WASHINGTON - A former White House Russia analyst sternly warned Republican lawmakers in the impeachment probe Thursday to quit pushing a “fictional” narrative that Ukraine not Russia interfered in the 2016 election as they defend President Donald Trump.
Fiona Hill, a career expert on Russia, and David Holmes, a State Department official in Kyiv, both say they had grown alarmed over the way the Trump administration was conducting foreign policy toward Ukraine.
Their testimony capped an intense week in the historic inquiry.
The impeachment inquiry focuses on allegations that Trump sought investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son — and the discredited idea that Ukraine rather than Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election — in return for badly needed U.S. military aid and a White House visit the new Ukrainian president wanted that would demonstrate his backing from the West.
In a July 25 phone call, Trump asked President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for “a favor,” the investigations. A still-anonymous whistleblower’s official government complaint about that call led to the current impeachment inquiry.
“I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” Hill said Thursday in prepared opening remarks to the House Intelligence Committee.
She warned that Russia is gearing up to intervene again in the 2020 U.S. election: “We are running out of time to stop them.”
Trump has told others testifying in the inquiry that Ukraine tried to “take me down” in the 2016 election. The president instructed his top diplomats to work with Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, as he pursued investigations into Democrats and Biden, others have testified during the week of blockbuster public hearings.
Hill was an aide to former national security adviser John Bolton and stressed that she is “nonpartisan” 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 U.S. election “is beyond dispute.”
She said, “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.
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, part of a desperate effort by Democrats 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.
Holmes said he was having lunch with Ambassador Gordon Sondland this summer when he overheard Trump on the phone asking the envoy about the investigations he wanted from the Ukraine president. The colorful exchange was like nothing he had ever heard, Holmes said in an earlier closed-door deposition.
At a different time, Hill has said, Bolton cut short a meeting with visiting Ukrainians at the White House when Sondland started asking them about “investigations.”
The witnesses testifying publicly have all previously appeared for private depositions, most having received subpoenas compelling their testimony.
Holmes, speaking about the July 26 call between Trump and Sondland, the day after the president’s call with Zelenskiy, has told investigators he heard Trump ask, “So he’s going to do the investigation?”
According to Holmes, Sondland replied that Zelenskiy “will, quote, ‘do anything you ask him to.’”
Hill said Bolton told her separately 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.
Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and donor to Trump’s inauguration, appeared before lawmakers Wednesday in a marathon session.
He declared that Trump and Giuliani explicitly sought a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine, leveraging an Oval Office visit for political investigations of Democrats. But he also came to believe the trade involved much more.
Sondland testified it was his understanding the president was holding up nearly $400 million in military aid, which Ukraine badly needs with an aggressive Russia on its border, in exchange for the country’s announcement of the investigations.
Sondland conceded that Trump never told him directly the security assistance was blocked for the probes, a gap in his account that Republicans and the White House seized on as evidence the president did nothing wrong. But the ambassador said his dealings with Giuliani, as well as administration officials, left him with the clear understanding of what was at stake.
“Was there a ‘quid pro quo’?” Sondland testified in opening remarks. “With regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes.”
The rest, he said, was obvious: “Two plus two equals four.”
In often-stunning testimony, he painted a picture of a Ukraine pressure campaign that was prompted by Trump himself, orchestrated by Giuliani and well-known to other senior officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Sondland said he raised his concerns about a quid pro quo for military aid with Vice President Mike Pence — a conversation Pence said he didn’t recall.
However, Sondland said: “Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.”
Later Wednesday, another witness undercut a main Republican argument — that Ukraine didn’t even realize the money was being held up. The Defense Department’s Laura Cooper testified that Ukrainian officials started asking about it on July 25, which was the day of Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy, when he first asked for a “favor.”
In Moscow on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was pleased that the “political battles” in Washington had overtaken the Russia allegations, which are supported by the U.S. intelligence agencies.
"Thank God,” Putin said, “no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine."