Former White House adviser Fiona Hill testified Thursday that she had warned Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, that his efforts in Ukraine on behalf of President Donald Trump would “blow up.”
Hill, a Russia expert who reported directly to John Bolton when he was national security adviser, was testifying alongside David Holmes, a top staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, before the House Intelligence Committee as part of the public impeachment inquiry.
Democrats are seeking information to bolster the case that Trump sought to leverage U.S. military aid to Ukraine and a White House visit by President Volodymyr Zelensky in exchange for investigations of former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, among others. A key issue is a July 25 phone call between the two presidents.
Speaking to lawmakers, Hill said she became angry with Sondland because he was not coordinating with the National Security Council as he met with Ukrainian leaders and others about U.S. policy toward the country.
Reflecting on her anger, Hill said she did not realize at the time that Sondland was part of a different effort altogether.
“He was being involved in a domestic political errand,” Hill said of Sondland. “And we were being involved in national security, foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged.”
“I had not put my finger on that at the moment,” Hill said, “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 also disputed Sondland’s testimony that Bolton had endorsed the idea of a phone call between Trump and Zelensky, saying Bolton shared her concerns that Trump was “not properly prepared” to take full advantage of the opportunity to “make sure there was a fulsome bilateral agenda.”
Hill added that Bolton “never indicated in any way” that he accepted Sondland’s claims that he was in charge of the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy – authority Sondland claimed he had from Trump, who he said had given him “very broad authority.”
Hill’s last day at the National Security Council was July 19 – one day after finding out that the Office of Management and Budget had frozen military assistance funds for Ukraine, and six days before the July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky.
In his prepared opening statement, Holmes testified that on July 26, he overheard Trump ask Sondland whether Zelensky would open the “investigations.” The call came as Sondland called the White House on his personal cellphone from an open-air cafe in Kyiv.
Holmes, a U.S. diplomat, described increasing concern in the American embassy in Ukraine as it became clear that Trump was pressuring the country’s new leader to investigate Democratic rivals. Holmes provided details about a phone call he witnessed in Kyiv in which U.S. diplomat Sondland and Trump discussed efforts to get Ukraine to commit to the investigations Trump wanted.
Holmes said the president was speaking loudly enough on the call to be overheard and that Sondland replied that Zelensky would do anything Trump asked. After the call concluded, Holmes testified that he asked Sondland what Trump thought of Ukraine.
Holmes said the ambassador, who had taken an informal role leading Ukraine policy, responded that Trump did not care at all about Ukraine and only cared about the “big stuff” that affected him personally – namely, “the Biden investigation.”
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, accused Holmes of embarrassing the Ukraine’s president with his testimony about the phone call in which Sondland told Trump that the Ukrainian leader would do “anything you want.”
Sondland did not dispute Holmes’ previous recollection of the call Wednesday, noting that he “would have been more surprised if President Trump had not mentioned investigations.”
Shortly before Holmes was recognized for his opening statement, Trump took to Twitter to try to undermine his testimony.
“I have been watching people making phone calls my entire life,” Trump tweeted. “My hearing is, and has been, great. Never have I been watching a person making a call, which was not on speakerphone, and been able to hear or understand a conversation. I’ve even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!”
The day began with a combative tone, as Hill’s opening statement included criticism of Republican attempts to sow doubt that Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election – an assertion Republican lawmakers disputed.
“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services,” Hill said in her opening statement.
The statement amounted to a rebuke of Trump; Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee; and others who have advanced claims that it was Ukraine – and not Russia – that waged information warfare against the United States in 2016.
“Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country,” she said.
“The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions,” Hill said. “It is beyond dispute.”
At one point, Hill appeared to endorse the impeachment investigation, saying that “if the president, or anyone else, impedes or subverts the national security of the United States in order to further domestic political or personal interests, that is more than worthy of your attention.”
Previous witnesses and evidence have depicted Trump as either convinced that Ukraine sought to defeat him in 2016 or intent on advancing that conspiratorial claim as a way of deflecting attention from Russia’s involvement.
Nunes and other Republicans have used the impeachment hearings to back Trump’s assertions. In Wednesday’s hearing, Nunes said that Democrats “got campaign dirt from Ukrainians in the 2016 election” and “were heavily involved, working with Ukrainians, to dirty up the Trump campaign.”
Hill said she sees such claims as a dangerous distortion of what happened in 2016, while warning that Russia is continuing to seek to take advantage of divisions in U.S. politics.
“I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine – not Russia – attacked us in 2016,” she said.
Also Thursday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., ruled out waiting for the courts to compel acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, former national security adviser Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and others to testify in the impeachment hearings.
“Absolutely not,” Pelosi said when asked whether she was suggesting a slower timeline. “We cannot be at the mercy of the courts. Courts are very important in all this. These cases will continue, but I never said we cannot proceed without the courts, because that’s a technique on the part of the administration – just keep, just keep ratcheting up to a higher court.”
A judge is expected to rule in the case of former White House counsel Don McGahn no later than Monday.
Pelosi also repeated her invitation for Trump to submit testimony, which the White House has suggested is unlikely.
“If the other side has a counter to it, under oath the president can come submit his counter to that, under oath,” she said.