Transcript: The Witnesses: Hill and Holmes

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, The Witnesses: Hill and Holmess.
Image: Fiona Hill, David Holmes
Former White House national security aide Fiona Hill, and David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, arrive to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, on Nov. 21, 2019.Alex Brandon / AP

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Article II: Inside Impeachment

Bonus: The Witnesses: Hill and Holmes

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Thursday, November 21st. That's right, another bonus episode for you, and here's what's happening.

Archival Recording: "Committee will come to order." (GAVEL) "Today's hearing marks the merciful end of the spectacle in the impeachment committee, formerly known as the Intelligence Committee."

Kornacki: It was the final open session of the week. Two witnesses stood before the House Intelligence Committee and declared their commitment to country above all else.

David Holmes: It is an honor to appear before you today. I want to make clear that I did not seek this opportunity to testify today.

Fiona Hill: I have no interest in advancing the outcome of your inquiry in any particular direction, except toward the truth.

Kornacki: But that's where the similarities ended.

Holmes: I have put together this statement to lay out as best I can my recollection of events that may be relevant to this matter.

Hill: Thank you for inviting me to testify before you today. I have a short opening statement.

Kornacki: Fiona Hill, the former Russia expert on the National Security Council acted almost as a stand-in for her boss, former National Security Advisor, John Bolton.

Hill: And I had already brought to Ambassador Bolton's attention the attacks, the smear campaign against Ambassador Yovanovitch. And I'd asked if there was anything that we could do about it. And Ambassador Bolton had looked pained and basically indicated with body language that there was nothing much that we could do about it. And he then in the course of our discussion said that, "Rudy Giuliani was a hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up."

Kornacki: And David Holmes, a staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv in a late addition to the hearings provided colorful details about a phone call that he overheard between EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland and President Trump.

Holmes: Ambassador Sondland's demeanor changed. I understood that he had been connected to President Trump. While Ambassador Sondland's phone was not on speaker phone, I could hear the president's voice through the earpiece of the phone. The president's voice was loud and recognizable. And Ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume.

Kornacki: So what did these last two very different witnesses add to the impeachment story? That's today on Article II. Let's get started. Garrett Haake is a Washington correspondent for MSNBC. He has been tirelessly covering the public hearings on Capitol Hill. Garrett, wrapping up what (LAUGH) for you, and I think for everybody who's been watching these has been a long week of public testimony, today the final scheduled day of public hearings. Coming into today, what was the mood like in that room?

Garrett Haake: Yeah, I don't know about tirelessly, Steve. Everybody's pretty wiped out. I mean, starting every morning before these hearings, these members are meeting together. We're going, you know, a dozen hours most days. They break for votes, maybe a break for lunch. And then there's meetings after the hearings are over. So these have been really long days.

The Republicans are totally fed up with this process. I mean, if you watch Devin Nunes on TV, you can tell, there's literally no place he'd rather not be than in that hearing room. I mean, he can barely stay in his chair. Democratic members that I've talked to have felt like they've gotten good stuff out of these hearings. They felt like they've been productive. But by and large, everybody's pretty well beat. I mean, this has been incredibly thorough and incredibly exhausting couple of days.

Kornacki: Let's talk about what Democrats and Republicans think they got out of today, the final day. It was supposed to be one witness today. There was supposed to be Fiona Hill, Fiona Hill alone. It turns out there were two witnesses. David Holmes from the State Department was added at the very last minute.

We'll talk about Holmes in a little bit, but let's start on Hill. She was intended to I think by the Democrats be their closer essentially as a witness. Fiona Hill obviously worked closely with John Bolton when he was in the administration. Talk about Fiona Hill's role, what she said today, what Democrats believe they got from her today.

Haake: The closer metaphor for Hill is perfect, because she came out today throwing 100 mile-an-hour fastballs after everybody was kind of getting worn down over the last couple of days. Hill has pretty well unimpeachable credentials when it comes to the issues of Russia and essentially anything related to national security around the Iron Curtain.

She came out in her opening statement and really threw, (LAUGH) to extend the metaphor, a high and tight fastball at Republicans on the committee saying, "You know, if you question Russia's role in the 2016 election, you're doing Putin's work for him, and if you're undermining Ukraine, you're doing Putin's work for him."

She projects as this very serious figure who was very troubled by what she was seeing in the White House up until that July 25th phone call. Of course, she left the White House just before the call, so she is still telling us really mostly the front half of the story. But she's telling it in a very credible and serious way.

Kornacki:Yeah, let's go deeper into some of those things you point out there. Number one, in that opening statement, she addressed the subject of election interference in 2016. Let's just set up what specifically Hill was saying on this topic of election interference and how it related to this.

Haake:Hill said, "If you dispute the fact that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, you are carrying Vladimir Putin's water for him."

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

Haake: She said, it's undisputable, it's the conclusion of all of our intelligence agencies, and it's serious stuff.

Hill:As I told the committee last month, I refused to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine, not Russia, attacked us in 2016. These fictions are harmful, even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes.

Haake: That really upset Devin Nunes, the ranking member, especially, several of the other members. But it really set a tone early on, that this was somebody who was a serious Russia hawk and not going to be interested in chasing conspiratorial rabbits here about things that Ukrainians might have done in 2016 to help Hillary Clinton. The decision to address right in the opening statement I think probably stopped a lot of would-be questions that didn't end up coming her way.

Kornacki: Also then, after her opening statement, Daniel Goldman, he's the lawyer for the Democrats, he gets 45 minutes to question the witnesses. In talking to Fiona Hill, he brought up Rudy Giuliani in that comment from John Bolton that you mention, this Giuliani being a hand grenade. Explain a little bit more the context of that and what Hill was telling the committee about that.

Haake: Hill was talking about Giuliani's work in Ukraine, and then the things he was saying when he would come back on television or on Twitter. That was the way that a lotta these folks, it turns out, in the official foreign policy apparatus were keeping track with what Rudy Giuliani was up to, because he would say it on Fox News.

Hill: He was frequently on television making quite incendiary remarks about everyone involved in this, and that he was clearly pushing forward issues and ideas that would, you know, probably come back to haunt us. And in fact, I think that that's where we are today.

Haake: And she knew as well as anybody that Giuliani had his direct channel to the president. All of this, she saw as problematic. Giuliani working against the grain, or at least not helpfully on the issues that the U.S. government was supposed to be aligned in addressing in Ukraine.

Kornacki: We know Democrats would like to talk to John Bolton, Hill's former boss. That's not expected to happen certainly, and there's no immediate prospect of that. Given how close she was to Bolton, you mentioned a Russia hawk, leaving the administration like Bolton, was she seen as essentially a stand-in for Bolton, the closest Democrats were gonna get to Bolton himself?

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Haake: Oh, absolutely. I think she was a Bolton proxy. She gives the quotes that Democrats wanted from Bolton. The idea that, you know, they didn't want to be involved in whatever "drug deal" that Gordon Sondland and Mick Mulvaney were cooking up.

Hill: As Ambassador Bolton was trying to move that part of the discussion away, I think he was going to try to deflect it onto another wrap-up topic, Ambassador Sondland leaned in basically to say, "Well, we have an agreement that there will be a meeting, if specific investigations are put underway."

And that's when I saw Ambassador Bolton stiffen. I was sitting behind him in the chair, and I saw him sit back slightly like this. He'd been more moving forward like I am to the table. And for me, that was an unmistakable body language, and it caught my attention. And then he looked up to the clock, and you know, at his watch, or towards his wrist in any case, again, I was sitting behind him, and basically said, "Well, you know, it's been really great to see you. I'm afraid I've got another meeting."

Haake: She gives the most explosive Bolton narrative that we know about, without the risk that Bolton might come in and say something different, and without having to wait for John Bolton, who remember, the prospect of his testimony is tied up until at least mid-December bearing on a court case with one of his associates.

There're some risks to that. There's at least one one-on-one meeting that we know about between John Bolton and President Trump, in which aid to Ukraine was discussed that, you know, if you don't have John Bolton or Donald Trump, you're not gonna know what was said in that meeting. But the Democrats I talked to at least are comfortable moving forward without running down that lead.

Kornacki: Let's flip it around here, look at how the Republicans handled all this. The first Republican who really got an extended crack at her, that was the lawyer, Stephen Castor. He also had his 45 minutes with her. One of the things that he brought up was an interaction she'd had with Gordon Sondland she described as a blow-up. Talk about what Castor was getting at there, and how she responded there.

Haake: There's been some discussion about whether or not or how this meeting happened. Gordon Sondland didn't remember any blow-up with Dr. Hill. But Hill was incredibly frustrated with Sondland, and in this case, frustrated that he had been, she felt, going around her to conduct U.S. foreign policy.

Hill: I hate to say it, but often when women show anger, it's not fully appreciated. It's often, you know, pushed onto emotional issues perhaps or deflected onto other people.

Haake: But in her answer to that question, she almost apologized to Gordon Sondland.

Hill: I've actually realized, having listened to his deposition, that he was absolutely right. That he wasn't coordinating with us, because we weren't doing the same thing that he was doing.

Haake: She accused him of running political errands, while she and the rest of the foreign policy establishment were conducting foreign policy and national security work.

Hill: Because he was carrying out what he thought he had been instructed to carry out, and we were doing something that we thought was just as, or perhaps even more important, but it wasn't in the same channel.

Haake: It really was quite a moment meant to, or perhaps not meant to, but certainly had the effect of belittling the work that Gordon Sondland was doing on behalf of the president.

Kornacki: Another topic that Castor, the Republican lawyer was pressing. He brought up Alexander Vindman, who testified a couple days ago, earlier this week. He had worked under Fiona Hill at the National Security Council. What was Castor trying to get at there?

Haake: There had been some mention of Vindman as somebody who had unreliable judgment. Remember Tim Morrison had mentioned that. There had been a couple of questions about that in his deposition the other day. Castor tried to ask Hill about that, and I don't think he liked the answer that he got back.

Hill: He is excellent on issues related to Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova, on Russian defense issues. And we were evaluating and looking at him in the context of what his future positions would be, in the context of the U.S. Army. And I was concerned that if, for example, Colonel Vindman might decide to leave the military, that perhaps he wasn't as well-suited for something that would be much more political. I did not feel that he had the political antennae to deal with something that was straying into domestic politics. Not everyone is suited for that.

Haake: That makes sense after seeing Vindman's testimony the other day. I think what Castor was looking for was the idea that perhaps Vindman was a leaker, or that Vindman couldn't be trusted in the judgments he was making about his work. Hill said, no, in fact he was great at all those things, but he didn't have a great political antennae, and she threw a little bit of shade at Tim Morrison too. She said, well, you know, look, Morrison didn't work under me. He came in later, and he only worked here for three months. And sort of left that hanging out there, as if to say, take Morrison's word at your own risk.

Kornacki: Okay. We'll be back with more in just a moment. Let's get to the other witness who was there. So we mentioned David Holmes, sort of a late edition to this, a late entrant into this whole storyline. He's the State Department staffer who a couple days ago, it emerged that he was claiming to have overheard a phone call between Gordon Sondland and President Trump.

He testified publicly today. It's the Republicans, what I was picking on certainly from Castor, their lawyer, they were a little irritated I think by his presence. Start with the question from their standpoint. They look at it, and they say, hey, he overheard maybe 30 seconds of a conversation. Why did you need a 30-minute opening statement from this guy? What was he there to say today?

Haake: Yeah. There was something about Mr. Holmes' demeanor, his Boy Scout-ishness that I think got under the skin of some of these Republicans. Here's a guy who nobody had ever heard of before ten days ago, who's now a star witness on the last day, with very convenient recollections of a phone call, or at least convenient recollections of portions of the phone call and not the rest of it. So Republicans tried to poke holes in Holmes's memory here about what he heard on that phone call.

Remember, they were sitting outside at a restaurant in Kyiv having a bottle of wine. Gordon Sondland calls the president. Apparently, the president's voice is so loud Sondland has to hold the phone away from his ear, but only in the parts of the conversation where they were talking about Ukraine.

Holmes: This was a very distinctive experience. I've never seen anything like this in my foreign service career, someone at a lunch in a restaurant making a call on a cell phone to the president of the United States. Being able to hear his voice. He has very distinctive personality, as we've all seen on television. Very colorful language was used.

Haake: Holmes' recollection of the president's interest or lack thereof in Ukraine, of Gordon Sondland telling the president, Zelenskiy loves him, will do anything he asks, including the investigations. That's all crystal clear. Then they get off into a side conversation about A$AP Rocky in Sweden.

And the rest of it Holmes doesn't remember quite as well or can't hear quite as well. That really irked Republicans. And the 45-minute opening statement didn't exactly earn Holmes a lotta credit, I think at least on that side of the dais.

Archival Recording: When we spoke with you last Friday night about what we thought was gonna be a 30-second vignette about a two-minute phone call. And turns out with your 40-minute opener today, you have a lot of information to share. So we appreciate you being here.

Haake: Republicans felt like, you're here to talk about this one three-minute phone call. We don't need your feelings about broader Ukraine policy, thank you very much.

Kornacki: You mention this too, as the day sort of went on, they got into that five-minute round, each member getting five minutes to ask questions. You started to get Republicans who weren't using their time to ask questions. There was that moment in fact where one of the Republicans finished up his time, and Hill was left asking for a chance to respond. She was given that chance ultimately by the Chairman, Adam Schiff.

It reminded Garrett, though, of a moment back in the Brett Kavanaugh hearings a little bit more than a year ago, where some time in the middle of the questioning on that Senate committee, it was Lindsey Graham who basically just decided, enough questions, it's time for speeches. And he sort of just, he laid out his position on why Kavanaugh should be confirmed and why there wasn't any more to be learned from the hearings. And it really did seem to change the tone of those hearings back then. It seemed maybe Republicans on this committee were reaching a similar point this afternoon?

Haake: I think that's right. If this is, in fact, the last public hearing in the Intel Committee's portion of this impeachment inquiry, as it seems like it's going to, the cast of characters is gonna change until when we get to the next phase, when this moves over to the judiciary committee. So you had a number of members I think making their version of closing arguments here. You had Brad Wenstrup give a big speech about political hatred and the dangers of partisanship.

Brad Wenstrup: You know, I've seen hatred for political reasons, specifically on June 14th, 2017, at a ball field in Virginia. And I've seen hatred in war. And I know that hatred blinds people. I've been in war, and I've studied war. And coups create division. And it's time for this phase of the publicly announced and proclaimed Democrat coup to end. Thank you for your service, thanks for being here, and I yield back.

Hill: Could I actually something? I think that what Dr. Wenstrup said was very powerful, about the importance of overcoming hatred, and certainly partisan division. And it's unfortunate that Congressman Turner and Ratcliffe have both left as well, because I think all of us who came here under a legal obligation also felt we had a moral obligation to do so. We came as fact witnesses.

Haake: That's the thing that Dr. Hill had to respond to. You also had Will Hurd, who's one of the most interesting Republicans on this committee, because he's a former CIA officer. He's retiring. He's not been perceived as particularly close to Trump. He gave his own closing statement argument in which he criticized that phone call.

Will Hurd: So why are we here? Because of two things that occurred during the president's July 25th phone call with Ukrainian President Zelenskiy. The use of the phrase, "do us a favor though," in reference to the 2016 presidential election, and the mention of the word Biden. I believe both statements were inappropriate, misguided foreign policy. And it's certainly not how the executive, current or in the future, should handle such a call.

Haake: He slammed the president's foreign policy towards Ukraine generally, but then he also said, "I don't see evidence here of bribery or extortion. I don't see this as an impeachable offense." So I think you saw some members taking advantage of their potentially last moment in the impeachment spotlight here to give their conclusions.

Kornacki: That last piece you said seems extremely significant. We're always focusing here on the politics of impeachment, and there's Hurd, as you say, retiring Republican from a district Hillary Clinton won, one of the last surviving Republicans after the 2018 elections, from a district like that. Somebody seen as having potentially a future in the national politics, if he's landing potentially on that position of, the call wasn't good, but it's not impeachable, does that say something more broadly about where the politics of the Republicans on Capitol Hill are gonna land on this?

Haake: Absolutely. If you were to make a Venn diagram out of what the Republican who might vote in favor of impeachment looks like, Hurd's right in the middle of it. As you said, he's retiring. He came from a toss-up district. If anybody in the Republican conference might be able to vote for impeachment, it's a guy like Will Hurd, and he's not there.

I'm increasingly convinced you will see a lock-step party-line vote against impeachment from Republicans in the House, unless some wholly new, damning piece of evidence comes out in the next couple of weeks. Republicans have fallen in absolute lock-step in line behind the president.

Kornacki: The same goes for the Democratic side, is that your conclusion too after watching these hearings? Are the Democrats as lock-step for this as Republicans seem to be against it?

Haake: It's hard to say. I think there's been a little bit of a political Rorschach test here, where folks can see what they want from some of these hearings. Certainly, if you were in favor of impeaching the president already, you are more in favor of impeaching the president now.

If you were on the fence and leaning, I think some of the evidence presented has been very compelling. But the Democrats who are in politically perilous situations, for some of them, I'm thinking especially about some of these freshmen in frontline districts like in Michigan or in Virginia or in some of these battlegrounds, for them, the question may be as much about the politics of impeachment as it is about the evidence presented. The evidence is only one indicator of several. They're gonna want to see, is the country behind them on this?

So there's more potential or likely movement among the Democratic conference than there is among the Republican conference I think. Democrats could afford to lose some of their members, of course, and still impeach the president. But you're gonna need a pretty strong vote if you're gonna generate any momentum going into the next phase, the Senate trial.

Kornacki: Yeah, so the next phase of the Senate trial. Lay out what is the roadmap from here? This is, as we say, the last day of scheduled public testimony. Is there a chance there'll be more witnesses called, and suddenly there'll be more intelligence committee hearings? Or is this gonna do it, and is there a new phase that begins now?

Haake: You know, in the last Indiana Jones, the map with no names? I can give you the calendar with no dates, right? Here's, we know how this is gonna go, but we don't know exactly when it's gonna start. At some point, the Intel Committee is gonna prepare a report, based on everything that they've done over the last couple weeks.

By all indications, this'll be their last public hearing. We've not heard of anything else, either on the public side or on the deposition side. So Intel will make this report. They'll hand it over to the Judiciary Committee. The Judiciary Committee will then have their own hearings, in which they will debate the actual article or articles of impeachment that they might put together.

They'll get those voted out of the committee. Then they'll go to the House floor. That'll be several days of debate at least. The Democrats in the House really hope they can get this done before they go home for Christmas, before they leave for their holidays. And then it becomes the Senate's problem after that.

Kornacki: All right. One phase of the impeachment inquiry apparently, possibly coming to an end here, but another one just about to begin. Garrett, hey, thank you so much for breaking it all down for us.

Haake: You bet.

Kornacki: Wednesday's second round of hearings didn't get started until after sunset, and between Sondland's testimony and the Democratic Presidential Debate got a little overshadowed. But there's one moment that shouldn't get lost in all the news.

One of the key arguments Republicans have been making is that the Ukrainians didn't know about the hold on military aid until sometime in late August, so therefore, it wouldn't have been possible for President Zelenskiy to feel pressured during that July 25th phone call. But Laura Cooper, a top defense department official, testified yesterday that the Ukrainians may have known about the holdup much earlier.

Laura Cooper: My deposition testimony was publicly released on November 11th, 2019. Members of my staff read the testimony and have come to me since then, and provided additional information. Specifically, on the issue of Ukraine's knowledge of the hold or of Ukraine asking questions about possible issues with the flow of assistance, my staff showed me two unclassified e-mails that they received from the State Department.

One was received on July 25th at 2:31 p.m. That e-mail said that, "The Ukrainian Embassy and House Foreign Affairs Committee are asking about security assistance." The second e-mail was received on July 25th at 4:25 p.m. That e-mail said that, "The Hill knows about the FMF situation to an extent, and so does the Ukrainian Embassy." I did not receive either of these e-mails. My staff does not recall informing me about them.

Kornacki: That bit of testimony could play a larger role in the inquiry over the next few weeks. We'll have to wait and see. And after jamming 12 witnesses into five days of open hearings, the House is breaking for Thanksgiving. So expect a little slowdown in impeachment news. Maybe.

Article II: Inside impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Friday.