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Analysis after Fiona Hill and David Holmes' impeachment testimony

Ex-White House Russia expert Fiona Hill and U.S. embassy in Ukraine official David Holmes testified Thursday about Trump and Ukraine.

Thursday marked the fifth day of public hearings in the House's impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, featuring testimony from one current and one former Trump administration official.

Fiona Hill, a former top Russia expert for the White House, and David Holmes, a senior diplomat at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, testified at a hearing before the House Intelligence Committee which started around 9 a.m. ET and, after a lengthy break for some House votes, ended around 4 p.m. ET.

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Holmes shuts down conspiracy theory about ‘black ledger’

Holmes on Thursday shot down a conspiracy theory pushed again by Nunes during the hearing.

Nunes asked Holmes if he has met with Serhiy Leshchenko, who previously served in Ukraine’s Parliament and is now an investigative journalist. Holmes said that he has met with him but said he’s not aware, as Nunes claimed, that Leshchenko had provided information to a Fusion GPS operative. 

Asked if he knows what the “black ledger” is, Holmes responded in the affirmative. They were secret papers released in 2016 that showed Ukraine’s former president, Viktor Yanukovych, made $12.7 million in cash payments to Paul Manafort, one of Trump’s 2016 campaign chairmen. 

Nunes asked if the black ledger contains credible information — a reference to the conspiracy theory, which holds that the ledger is a fabrication cooked up by Ukrainians to damage Trump's campaign.

“Yes,” Holmes said. 

“The black ledger is credible?” Nunes said incredulously, attempting to get Holmes to clarify.

“Yes,” Holmes repeated. 

Nunes claimed that former special counsel Robert Mueller didn’t find it credible. Asked if he disputed Mueller’s supposed findings, Holmes said: “I’m not aware that Bob Mueller did not find it credible. I believe it was used in other corrupt proceedings. Its credibility was not questioned in those proceedings.”

Nunes then said that Leschenko’s motivation was to “go after a Trump campaign official,” but Holmes rejected that, saying only that his motivation that he always expressed was “to expose corruption in Ukraine.” 

Hill describes blowup with Sondland

Hill described increasingly vexatious interactions with Sondland, saying that she often had terse exchanges with him because she felt that she and other national security officials were being left out of what he was doing in Ukraine. 

She said often when women express anger it is not well received and was characterized as women being "emotional." She said she confronted Sondland, asking him who put him in charge to which he told her "the president."

That "shut me up," she said.

But, she conceded, Sondland was right because he was being drawn into a "domestic political errand," an apparent reference to the pressure campaign on Ukraine, and that official NSC channels were being deliberated usurped. She said she told Sondland, “I think this is all going to blow up."

"And here we are," she noted. 

Highlights from Holmes’ opener

Holmes, a senior aide in the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, went into details publicly Thursday about some of the things he told lawmakers in his close-door deposition. Here are some additional highlights:

  • Trump seemed more concerned about investigations of Burisma and the Bidens than in broader issues of corruption.

Shortly after Bill Taylor arrived as the top diplomat in Kyiv in mid-June, they set to work to deliver things they thought Trump might want in order to convince him to hold a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. "Within a week or two, it became apparent that the energy sector reforms, commercial deals, and anti-corruption efforts on which we were making progress were not making a dent in terms of persuading the White House to schedule a meeting between the presidents," Holmes said in his opening statement.

Taylor told Holmes that Sondland told him in a June 27 call that Zelenskiy needed to make clear to Trump that he was not "standing in the way of 'investigations.'" Holmes said. "I understood that this meant the Burisma/Biden investigations that Mr. Giuliani and his associates had been speaking about in the media since March."

Taylor also told Holmes that on a call between him, Zelenskiy, and the three amigos — a nickname for the alleged shadow policy team in Ukraine of Sondland, Perry and Volker — "it was made clear that some action on a Burisma/Biden investigation was a precondition for an Oval Office meeting," Holmes said. 

  • Holmes says after July 26 call, Sondland said Trump only cares about 'big stuff'

After the call ended, Sondland remarked that Trump was "in a bad mood, as Ambassador Sondland stated was often the case early in the morning," Holmes recounted. "I then took the opportunity to ask Ambassador Sondland for his candid impression of the president’s views on Ukraine. In particular, I asked Ambassador Sondland if it was true that the president did not ‘give a s--- about Ukraine.’ Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not ‘give a s--- about Ukraine.’ I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated that the president only cares about ‘big stuff.’ I noted that there was ‘big stuff’ going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia, and Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant ‘big stuff’ that benefits the president, like the ‘Biden investigation’ that Mr. Giuliani was pushing."

  • Holmes notes he is testifying because he has 'firsthand knowledge' of events

Holmes said he has read recent reports that "certain senior officials may have been acting without the president’s knowledge, or 'freelancing,' in their dealings with Ukraine. At the same time, I also read reports noting the lack of 'first-hand' evidence in the investigation and suggesting that the only evidence being elicited at the hearings was 'hearsay' — an apparent reference to talking points furthered by Trump and Republican allies. 

“I came to realize I had firsthand knowledge regarding certain events on July 26 that had not otherwise been reported, and that those events potentially bore on the question of whether the president did, in fact, have knowledge that those senior officials were using the levers of our diplomatic power to induce the new Ukrainian president to announce the opening of a criminal investigation against President Trump’s political opponent," Holmes said.

ANALYSIS: Hill has studied up

Hill details Obama admin’s view on Ukrainian aid

When questioned by Castor about the history of giving Ukraine military weaponry, she agreed that Obama did not give military aid to Ukraine on the same level as Trump. But, she explained, it was because of geopolitical concerns, such as provoking Russia. In doing so, she undermined the GOP argument that Obama didn't want to help Ukraine.

Putin quote shown on screen during hearing

A U.S. Capitol police officer stands next to a television monitor displaying a screenshot of remarks by Russian President Valdimir Putin during the House Intelligence Committee impeachment inquiry hearing in Washington on Nov. 21, 2019.Andrew Harrer / Reuters

Bolton testimony before the House? Very unlikely

The testimony of Fiona Hill and Gordon Sondland has revived chatter about John Bolton appearing before the Intelligence Committee as part of the impeachment inquiry. But the reality of that actually happening is close to zero.

Committee member Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vt., told NBC News on Thursday that the only thing that "would inspire Bolton to talk is his $2 or $3 million book deal. He’s saying he’s got to have a lawyer tell him whether he comes, but apparently he’s already signed a book deal to tell what he knows, not the Congress." Welch added that he doesn’t think anything will convince Bolton to come in.

Pelosi said in her press conference that people who haven’t complied with requests from the House could perhaps appear in the Senate trial if it gets to that point, which strongly suggests that the House will not press Bolton to appear and won’t wait on the courts to decide if he must appear.

The committee requested Bolton’s appearance but won’t issue him a subpoena, which they think he’d use to take them to court like Kupperman did.

Schiff reconvenes hearing after break for votes

Schiff gaveled in the hearing at 1:01 p.m. after about an hour break for votes. Nunes has started on GOP questioning.

What happens next in the impeachment inquiry?

Here’s a quick rundown of what to expect over the next few weeks:

Members of Congress depart Washington later Thursday for the Thanksgiving break and will return on Dec. 3.

We expect the Intelligence Committee next week will pore over the tapestry of evidence and testimony they’ve stitched together and report out the findings.

The Committee has not announced any additional public hearings or private depositions. That could, of course, change.

The report then heads to the House Judiciary Committee, which has responsibility for drafting articles of impeachment. The Judiciary Committee could hold its own public hearings, which would potentially feature constitutional experts and historians as opposed to fact witnesses. House leadership would help guide those proceedings.

The Judiciary Committee would then vote potential articles of impeachment out of committee, sending them to the House for a full floor vote.

While the timeline is fluid, Democrats have signaled for months that they hope to complete this process by the end of the year.


Hill testimony may satisfy need for Bolton testimony