Analysis after Fiona Hill and David Holmes' impeachment testimony

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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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Hill: By July 10, it was clear Burisma was ‘code for the Bidens’

Hill said that by July 10, it was very clear to her that any mention of the gas company Burisma was associated with investigations into the Bidens.

While answering a question from Schiff, Hill recounted the events of July 10, when Ukrainians met with U.S. national security officials at the White House, including then-national security adviser John Bolton, Hill, U.S. ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland and NSC official Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. 

Hill has testified that Bolton abruptly cut a first meeting in his office short because Sondland brought up investigations. Afterward, Hill said some of the officials took a photo outside the White House and went back inside to the Ward Room to speak further with the Ukrainians. 

Bolton told Hill to go down to the room and find out what was being discussed, Hill has testified. 

“When I came in, Gordon Sondland was basically saying, ‘We have a deal here’" that there would be a White House meeting [between Trump and Zelenskiy if the Ukrainians announced the investigations, Hill said Thursday. 

Hill said that during that time, Rudy Giuliani was speaking about Burisma and the Bidens “over and over again” on TV. 

“By this point, it was clear that Burisma was code for the Bidens because Giuliani was laying it out there,” she said. 

Fiona Hill and David Holmes answer questions from Intelligence Committee members

Fiona Hill, a former national security aide, and David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on Nov. 21, 2019.Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP

Holmes shoots down Jordan on Sondland-Trump call

In one of the most contentious moments of the hearing so far, Rep. Jim Jordan shouted at Holmes while lamenting that Ukrainian Amb. Bill Taylor hadn’t during his closed-door testimony brought up the call Holmes testified to overhearing between the president and Ambassador Sondland. He first mentioned the call during his public testimony earlier this week.

Holmes fired back, claiming that the call was unremarkable to Taylor because he already knew the president was seeking an investigation into Bidens.

“It was not news for him,” Holmes said. “Of course that’s what’s going on, of course the president is pressing for a Biden investigation. There was nodding agreement.”

Holmes said the call was a “touchstone experience for me that validated what we believed,” but said he wasn’t surprised it wasn’t for Taylor.

“He was involved in a number of other interactions that you’ve outlined that brought him to the same conclusion,” Holmes concluded.

Hill blasts dual loyalty trope as 'deeply unfair'

Schiff asked Hill to discuss her feelings about the dual loyalty trope that has been used to try to discredit other witnesses, such as Lt. Col. Vindman, whose family immigrated from Ukraine. Hill is an immigrant from the United Kingdom and sharply retorted that America is a country of immigrants and “this is really what makes America great.”

She said that she does not feel any loyalty to the British monarchy and that her loyalty is to America, and she said the same can be said about a lot of naturalized citizens in U.S. foreign service.

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.