WASHINGTON — The White House’s former top Europe and Russia expert sharply denounced what she called a “fictional narrative” embraced by President Trump and his Republican allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 elections, testifying that the claim at the center of the impeachment inquiry was a fabrication by Moscow that had harmed the United States.
Testifying on the final day of the week’s public impeachment hearings, the expert, Fiona Hill, tied Mr. Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine to a dangerous effort by Russia to sow political divisions in the United States and undercut American diplomacy. Her testimony before the House Intelligence Committee was an implicit rebuke to the president, suggesting that when he pressed Ukraine to investigate the theory that Kyiv rather than Moscow undertook a concerted campaign to meddle in the 2016 campaign, he was playing into Russia’s hands for his own political gain.
Dr. Hill’s account of how Mr. Trump’s team carried out what she called a “domestic political errand” that diverged from his own administration’s foreign policy amounted to sharp — albeit indirect — criticism of the president she served, and it brought home the grave national security consequences of the effort.
“These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes,” said Dr. Hill, the British-born daughter of a coal miner who became a United States citizen and co-wrote a lengthy book analyzing the psyche of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
The Russians, she said, “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.”
Both Dr. Hill and David Holmes, a top aide in the United States Embassy in Kyiv, testified in detail about what they understood to be a concerted campaign by the president and his allies, led by Rudolph W. Giuliani, his personal lawyer, to condition a White House meeting for Ukraine’s president on his announcement of investigations that Mr. Trump wanted into the 2016 election claim and of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.
Representatives Jim Jordan of Ohio and Mike Conaway of Texas, both Republicans, talking with a colleague during a break in the hearing.Credit…T.J. Kirkpatrick for The New York Times
“Investigations for a meeting,” is how Dr. Hill described her understanding of the deal laid out by the president’s inner circle, including Mr. Giuliani, Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, and Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff.
Under questioning from the top Republican counsel on the House Intelligence Committee, Dr. Hill said she confronted Mr. Sondland in July about his failure to coordinate with other members of the administration on his actions regarding Ukraine. She understood only later that Mr. Sondland was part of a group of officials — along with Mr. Mulvaney and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who were “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.”
Mr. Holmes said it was his “clear understanding” by the end of August that Mr. Trump had frozen $391 million in vital security aid to pressure Ukraine to commit to announcing an investigation into Mr. Biden and his family.
Their testimony came as Democrats sought to pull back the focus of the impeachment proceedings at the end of two weeks of detail-heavy hearings focused on White House meetings, suspended security assistance for Ukraine, diplomatic exchanges and plenty of obscure Ukrainian names. But they also notched additional new information that could help bolster their case.
Republicans, knowing that Dr. Hill’s criticism was coming, used their opening remarks to try to blunt the attacks. Representative Devin Nunes of California, the panel’s top Republican, said that his party did not doubt Russia’s actions in 2016, but were open to a broader focus that Democrats were not.
“Needless to say, 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,” Mr. Nunes said.
In 2017, American intelligence officials released a report concluding that Mr. Putin ordered a state-sponsored campaign to try to influence the 2016 presidential election. No evidence has emerged that there was a similar effort by Ukraine.
Mr. Trump, who has responded to the proceedings in real time, took shots at Mr. Holmes Thursday morning, and his allies went after Dr. Hill as well. As Mr. Holmes testified, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter that there was no way he could have heard what he claimed to have picked up the cellphone conversation between Mr. Trump and Mr. Sondland.
Donald Trump Jr., the president’s eldest son, wrote on Twitter that Dr. Hill only had an “OPINION” to offer, not firsthand knowledge. Republicans have dismissed multiple witnesses as unelected bureaucrats merely second-guessing the president’s policy positions.
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.
Mr. Holmes also offered a detailed account of a phone call he overheard between Mr. Trump and Gordon D. Sondland, his ambassador to the European Union, in Kyiv in late July. The call took place a day after Mr. Trump directly asked Mr. Zelensky for the investigations.
Mr. Holmes said he could overhear the president ask Mr. Sondland if Mr. Zelensky would conduct the inquiries he sought. Mr. Sondland assured him “he’s going to do it,” and that the Ukrainian leader would do “anything you ask him to.” Afterward, Mr. Holmes testified that the ambassador told him Mr. Trump did not care for Ukraine but only for the “big things” like the investigations.
A day after Mr. Sondland laid out an extensive campaign to secure the political investigations, both witnesses said they had zero doubt about what Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani were after. Dr. Hill and Mr. Holmes both testified that references to investigating Burisma by Mr. Giuliani and other government officials were, in Dr. Hill’s words, “code for the Bidens.”
Asked by the Democratic counsel for the 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.”
Mr. Sondland and Kurt D. Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, both said under oath this week that for many months they believed talk of Burisma was merely a reference to Mr. Trump’s interest in eliminating rampant corruption in Ukraine, given the company’s history.
Dr. Hill also offered the most precise account to date of an awkward White House meeting with Ukrainian officials on July 10 that ended abruptly after Mr. Sondland told the visiting officials that they would need to commit to investigations Mr. Trump sought before getting a meeting with the 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 said. After the meeting ended, Mr. Sondland explained precisely what he was up to, Dr. Hill testified, referencing a deal with Mr. Mulvaney.
“That he had an agreement with chief of staff Mulvaney that in return for investigations, this meeting would get scheduled,” she said.
Thursday’s session capped two marathon weeks on investigative impeachment hearings, the first in two decades, and only the third such proceedings in modern history. In public sessions by turns gripping and grinding, the House Intelligence Committee has heard from a dozen witnesses who described how Mr. Trump and his allies inside and outside the government shunted aside official American policy toward Ukraine in favor of an unorthodox, politically charged campaign to secure two investigations that Mr. Trump sought.
A former ambassador to Ukraine spoke of being smeared and ousted from her post because she ran afoul of Mr. Giuliani and his allies. The seasoned diplomat who reluctantly replaced her said he watched, distraught, as the entire United States relationship with Ukraine was staked on the investigations, with Ukrainian lives and American foreign policy interests as collateral damage. Then on Wednesday, Mr. Sondland testified in no uncertain terms that there had been a clear “quid pro quo” at the highest levels of Mr. Trump’s government linking a White House meeting for Mr. Zelensky to investigations — and that everyone had known it.
Other witnesses from the White House, State Department and Defense Department spoke of unanimous opposition to Mr. Trump’s decision to freeze the security assistance, and how they raised questions about the legality of withholding money appropriated by Congress. One of them, Laura Cooper, testified that Ukraine began inquiring about the assistance on July 25, a month earlier than Republicans have insisted they knew, on the very same day of Mr. Trump’s call with Mr. Zelensky.
“In the coming days, Congress will determine what response is appropriate,” Representative Adam B. Schiff of California, the Intelligence Committee chairman, said as he opened Thursday’s hearing. “It will be up to us to decide, whether those acts are compatible with the office of the presidency.”
As lawmakers leave town for the Thanksgiving holiday, it appears increasingly inevitable that the 116th Congress will impeach the president for only the third time in American history. The question is on what timetable they will proceed giving the dwindling number of legislative days and competing priorities before them.
Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com