Former Trump adviser testifies to Ukraine pressure campaign, ties Mulvaney to quid pro quo

"There seemed to be an awful lot of people involved in, you know, basically turning a White House meeting into some kind of asset," Fiona Hill told Congress.

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By Jane C. Timm

Fiona Hill, President Donald Trump's former top adviser on Russia and Europe, told House impeachment investigators that she was alarmed by efforts she witnessed to pressure Ukraine to launch politically motivated probes as allies of the president pursued a shadow foreign policy in the country at odds with U.S. national security interests.

The full transcript of her 10 hours of testimony on Capitol Hill, taken in October and released by Democrats leading the inquiry Friday, reveals a frustrated intelligence expert whose time in the White House was marred by death threats and conspiracy theories. Her deposition also a corroborates key piece of testimony from Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, whose transcript was also released Friday. Both testified that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney coordinated a unambiguous quid pro quo effort that involving dangling a White House meeting in exchange for investigations desired by Trump. She also gave a fuller picture of previously reported events and contentious White House meetings.

Hill detailed to lawmakers the harassment she and other career officials faced as part what appeared to be part of a campaign to "deflect away" from the facts of Russian interference in the 2016 election, according to the transcript. In its most egregious instances, that abuse made way for unorthodox diplomatic channels involving Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal attorney, she said.

"I received, I just have to tell you, death threats, calls at my home. My neighbors reported somebody coming and hammering on my door," she told investigators in closed-door testimony. "Now, I'm not easily intimidated, but that made me mad."

Hill, who transitioned out of her role in July before officially leaving her job in early September, testified that the ousting of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was a turning point for her. Yovanovitch, she said, was subject to a smear campaign of harassment and "defamation," which she credited to Giuliani.

The transcript confirmed NBC News’ reporting that Hill told Congress that Giuliani worked with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, to sidestep the National Security Council and typical White House process to advocate for a shadow policy on Ukraine that appeared to prioritize investigations pushed by Trump and Giuliani.

'Worst fears and nightmares'

In her deposition, Hill repeatedly stressed that she was not a partisan individual without a dog in the fight. "I am not writing a book. I am basically trying to keep my head down," she said, according to the transcript, later adding: "I did not leak, and I was not Anonymous. I am not the whistleblower. And I'm not the second whistleblower. Just get this all for the record so we can have it all out there and you don't have to ask me any more questions about that."

But her testimony revealed the tense and often furious clashes between the president's allies who sought side-deals with the Ukrainians and career diplomats who were trying to do their jobs. In one instance, Hill said she discussed Yovanovitch with then-national security adviser John Bolton, whose "reaction was pained."

"And he basically said, in fact he directly said: Rudy Giuliani is a hand grenade that is going to blow everyone up," she told congressional investigators. "He made it clear that he didn't feel that there was anything that he could personally do about this."

Hill left her role before Trump's July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, during which Trump pressed his counterpart for investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden as well as a unproven conspiracy about the 2016 U.S. election.

She told impeachment investigators last month that reading the record of that conversation released by the White House, along with the text messages former U.S. envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker provided to Congress, were her “worst fears and nightmares" realized.

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The texts, released by Congress, showed Giuliani, Sondland and former U.S. envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker working to facilitate Trump's goal of getting Zelenskiy to commit to investigations and making a White House visit for Zelenskiy contingent on such a commitment. The White House notes of Trump’s July call with Zelenskiy showed Trump asking the Ukrainians to work directly with Giuliani. NBC News has reported that Sondland was also in direct contact with Trump about Ukraine.

“There seemed to be an awful lot of people involved in, you know, basically turning a White House meeting into some kind of asset,” Hill said, according to the transcript. “Something that was being, you know, dangled out to the Ukrainian government. They wanted the White house meeting very much."

"Gordon, you're in over your head"

Sondland and Hill butted heads repeatedly, according to her testimony. While Hill said the working relationship began as a good one, Hill said they clashed over Sondland's involvement in Ukraine negotiations.

Sondland openly spoke about a meeting between the U.S. and Ukrainian presidents being conditioned on Ukrainians moving forward with investigations, and resisted her attempts to ensure that presidential meetings were set up through diplomatic channels, she testified.

Bolton even ended a meeting aburptly when Sondland began discussing a deal he'd struck with Mulvaney for a presidential meeting conditioned on investigations. When Hill spoke with Bolton about the meeting afterwards, he angrily told Hill to tell a National Security Council attorney about it.

"And he told me, and this is a direct quote from Ambassador Bolton: You go and tell Eisenberg that I am not part whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this, and you got and tell him what you've heard and what I've said," Hill testified, referring to John Eisenberg, the NSC's top lawyer.

Sondland, who also featured heavily in Vindman's testimony, had no diplomatic experience before Trump nominated him in 2017 to become ambassador to the E.U., a club of nations that does not include Ukraine. He was a wealthy hotelier who donated about $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee and referred to himself in his own deposition as a “lifelong Republican.”

Hill described him as a diplomat who cloaked himself in presidential authority and violated norms of diplomatic relations in his work.

Sondland told Hill multiple times that he would be overseeing Ukraine relations, she testified, at Trump's direction.

"And I asked, on whose authority? And he said, the president,” Hill said, according to the transcript, later adding that “it was very unusual because we were given no instructions. There wasn’t a directive. Ambassador Bolton didn’t know about this. Nobody at the State Department seemed to know about this either."

Hill's questioning of his authority soured their relationship, and she recalled having a "bit of a blow up with him" in which she spoke out against Giuliani involving two Florida business associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, in dealings with Ukrainian officials.

"Gordon, you're in over your head. I don't think you know who these people are," she testified that she told him. Both men were later arrested on campaign finance charges.

He routinely gave out her personal phone number — something she sought to get intelligence officials to explain to Sondland was a counterintelligence risk — and sent officials to her for meetings without alerting her. She became worried he would become a "target for foreign powers" when he offered up White House access repeatedly.

"He was often meeting with people he had no information about. It's like basically driving along with no guardrails and no GPS on unfamiliar territory," she said, noting she'd raised her concerns to Sondland directly.

The transcript of Hill's deposition was made public Friday alongside the transcript of testimony from Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, the latest in a series of disclosures House Democrats have made as the impeachment inquiry into Trump enters a new phase.

The White House sought to limit how much Hill could tell Congress, according to letters between the White House and her attorney obtained by NBC News last month. The White House did not tell her not to testify, but said she was responsible for guarding against unauthorized disclosures and outlined areas where her testimony might run up against executive privilege, like direct communications with the president or meetings with other heads of state.

Hill’s lawyers argued that executive privilege did not apply, in part because some of the information has already come into the public sphere and thus was no longer confidential. They also argued that executive privilege disappears when there’s reason to believe there was government misconduct.