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Fiona Hill: Sondland team involved in 'domestic political errand' not US foreign policy

Fiona Hill, a former senior Russia expert at the National Security Council and David Holmes, a counselor at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv testify before the House Intelligence Committee on the fifth day of hearings in the impeachment inquiry. The two were on Capitol Hill Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. (SBG/Paul Courson)

The House Intelligence Committee began its fifth day of hearings Thursday in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump and his interactions with Ukraine. The committee heard from two witnesses, Fiona Hill, formerly a senior Russia expert at the National Security Council and David Holmes, a career State Department official and counselor at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv.

Hill responded to the testimony given Wednesday by Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union who Trump had essentially put in charge of Ukrainian policy. In Sondland's deposition, he sharply objected to claims that he was running an "irregular channel" of diplomacy, noting that he was directly reporting to President Trump, Secretary of State Pompeo, acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney and other decisionmakers. He was not coordinating with the interagency staff responsible for Ukraine.

"He was absolutely right," Hill said of Sondland's testimony. "He was not coordinating with us because we weren't doing the same thing that he was doing...He was absolutely right because he was being involved in a domestic political errand and we were being involved in national security foreign policy and those two things had just diverged."

Hill described a series of "testy exchanges" with Sondland, related to her frustration that he was not coordinating with administration staff. She relayed Sondland's frustration that the National Security Council, where Hill served, was trying to "block" him. "What we were trying to do was block us from straying into domestic or personal politics," Hill said.

HILL DEBUNKS UKRAINE INTERFERENCE 'FICTIONS,' WARNS OF RUSSIA EXPLOITING DIVISIONS

In her opening statement, Hill, a career Russia expert, warned lawmakers and the public that Russia's 2016 election interference campaign had been successful, explaining, "Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined. U.S. support for Ukraine...has been politicized."

She noted that following the effectiveness of 2016, Russia and its proxies "have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election."

Hill further warned against spreading the "alternative narrative" that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 elections against President Trump. Specifically, she said the narrative directly benefits Russia and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

"These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes," Hill said. She continued that Russian adversaries "weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives. When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each other, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy."

Hill continued that the divisions, partisan infighting and contradictory narratives from Republicans and Democrats indicated the success of Russia's 2016 influence operation. "This is exactly what the Russian government was hoping for," she stated.

Russia intended to meddle on behalf of both candidates in 2016, she reminded lawmakers, explaining that their goal was to put whoever became the president "under a cloud," whether it was Donald Trump or former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Hill also testified that there was no basis for the allegations that Ukraine was involved in the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee, one of the issues President Trump and his allies have wanted Ukraine to investigate. Senior Trump administration advisers told the president the allegations involving Crowd Strike were false but Hill said it "appears to be the case" that Trump disregarded their conclusions and instead listened to his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.

Republicans on the Intelligence Committee have repeatedly cited other alleged instances of Ukrainian election interference, including a 2016 op-ed by the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. Valeriy Chaly criticizing Trump for suggesting Crimea wanted to be part of Russia. Ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., has also cited tweets from Ukrainian officials that were critical of Trump and supportive of his rival, Hillary Clinton.

Hill acknowledged that many Ukrainian officials "bet on the wrong horse" in 2016 and assumed Clinton would win. "So they were trying to curry favor with the Clinton campaign," she said, citing Ukrainian efforts to collect derogatory information on former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort.

The Ukrainian campaign did not represent a "top-down effort," Hill said, contrasting the actions of a few Ukrainian officials to the Russian interference effort, directed by Putin, involving Russia's military and intelligence services. "Now, I don't think that those two things are exactly the same," Hill told lawmakers.

Hill further explained that she had a "portfolio" of tweets and public statements from leaders and officials in more than 50 countries that were critical of then-candidate Trump. The difference is those statements did not impact U.S. foreign assistance or public support for those governments.

RUDY 'F***S EVERYTHING UP'

In a lengthy opening statement, the Ukrainian embassy counselor described the events he witnessed over 2019, beginning with the "barrage of allegations" that led to the removal of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch from her post. The allegations were promoted by Yuriy Lutsenko, a former Ukrainian prosecutor general who was working with Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to promote the idea that Yovanovitch was a Democratic partisan and undermining the Trump administration from the embassy in Kyiv.

The barrage of allegations directed at Ambassador Yovanovitch, career ambassador, is unlike anything I have seen in my professional career," Holmes said. Ukrainians understood that Giuliani and his associates were driving the anti-Yovanovitch campaign. Commentators in Ukraine understood that Giuliani working with Lutsenko had successfully deposed a U.S. ambassador, Holmes said.

Holmes further underscored the problematic role Giuliani played in U.S. relations with Ukraine. Holmes recalled an interaction with Amb. Sondland early this spring where he said, "Dammit Rudy. Every time Rudy gets involved he goes and f***s everything up."

Holmes, like other witnesses, indicated that the hold on nearly $300 million in U.S. security assistance to Ukraine was predicated on the Zelenskiy government announcing two investigations. One was to look into alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election against the Trump administration, and the second was an investigation into Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company chaired by former Vice President Joe Biden's son, Hunter Biden.

In his Wednesday testimony, Sondland identified a clear "quid pro quo" with the Zelinskiy government, conditioning a White House meeting on the investigations of Burisma and the 2016 election. Sondland said he never connected the Burisma investigation to the Bidens and only worked with Giuliani because President Trump explicitly directed him to do so. "We followed the president's orders," Sondland said Wednesday.

On Thursday, both Hill and Holmes poked holes in the notion that anyone working on the Ukraine portfolio would not be aware of the connection between Burisma and Hunter Biden. Holmes indicated that "anyone working on Ukraine matters would understand" the connection, give its centrality in the relationship between Trump and the new Zelinskiy government.

Further, Hill stated that Sondland was "not credible" in his denial. "It is not credible to me that he was oblivious" about the Biden-Burisma nexus, she said.

Dr. Fiona Hill also testified that members of the National Security Council were concerned about Giuliani. Former National Security Adviser John Bolton, Hill's boss, expressed to her that Giuliani "was a hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up." The comments followed Giuliani's successful efforts to oust the Ukrainian ambassador, Yovanovitch and a growing awareness that the president's attorney was driving U.S. policy outside the regular leadership channels.

In July, about two weeks before Hill resigned from the White House, she was involved in a meeting with a group of U.S. and Ukrainian officials, including Bolton and Sondland. At that meeting, the Ukrainian officials were eager to set up a White House meeting between Zelenskiy and Trump. Sondland shut down the discussion and informed the group that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney had predicated such a meeting on Ukraine undertaking the investigations being pushed by Giuliani.

Bolton became uncomfortable and ended the meeting, Hill told lawmakers Thursday. In her previous testimony, Hill indicated that Bolton ordered her to report what transpired to John Eisenberg, the National Security Council legal adviser, saying, "You go and tell Eisenberg that I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this." Hill gave an account of the meeting to the NSC counsel.

Hill indicated that Bolton felt that Giuliani's promotion of certain narratives and investigations "was going to backfire." Referring to the impeachment proceedings, she added, "I think it has backfired."

HOLMES OVERHEARD TRUMP ASKING ABOUT INVESTIGATION

Holmes surged into the national spotlight last week after his boss, U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bill Taylor testified that the embassy staffer had overheard an odd phone call between President Trump and Amb. Sondland.

Holmes detailed his recollection of the call which took place July 26, one day after President Trump's call with President Zelesnkiy. Holmes' memory was aided by the "colorful language" used in the call, Trump's distinctive voice and the fact that they were directly addressing an issue—the investigations—that had prompted the recall of his former boss, Amb. Yovanovitch.

Sondland began the call by telling President Trump that President Zelenskiy "loves your a**" at which point Holmes recalled Trump asking if Zelenskiy was "going to do the investigation." Sondland replied that the Ukrainian president would "do anything you ask him to."

Holmes said the conversation then veered toward the fate of A$AP Rocky, the U.S, rapper who was jailed in Sweden. When Sondland got off the phone, Holmes asked what President Trump thought about Ukraine, to which Sondland reportedly replied, Trump did not "give a s*** about Ukraine" and only cared about "big stuff." Noting the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war was "big stuff," Sondland responded giving Holmes the impression that "big stuff" referred to the investigation of Hunter Biden that was being promoted by Giuliani.

UKRAINE STILL SHAKEN BY UNCERTAIN US SUPPORT

The impact of the Trump administration's demand for investigations in exchange for a White House meeting and security assistance lingered beyond Sept. 11, when the White House finally released the aid, Holmes said. He described an uneasy Zelsnkiy government as a result of the U.S. president's shaky support.

"I think that continues to this day. I think they [Ukrainians] are being very careful. They still need us going forward," Holmes said. Specifically, Holmes argued that President Zelenskiy needs the United States to demonstrate support for Ukraine as he prepares for face-to-face peace talks with Russian President Putin. "He needs President Putin to understand that America supports" the Ukraine government.

Both Hill and Holmes testified that the lack of support President Trump has shown toward the Zelenskiy government does not benefit the U.S.-Ukrainian partnership. Zelenskiy has still not been offered a White House visit, as President Trump promised shortly after he won his country's election in May 2019.

LAWMAKERS TRY TO SHAPE THE IMPEACHMENT DEBATE

The House Intelligence Committee chairman and minority members sparred over the facts and political climate surrounding the impeachment inquiry. Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., recounted the timeline of events in which President Trump and his allies conditioned a White House meeting and military aid on Ukrainian President Zelenskiy publicly agreeing to investigations.

"In the coming days, Congress will determine what response is appropriate," Schiff said, indicating the series of impeachment hearings may be coming to an end. "It will be for us to decide whether those acts [by President Trump] are compatible with the office of the presidency."

Ranking member Nunes chastized Democrats' "bizarre hearings" and claimed the Democrats had failed to discover impeachable crimes by the president. "Today's hearing marks the merciful end of the spectacle in the impeachment committee, formerly known as the Intelligence Committee," Nunes said, repeating the president's claims of exoneration. Republicans on the committee further pressed the chairmen to allow a day for them to call their witnesses, including Hunter Biden and the whistleblower who first alerted the intelligence community to concerns about the White House's irregular activities involving Ukraine.

The Thursday hearing was presumably the final hearing in the House Intelligence Committee's impeachment inquiry. Notably, many of the witnesses called to testify before the committee defied congressional subpoenas. The committee is expected to a draft a report on its findings based on the open and closed depositions of more than a dozen witnesses.

Catch up with the impeachment inquiry. Read about Tuesday's hearings with E.U. Ambassador Gordon Sondland and senior officials from the State Department and Department of Defense.



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