WASHINGTON — Dr. Fiona Hill and David Holmes appeared before Congress on Thursday in the sixth and likely final public impeachment hearing not as Democratic- or Republican-called witnesses but as fact witnesses. Holmes, a career foreign service officer and adviser in the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, overheard the phone call when President Trump asked EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland if Ukraine would announce the investigation into the Bidens. Hill, the former National Security Council senior director for Russia, was in the room when Sondland told American and Ukrainian officials that Ukraine’s president wouldn’t get a White House meeting until the Biden investigation was publicly announced. She was also the person to whom National Security Advisor John Bolton called the Trump-Ukraine scheme a “drug deal.”
We knew these facts going into the hearings, and Hill and Holmes’ testimonies did not include major revelations like Sondland’s testimony did Wednesday. But the steadiness and consistency that was absent from Sondland’s testimony — by his own admission, he changed key parts of his story several times and magically remembered events he’d previously forgotten — Hill and Holmes were solid, consistent, and unruffled in the face of overheated partisan lecturing from members of both parties. They kept their poise as they supplied valuable facts, context, and analysis throughout a grueling seven-hour hearing. Here are three key takeaways from their testimonies:
Vice President Mike Pence was directly implicated by Holmes’ testimony. Holmes, who was working in Kyiv at the time, testified he learned in the spring of 2019 that Rudy Giuliani was trying to pressure Ukraine into announcing investigations into the Bidens and a baseless conspiracy theory involving the 2016 U.S. election.
A childhood friend and confidante of the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, told Holmes in private that he’d been contacted by Giuliani. The friend of Zelensky’s said Giuliani had described himself as “an advisor to the Vice President.”
Giuliani is, of course, the personal attorney for President Trump. He is also a central figure in the impeachment inquiry: As Sondland testified, Giuilani orchestrated the scheme to convince a foreign head of state, the president of Ukraine, to announce an investigation into a U.S. citizen and political rival of Trump’s, Joe Biden.
It’s possible Zelensky’s friend misheard Giuliani when Giuliani identified himself. But the only way to know for certain is to hear from Giuliani about how he represented himself and from Pence to know how much interacted with Giuliani when it came to Ukraine.
Dr. Hill rejected the notion that Trump’s pressure campaign aimed at Ukraine had anything to do with foreign policy. She called it “a domestic political errand.” This gets at one of the go-to rebuttals used by Republicans: that Trump wanted Ukraine to investigate the Bidens, a natural gas company that Hunter Biden worked for, and the 2016 election out of a larger desire to encourage anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine. Amb. Sondland dismantled that line of defense when he emphasized that the president only wanted Ukraine to announce an investigation — a statement that would no doubt damage Joe Biden. Trump, Sondland claimed, didn’t care whether the Ukrainians opened an actual investigation.
In her testimony, Dr. Hill backstopped the notion that there was no foreign policy or national-security aim behind Trump’s fixation on Ukraine. She described a moment of frustration directed at Ambassador Sondland at the time the ambassador was carrying out Trump’s directive to press Ukraine into announcing the investigations. “I was upset with him that he wasn’t fully telling us about all of the meetings he was having,” Hill said. Sondland replied that he was already briefing acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and then-National Security Advisor John Bolton. “‘Who else do I have to do deal with?’” Hill recalls Sondland telling her.
Hill testified that she realized in that moment that Sondland had become involved in “a domestic political errand” while she and other Ukraine and Russia experts “were being involved in national security foreign policy.” The two tracks, she said, “had just diverged.”
Republican conspiracy theories took a beating. But one of the GOP’s few open-minded members sounded unconvinced. During her opening statement, Dr. Hill took aim at unnamed members of the House Intelligence Committee who, she claimed, had doubted the facts of Russia’s full-scale interference operation in the 2016 U.S. elections. Hill later said she was specifically referring to some dubious questions she faced in her closed-door deposition, but her remarks were damning all the same.
“Some of you on this committee appear to believe Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some
reason, Ukraine did,” she testified. To be clear, President Trump has said the same thing. She went on to call this “a fictional narrative” pushed by those same Russian security services.
That comment only provoked Republicans like Reps. Devin Nunes and Jim Jordan. By the end of the hearing, Republicans on the Intelligence Committee had largely given up on asking questions and instead gave indignant screeds about the unfairness of the impeachment process and how the whole thing was a “coup.” Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.) went so far as to call a GOP colleague’s tirade aimed at Dr. Hill as an “epic mansplaining.”
If there was a single House Republican that Democrats might have hoped to win over, it was Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas). Hurd is hardly a moderate, but he’s shown a willingness on occasion to criticize President Trump’s agenda. And his questions in the impeachment hearings have shown more interest in getting to the truth than those of his colleagues.
Near the end of Thursday’s hearing, Hurd said Trump mentioning a “favor” and “Biden” on his July 25th call with Ukraine’s president was “inappropriate” and showed a “misguided foreign policy.” He said the impeachment hearings had revealed new information about a series of events that had “undermined our national security and undercut Ukraine.”
But that information hadn’t swayed him: “I have not heard evidence proving that the president committed bribery or extortion.” With that, Hurd sent a strong signal he would likely vote no on articles of impeachment alleging the president committed those crimes — and dealt a blow to the hope that even one Republican would join Democrats in a future impeachment vote.