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5 takeaways from the impeachment hearing with Hill, Holmes

Former White House adviser Fiona Hill pushed back on questioning during impeachment hearing saying all of the witnesses had not only a legal obligation to come but a moral one as well. (Nov. 21) (Credit: THE ASSOCIATED PRESS)

WASHINGTON — Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council director on Russia, on Thursday urged Republicans on the impeachment inquiry panel to give up the “fictional narrative” that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.

Hill also said she clashed with Ambassador Gordon Sondland for keeping her out of the loop on what he claimed was his role as the administration’s lead on Ukraine, but later figured out he had a different task: “a domestic political errand.”

Also appearing was David Holmes, a career foreign affairs officer serving since August 2017 as the political counselor in the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, who spoke about the phone call he overheard between Sondland and President Donald Trump.

Here are some takeaways from the hearing in the fifth and possibly last day of the impeachment inquiry’s public hearings with witnesses.

Sondland was on a different track

Hill had a sometimes testy relationship with Sondland. When Sondland claimed in a group meeting he would be the lead on Ukraine policy, she asked on whose authority. “And that’s when he told me ‘the president,’ ” she said, “which shut me up.” Then she became angry when Sondland kept her out of the loop. “Now I actually realize,” she said, “that he wasn’t coordinating with us because we weren’t doing the same thing that he was doing.” Hill explained, “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.” She added, “And I had not put my finger on that at the moment, but I was irritated with him and angry with him that he wasn’t fully coordinating. And I did say to him, ‘Ambassador Sondland — Gordon — I think this is all going to blow up.’ And here we are.”

Hill: Don’t help advance Russian interests

Hill criticized Trump and the Republicans’ suggestion that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election as “a fictional narrative.” Hill has spent her career studying Russia and the former Soviet Union and is co-author of “Mr. Putin: Operative in the Kremlin.” Speaking to the Republicans on the panel, Hill said, “In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.” Republicans denied they doubted Russia attacked the United States. And Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said, “It is entirely possible for two separate nations to engage in election meddling at the same time.”

Hill stood in for John Bolton

Some of Hill’s most colorful testimony came from her former boss John Bolton, who quit or was fired as Trump’s national security adviser on Sept. 9 — the same day that the whistleblower filed the complaint. Alarmed at how Sondland and Trump's Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney were dealing with Ukraine, Hill said Bolton told her to report that he was not “part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” And she said Bolton described Giuliani as “a hand grenade that was going blow everyone up.” Bolton meant that what Giuliani was saying was “explosive,” Hill said. Giuliani "was clearly pushing forward issues and ideas that would, you know, probably come back to haunt us. And in fact, I think that that's where we are today," Hill said.

Burisma meant Bidens

Sondland testified Wednesday that he did not know until very late that references to Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company, really was code for investigating the Bidens -- Joe Biden, the former vice president and Democratic candidate for president, and his son Hunter, who sat on Burisma’s board. But Holmes and Hill said they grasped it early on. When William Taylor, the top U.S. envoy in Ukraine, said Sondland told him in a June 27 call that Zelensky had to make clear to Trump he wasn’t blocking investigations, Holmes said, “I understood that this meant the Biden, Burisma investigations that Mr. Giuliani and his associates had been speaking about in the media since March.” Asked about Sondland’s claim, Hill said, “It is not credible to me that he was oblivious.”

Holmes: Never seen anything like it

Holmes said the July 26 unsecured phone call between Sondland and Trump that he overheard suggests Trump was following up on the call the day before in which he pressed Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate the Bidens and the 2016 election. “I then heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation? Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to.’” After the call, Holmes asked about Trump’s view of Ukraine and Sondland said Trump doesn’t care about Ukraine, only about “big stuff.” What big stuff? “ 'Big stuff’ that benefits Trump, like the ‘Biden investigation,’ ” Holmes said. Sondland testified he wouldn’t dispute Holmes' version, except for the mention of Biden. Republicans cast doubt on whether Holmes really heard Trump.  Asked why he recalls the call so well, Holmes said, “I've never seen anything like this in my foreign service career, of someone at a lunch in a restaurant making a call on a cellphone to the president of the United States.” 

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