Fiona Hill And David Holmes Testify In Public Impeachment Inquiry Hearings

Nov 21, 2019
Originally published on November 21, 2019 6:59 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

We have seen the whistleblower complaint.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We've read the White House call record.

CHANG: And now we have heard from the witnesses.

SHAPIRO: Today was the final scheduled day of public testimony in the House of Representatives' impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. One witness today was David Holmes, a diplomat in the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. He testified that he heard Trump himself asking about investigations on a phone call with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.

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DAVID HOLMES: The president's voice was loud and recognizable, and Ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time presumably because of the loud volume.

SHAPIRO: Holmes testified that a White House visit for the Ukrainian president was tied to investigations that would have benefited the president politically.

CHANG: So did the other witness, former National Security Council staffer Fiona Hill.

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FIONA HILL: It became very clear that the White House meeting itself was being predicated on other issues, namely investigations and the questions about the election interference in 2016.

CHANG: Both witnesses also emphasized that the events of the last several months have far-reaching consequences, consequences that go beyond the impeachment inquiry.

SHAPIRO: Holmes reminded the committee of the strategic importance of Ukraine - a, quote, "scrappy, unbowed, determined and, above all, dignified people who are standing up against Russian authoritarianism and aggression."

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HOLMES: We're now at an inflection point in Ukraine, and it is critical to our national security that we stand in strong support of our Ukrainian partners. Ukrainians and freedom-loving people everywhere are watching the example we set here of democracy and the rule of law.

SHAPIRO: And Hill stressed that the repetition of debunked conspiracy theories in an effort to support the president makes the U.S. more vulnerable to Russian interference.

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HILL: Right now Russia's security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.

CHANG: All right. We're going to walk through this entire final day of testimony with NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen. She's here in the studio with me.

Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ailsa.

CHANG: Hill and Holmes were the final witnesses in what we think, at least for now, is going to be the final day of public hearings. Why did Democrats want to close with these two individuals in particular, do you think?

KELEMEN: Well, Hill is a Russia expert, and she could speak about her experience in this administration. The former national security adviser, John Bolton, has not agreed to testify, but she was there to explain how he even agreed that this whole situation was unusual, too political and served to help Russia's interests, which wants to keep Ukraine weak. Holmes could add this element of hearing a conversation between President Trump and the ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland. And he had Sondland telling him that Trump was only interested in investigations and not in Ukraine.

CHANG: When it came to Ukraine. Now, Fiona Hill, she came across as quite the witness today - unflappable, no-nonsense. What would you say is the main headline from her testimony over the course of this entire day?

KELEMEN: Well, I thought there was this very interesting moment when she was asked about a run-in she had with Gordon Sondland. He's the ambassador to the EU but had this unusual role in Ukraine. Hill's lawyer denied Sondland's characterization of this run-in they had, and I think Republicans may have been hoping that she would kind of undermine Sondland as a character witness. But instead, she said this.

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HILL: It struck me when yesterday, when you put up on the screen Ambassador Sondland's emails and who was on these emails, and he said these are the people you need to know. And 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.

KELEMEN: Right. And she made clear that, you know, John Bolton had told her to tell the lawyers that he didn't want to be part of this drug deal that Gordon Sondland was cooking up with some others. And by that drug deal, she meant forcing Ukraine to announce investigations that could help Trump politically in exchange for a White House meeting.

CHANG: Right. So how does Fiona Hill's testimony fit into the larger story of the administration's efforts to try to pressure Ukraine, at least the story that the Democrats are trying to push?

KELEMEN: Well, she talked about that - that this was irregular, that it was becoming too political. And the career people clearly understood that and kept their distance from it.

CHANG: And how would you say that her testimony undermined this Republican argument that we've heard over and over again that Gordon Sondland, the EU ambassador, was this rogue foreign policy actor?

KELEMEN: Well, he in fact said that he was in the center lane. That's what he testified yesterday. He was told by the president to get involved in this, and he was told by the president to work with Rudy Giuliani. Rudy Giuliani is Trump's private lawyer.

And you could hear in a lot of this testimony today why someone like Fiona Hill was nervous about what Rudy Giuliani was saying. She had been watching him on Fox News. She had been watching him peddle a lot of conspiracy theories, theories that are being promoted by some corrupt Ukrainian oligarchs. And he even managed to get the U.S. ambassador to the - to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, ousted because of these false allegations.

CHANG: Let's turn now to a phone call that was also the subject of a lot of today's testimony. This is the phone call between Trump and the EU ambassador, Gordon Sondland, that was overheard by David Holmes. It was a cellphone conversation that took place the day after the now-famous July 25 phone call between Ukrainian president and President Trump. And Holmes is sitting in a restaurant in Ukraine and overhearing Gordon Sondland talk to the president, and he uses some salty language. Let's listen to it.

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HOLMES: I heard President Trump then clarify that Ambassador Sondland was in Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland replied yes, he was in Ukraine and went on to state that President Zelenskiy, quote, "loves your ass." I then heard President Trump ask, so he's going to do the investigation? Ambassador Sondland replied that he's going to do it, adding that President Zelenskiy will do anything you ask him to do.

CHANG: All right. How does hearing about this phone call directly from David Holmes change the nature of the evidence Democrats have been amassing so far?

KELEMEN: Well, it certainly got President Trump's attention because he was showing how he would hold the phone away, and that's how he overheard the president. And that's - this is the one thing the president was talking about. But what was more interesting was kind of after that conversation, after Gordon Sondland got off the phone, the - Holmes asked, you know, does the - what does the president think about Ukraine? And he said, he only thinks about the big stuff - the big stuff not meaning the war in Ukraine, big stuff meaning investigations.

CHANG: Into the Bidens - that's NPR's diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.

Thanks, Michele.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.