WASHINGTON — A former national security official testified Thursday that a U.S. ambassador carried out a “domestic political errand” for Donald Trump on Ukraine, undercutting a main line of the president’s defense in the impeachment inquiry.
Fiona Hill told House investigators she came to realize Ambassador Gordon Sondland wasn’t simply operating outside official diplomatic channels, as some assumed, but carrying out instructions from Trump,
“He was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security policy,” she said after a blistering back-and-forth during questioning from Republicans at the House hearing.
“And here we are.”
Testimony from Hill and David Holmes, a State Department adviser in Kyiv, capped an intense week in the 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.
Democrats allege Trump was relying on the discredited idea that Ukraine instead of 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 took on Trump’s defenses.
She and Holmes told House investigators it was clear Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani was pursuing political investigations of Democrats and 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.”
And Hill stood up for Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the Army officer who testified earlier and whom Trump’s allies tried to discredit.
He is at the White House National Security Council, where she worked until this summer.
At one point, Republicans interjected, trying to cut off Hill’s response as she flipped the script during the afternoon of questioning.
The GOP lawmakers had been trying to highlight her differences with Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union who delivered damaging testimony Wednesday about what he said was Trump’s “quid pro quo” pursuit of the political investigations.
“You may not like the witness’ answer, but we will hear it,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the committee.
Hill, a former aide to then-national security adviser John Bolton, warned Republican lawmakers — and implicitly Trump — to quit pushing a “fictional” narrative that Ukraine, rather than Russia, interfered in U.S. elections.
Trump has told others testifying in the inquiry that Ukraine tried to “take me down” in the 2016 election. Republicans launched their questioning Thursday reviving those theories.
“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,” Hill said.
Her testimony also raised fresh questions whether Bolton, who has yet to defy White House orders for officials not to testify, would appear in the inquiry.
In what was seen as a nudge to her former boss, Hill said those with information have a “moral obligation to provide it.”
The House impeachment inquiry was sparked by a July 25 phone call, in which Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for investigations into Biden and the Democratic National Committee.
A still-anonymous whistleblower’s official government complaint about that call led the House to launch the current probe.
Hill and Holmes filled in gaps in previous testimony and poked holes in the accounts of other witnesses.
They were particularly adamant that efforts by Trump and Giuliani to investigate the Burisma company were well-known by officials working on Ukraine to be the equivalent of probing the Bidens.
That runs counter to earlier witnesses Sondland and Kurt Volker, the former Ukraine special envoy, who insisted they had no idea there was a connection.
Holmes, a late addition to the schedule, also undercut some of Sondland’s recollections about an extraordinary phone call between the ambassador and Trump on July 26, the day after the president’s call with Ukraine.
Holmes was having lunch with Sondland in Kyiv and said he could overhear Trump ask about “investigations” during a “colorful” phone call with Sondland.
After the phone call, Holmes said Sondland told him Trump cared about “big stuff,” including the investigation into the “Biden investigation.”
Sondland said he didn’t recall raising the Bidens.
During Thursday’s testimony, the president tweeted that while his own hearing is “great” he’s never been able to understand another person’s conversation that wasn’t on speaker.
“Try it,” he suggested.
Holmes also testified about his growing concern as Giuliani orchestrated Ukraine policy outside official diplomatic channels. It was a concern shared by others, he testified.
“My recollection is that Ambassador Sondland stated, ‘Every time Rudy gets involved he goes and (expletive) everything up,'” he said.
Holmes testified that he grew alarmed throughout the year, watching as Giuliani was “making frequent public statements pushing for Ukraine to investigate interference in the 2016 election and issues related to Burisma and the Bidens.”
Hill left the White House before the July phone call that sparked the impeachment probe, though she was part of other key meetings and conversations related to Ukraine policy.
She opened her testimony with an impassioned plea for Republicans to stop peddling an alternative theory of 2016 election interference and helping Russia sow divisions in the United States.
“This is exactly what the Russian government was hoping for,” she said about the currently American political climate. “They would pit one side of our electorate against the others.”
She warned Russia is gearing up to intervene again in the 2020 U.S. election.
“We are running out of time to stop them,” she testified.
Trump — as well as Republicans on the panel, including ranking GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of California — continue to advance the idea that Russian interference was a “hoax” and that it was Ukraine that was trying to swing the election, to stop Trump’s presidency.
“That is the Democrats’ pitiful legacy,” Nunes said in his opening remarks.
He called it all part of the same effort, from “the Russia hoax” to the “shoddy sequel of the impeachment inquiry.