adversaries are eager to exploit.
“These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes,” said Dr. Hill, the co-author of a 500-page book analyzing the psyche of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
“President Putin and the Russian security services operate like a super PAC,” Dr. Hill explained. “They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives. When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each another, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.
The impeachment inquiry centers on the accusation that Mr. Trump withheld a White House visit for Ukraine’s president and security aid for the country as leverage to push the government to announce investigations into Mr. Biden Jr., and the claim that Ukraine conspired to help Democrats in the 2016 election.
Dr. Hill called the claim about Ukraine’s interference a fake story invented by Russian intelligence services to destabilize the United States and deflect attention from their own culpability.
“In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” Dr. Hill said. “These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes.”
Without naming Mr. Trump, Dr. Hill made an implicit rebuke of his conduct.
“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,” Dr. Hill said. “But we must not let domestic politics stop us from defending ourselves against the foreign powers who truly wish us harm.”
Holmes: ‘Clear impression’ that Trump withheld security aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden.
David Holmes, a top aide in the United States Embassy in Kyiv, told lawmakers on Thursday that he became convinced by the end of August that Mr. Trump had frozen security aid for Ukraine because he was seeking to pressure the country to commit to an investigation into Mr. Biden.
Mr. Holmes said his assessment came after he drafted and sent a cable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on behalf of William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, attempting to explain the importance of the security assistance to Ukraine.
“By this point,” Mr. Holmes said, “my clear impression was that the security assistance hold was likely intended by the president either as an expression of dissatisfaction with the Ukrainians who had not yet agreed to the Burisma/Biden investigation or as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so.”
Burisma is a Ukrainian energy company that employed Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, on its board.
Holmes and Hill said mentions of Burisma were clearly ‘code’ for investigating the Bidens.
Dr. Hill and Mr. Holmes said on Thursday that there was zero doubt that mentions of Burisma by Mr. Trump, Rudolph W. Giuliani, his personal lawyer, or others were clearly references to investigations of the Bidens that the president wanted Ukraine to announce.
Kurt D. Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, and Mr. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, both testified that for many months they believed that mentions of Burisma were merely references to the need to eliminate corruption that was taking place in Ukraine, given the history of corruption at the company.
But both witnesses on Thursday said unequivocally that Burisma was “code” for the Bidens, and that anyone working on Ukraine issues would know that. Dr. Hill said that it was clear in part because Mr. Giuliani had made that linkage “publicly, repeatedly” in his appearances on television.
Asked by the Democratic counsel for the House Intelligence Committee whether “anyone involved in Ukraine matters in the spring and summer would understand that as well,” Mr. Holmes had a one-word answer.
“Yes,” he said.
Hill described what Bolton called a ‘drug deal’ on Ukraine: ‘Investigations for a meeting.’
Dr. Hill described in detail an awkward White House meeting with Ukrainian officials on July 10 that ended abruptly after Mr. Sondland said he was working with Mr. Giuliani to press Ukraine to investigate Democrats in exchange for a White House meeting for the country’s new president.
John R. Bolton, then the national security adviser, stiffened visibly and sat back in his chair when Mr. Sondland made the comment, apparently so disturbed by it that he quickly cut off the meeting.
She testified that after the meeting ended, Mr. Sondland explained precisely what he was up to: “That he had an agreement with chief of staff Mulvaney that in return for investigations this meeting would get scheduled.”
When she told Mr. Bolton about that exchange, Dr. Hill testified, he instructed her to tell the National Security Council’s top lawyer about what Mr. Sondland, Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Mulvaney were up to, and say that, “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up.”
“I took it to mean investigations for a meeting,” Dr. Hill added, when asked what Mr. Bolton meant by “drug deal.”
Later, Dr. Hill said that Mr. Bolton told her that “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” She understood that to refer to Mr. Giuliani’s “incendiary remarks” on television about Ukraine, and that he was “pushing views that would come back to haunt us.”
“In fact,” she added, “I think that’s where we are today.”
An embassy official who overheard Trump and Sondland testified about a memorable phone call.
Mr. Holmes testified a week after Mr. Taylor, his boss at the embassy in Ukraine, told lawmakers last week that he had recently become aware of a July cellphone call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Sondland that had been overheard by one of his aides.
Mr. Holmes told lawmakers that he could hear Mr. Trump, who was speaking loudly, asking Mr. Sondland whether Mr. Zelensky was “going to do the investigation.” Mr. Sondland told Mr. Trump that Mr. Zelensky “loves your ass,” and would conduct the investigation and do “anything you ask him to,” Mr. Holmes said.
In Mr. Holmes’s account, Mr. Sondland later told him that Mr. Trump cared only about “big stuff that benefits the president” like the “Biden investigation.” Mr. Sondland did not dispute that account when he testified on Wednesday, but said he did not recall specifically mentioning Mr. Biden.
Democrats believe the conversation helps establish that the president was preoccupied with persuading Ukraine to publicly commit to investigations that benefited him politically.
Republicans accused the witnesses of unfair accusations as they sought to undermine their accounts.
Republican lawmakers accused Dr. Hill and Mr. Holmes of offering dubious, secondhand accounts and false charges about them and Mr. Trump.
Representative Mike Turner of Ohio laced into Dr. Hill, taking issue with her assertion that some Republicans denied that Russians interfered in the 2016 elections.
In her opening statement, Dr. Hill had said that “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.”
Mr. Turner took issue with that statement, calling it a “little small” on her part.
“Dr. Hill, you have provided me probably the greatest piece of evidence that’s before us to illustrate the problem with hearsay,” Mr. Turner said, pointing her to a Republican report that acknowledged Russian meddling in the election. “Dr. Hill, no matter how much we believe we know that what we’ve heard is true, it is still just what we’ve heard.”
Mr. Turner also criticized Mr. Holmes for testifying that Mr. Sondland told the president that Mr. Zelensky “loves your ass” during a telephone call in Kyiv. Mr. Turner said that Mr. Holmes should not have used that phrase in his testimony about the call.
“It was anecdotal, it was extraneous,” Mr. Turner said. “Your interests in protecting Ukraine are very dubious when you embarrass President Zelensky by making those statements you didn’t have to make. Who cares that Ambassador Sondland said that?”
Mr. Turner did not ask a question for either Dr. Hill or Mr. Holmes to answer. But a few minutes later, under questioning from a Democratic lawmaker, Dr. Hill responded. She again described herself as a nonpartisan Russia expert who was appearing before the committee without an agenda.
“We are here to relate to you what we heard, what we saw and what we did and to be of some help to all of you in really making a very momentous decision here,” Dr. Hill said. “We are not the people who make that decision.”
President Trump lashed out on Twitter, casting doubt on Holmes’s call.
As Mr. Holmes began testifying, President Trump took aim at his credibility, suggesting there was no way he could have heard what he claimed to have picked up the cellphone conversation between Mr. Trump and Mr. Sondland.
The call is an important piece of evidence because it demonstrates that Mr. Trump was directing members of his administration to push the Ukrainians for the investigations, but the president on Thursday sought to cast doubt on its authenticity.
Even before the day’s hearing began, the president posted a string of angry tweets about Democrats and the impeachment investigation.
The Democrats leading the impeachment investigation are “human scum,” he said.
The public hearings over the last week are “the most unfair hearings in American History.” And, “never in my wildest dreams” did he think his name would be linked to the “ugly word, Impeachment!”
Mr. Trump also revived his complaints about the special counsel investigation into whether his campaign or aides were involved in Russia’s election interference.
Catch up on some important background on the impeachment inquiry.
Mr. Trump repeatedly pressured Mr. Zelensky to investigate people and issues of political concern to Mr. Trump, including the former vice president. Here’s a timeline of events since January.
A C.I.A. officer who was once detailed to the White House filed a whistle-blower complaint on Mr. Trump’s interactions with Mr. Zelensky. Read the complaint.
Who Are the Main Characters in the Whistle-Blower’s Complaint?
President Trump’s personal lawyer. The prosecutor general of Ukraine. Joe Biden’s son. These are just some of the names mentioned in the whistle-blower’s complaint. What were their roles? We break it down.
Congressman: “Sir, let me repeat my question: Did you ever speak to the president about this complaint?” Congress is investigating allegations that President Trump pushed a foreign government to dig up dirt on his Democratic rivals. “It’s just a Democrat witch hunt. Here we go again.” At the heart of an impeachment inquiry is a nine-page whistle-blower complaint that names over two dozen people. Not counting the president himself, these are the people that appear the most: First, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudolph Giuliani. According to documents and interviews, Giuliani has been involved in shadowy diplomacy on behalf of the president’s interests. He encouraged Ukrainian officials to investigate the Biden family’s activities in the country, plus other avenues that could benefit Trump like whether the Ukrainians intentionally helped the Democrats during the 2016 election. It was an agenda he also pushed on TV. “So you did ask Ukraine to look into Joe Biden.” “Of course I did!” A person Giuliani worked with, Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s former prosecutor general. He pushed for investigations that would also benefit Giuliani and Trump. Lutsenko also discussed conspiracy theories about the Bidens in the U.S. media. But he later walked back his allegations, saying there was no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens. This is where Hunter Biden comes in, the former vice president’s son. He served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company run by this guy, who’s had some issues with the law. While Biden was in office, he along with others, called for the dismissal of Lutsenko’s predecessor, a prosecutor named Viktor Shokin, whose office was overseeing investigations into the company that Hunter Biden was involved with. Shokin was later voted out by the Ukrainian government. Lutsenko replaced him, but was widely criticized for corruption himself. When a new president took office in May, Volodymyr Zelensky, Zelensky said that he’d replace Lutsenko. Giuliani and Trump? Not happy. They viewed Lutsenko as their ally. During a July 25 call between Trump and the new Ukrainian president, Trump defended him, saying, “I heard you had a prosecutor who is very good and he was shut down and that’s really unfair.” In that phone call, Trump also allegedly asked his counterpart to continue the investigation into Joe Biden, who is his main rival in the 2020 election. Zelensky has publicly denied feeling pressured by Trump. “In other words, no pressure.” And then finally, Attorney General William Barr, who also came up in the July 25 call. In the reconstructed transcript, Trump repeatedly suggested that Zelensky’s administration could work with Barr and Giuliani to investigate the Bidens and other matters of political interest to Trump. Since the whistle-blower complaint was made public, Democrats have criticized Barr for dismissing allegations that Trump had violated campaign finance laws during his call with Zelensky and not passing along the complaint to Congress. House Democrats have now subpoenaed several people mentioned in the complaint, as an impeachment inquiry into the president’s conduct continues.
President Trump’s personal lawyer. The prosecutor general of Ukraine. Joe Biden’s son. These are just some of the names mentioned in the whistle-blower’s complaint. What were their roles? We break it down.CreditCredit…Illustration by The New York Times
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