Former national security official says Trump sent ambassador on 'domestic political errand'

Trump impeachment: Day 5 of public testimony

  • National Security Council’s Fiona Hill calls Sondland-Giuliani efforts on Ukraine a “domestic political errand.”
  • Hill criticizes lawmakers who are promoting “alternative narrative” that the Ukrainian government is an American adversary.
  • Foreign service officer David Holmes says ex-U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was subjected to smear campaign.
  • Hill and Holmes are the 8th and 9th witnesses to appear. No others currently scheduled.

A former national security official said a U.S. ambassador carried out a controversial “domestic political errand” for U.S. President Donald Trump on Ukraine, an allegation undercutting a main line of the president’s defence, as the impeachment inquiry continued Thursday in Washington. 

Fiona Hill told U.S. House investigators she came to realize Ambassador Gordon Sondland wasn’t simply operating outside official diplomatic channels, as she and others suspected, but carrying out instructions from Trump.

“He was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy,” she testified, “and those two things had just diverged.”

Hill’s comment followed a blistering back-and-forth during questioning from Republicans at the House hearing.

Testimony from Hill and David Holmes, a State Department adviser in Kyiv, capped an intense week in the historic inquiry and reinforced the central complaint: that Trump used foreign policy for political aims, setting off alarms across the U.S. national security and foreign policy apparatus.

Giuliani pursuing ‘political investigations’

Democrats allege Trump was relying on the discredited idea that Ukraine, rather than Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election as he sought investigations in return for two things: U.S. military aid that Ukraine needed to fend off Russian aggression, and a White House visit the new Ukrainian president wanted that would demonstrate his backing from the West.

One by one, Hill, a Russia expert at the White House’s National Security Council until this summer, took on Trump’s defences.

She and Holmes both told House investigators it was abundantly clear Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani was pursuing political investigations of Democrats and former vice-president Joe Biden in Ukraine.

“He was clearly pushing forward issues and ideas that would, you know, probably come back to haunt us and in fact,” Hill testified. “I think that’s where we are today.”

Earlier, Hill denounced as “fictional” the contention from some Republicans that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election, and warned lawmakers not to advance a politically motivated narrative helpful to Russia as they defend Trump in the impeachment probe.

“I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” Hill said in prepared opening remarks to the House intelligence committee.

Hill was an aide to former national security adviser John Bolton and stressed that she is “non-partisan” and has worked under Republican and Democratic presidents.

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

But she said the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the election “is beyond dispute.”

Fiona Hill says a discredited theory is playing into Russian hands 5:46

She said the assertion by some Republicans that Ukraine interfered in the election “is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

“I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternative narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016,” she said.

Hill and Holmes are the eighth and ninth witnesses to testify publicly before the House impeachment hearings against the 45th president. The Democrats have seen a number of officials close to Trump’s orbit — including Giuliani, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and budget chief Mick Mulvaney — defy subpoenas compelling their appearance.

Hill has said Bolton cut short a July meeting with visiting Ukrainians at the White House when Sondland started asking them about “investigations.”

Hill said Bolton told her he didn’t want to be involved in any “drug deal” Sondland and Trump’s acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were cooking up over the Ukrainian investigations Trump wanted. 

“I saw Bolton stiffen … it was unmistakable body language,” said Hill.

Hill resigned in July, just a few days before the now-momentous call in which Trump asked Zelensky for a “favour.”

Separate nations could have meddled: Nunes

Some Republicans have advanced Ukraine election interference — based on a convoluted theory involving the Democratic National Committee server breach and Crowdstrike, the company that helped investigate the breach — as a talking point as they seek to defend Trump from allegations that he pressed Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Democrats and Biden.

They, and Trump himself, have said he was trying to root out corruption in the country.

Multiple investigations, including one led by the Republican-led Senate, have concluded Russia was behind the DNC cyberintrusions.

Former White House national security aide Fiona Hill, and David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Thursday. (The Associated Press)

Hill said U.S. support for Ukraine, “which continues to face armed Russian aggression, has been politicized.”

Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House intelligence committee, took exception with Hill’s characterization that U.S. lawmakers don’t believe that Russia interfered in the 2016 election.

“Needless to say it is entirely possible for two separate nations to engage in election meddling at the same time and Republicans believe we should take seriously by all foreign countries, regardless of which campaign is the target,” he said.

Holmes defends ambassador, talks about Trump call

Holmes said he was at a lunch with Ambassador Gordon Sondland and others when Sondland got on his mobile phone to speak with the president.

Holmes told the committee he overheard Sondland talking with Trump about Zelensky and Trump’s voice “was loud and recognizable.”

U.S. diplomat testifies about Trump call asking about Ukraine investigation 0:50

He overheard Trump ask about “doing the investigation.” And Sondland told him Zelensky would do it and would do “anything you ask him to.”

Holmes said his recollections of events through the spring and summer were “generally consistent” with previous witnesses Bill Taylor and Marie Yovanovitch.

He described the campaign led by Giuliani and others to oust Yovanovitch as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine “unlike anything I have seen in my professional career.”

Missed previous testimony? See the highlights.

  • Day 1:  U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor and deputy assistant secretary of state George Kent.
  • Day 2:  Marie Yovanovitch, Washington’s former ambassador to Ukraine.
  • Day 3:  4 witnesses, including Lt.-Col. Alexander Vindman and Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine.
  • Day 4:  U.S. ambassador to European Union Gordon Sondland.

Hill said she was concerned that Sondland was playing a large role in Ukraine policy. She said Sondland told her his part on the Ukraine file was at the direction of the president.

She characterized the efforts of Sondland and others to get Zelensky to sign off on announcing Trump’s desired investigations as part of a “domestic political errand,” as opposed to “national security foreign policy.” She said Sondland left her out on key emails and discussions on Ukraine interactions, to her frustration.

Hill said she believed Sondland was helping Trump on a ‘domestic political errand’ 1:18

On Wednesday, Sondland testified it was his understanding the president was holding up nearly $400 million US in military aid, which Ukraine badly needs with an aggressive Russia on its border, in exchange for the country’s announcement of the investigations. The aid was eventually released on Sept. 11, two days after Democrats announced they would investigate Trump administration foreign policy pertaining to Ukraine.

Under questioning by Republicans, Hill and Holmes agreed that delays in foreign aid were not uncommon, though no one specified a typical time span for such a delay.

Hill also said in response to a question that Hunter Biden serving on the board of Ukraine energy giant Burisma, including for over two years while his father was U.S. vice-president, wasn’t great optics and potentially left the son open to “undue outside influence.”

Trump has denied wrongdoing. He also distanced himself from Sondland, saying he didn’t know him “very well.”

Sondland, who donated $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, estimated that in his role he had spoken to the president about 20 times.

The fourth day of hearings is over. Catch up with a recap of the day’s testimonies 23:25

On Wednesday Trump read to reporters his recollection of his July 26 call with Sondland, repeating the statement, “I want nothing!”

Trump concluded, “It’s all over” for the impeachment proceedings.

The next steps are unclear. The House could debate articles of impeachment, with a simple majority in the chamber needed to impeach the president, which has happened only twice previously in U.S. history.

A trial in the Republican-led Senate could then ensue, presided over by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.

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