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David Holmes, Fiona Hill Testify In Final Scheduled Day Of Impeachment Hearings


ADAM SCHIFF: Committee will come to order.


The opening gavel there for the fifth day of public hearings in the impeachment inquiry. Today, more testimony about how much pressure Ukraine felt to announce investigations that were not in line with U.S. policy goals in Ukraine, investigations that would further the personal interests of President Trump.


The first witness to speak today was David Holmes, political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. He's the man who overheard that colorful cellphone conversation between Ambassador Gordon Sondland and President Trump.


DAVID HOLMES: 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.

SHAPIRO: From his base in Kyiv, Holmes watched the events at the heart of the impeachment inquiry unfold in real time. He described the day he learned that U.S. military aid to Ukraine had been put on hold and how he later came to understand that the hold was tied to the politically motivated investigations that Trump wanted. And he vividly recalled the moment he learned that U.S. officials had asked the Ukrainian president to announce those investigations on CNN.


HOLMES: I was shocked the requirement was so specific and concrete. While we had advised our Ukrainian counterparts to voice a commitment to following the rule of law and generally investigating credible corruption allegations, this was a demand that President Zelenskiy personally commit, on a cable news channel, to a specific investigation of President Trump's political rival.

CHANG: Today's other witness - Fiona Hill. She was the top Russia expert on the National Security Council who left in July. Her opening statement was short and pointed, and she had a message for some Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee.


FIONA HILL: In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.

CHANG: She pointed to the, quote, "fictional narrative" that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election.


HILL: You know, what we're seeing here, as a result of all of these narratives, is this is exactly what the Russian government was hoping for. If they seed misinformation, if they seed doubt, that they would pit one side of our electorate against the other, that it would pit one party against the other.

CHANG: Our nation is being torn apart, Hill said, and she warned against giving the Russians more fodder to use in 2020.

SHAPIRO: For more on how today's testimony moves the impeachment inquiry forward, we are joined here in the studio by NPR justice correspondent Ryan Lucas and NPR congressional correspondent Susan Davis.

Good to have you both back.



SHAPIRO: Begin by giving us a snapshot of these two really interesting characters, these two witnesses. More than one lawmaker described Fiona Hill as someone who is not easily deterred, and David Holmes was a late addition to the witness list who ended up having a lot to say. Sue, start by telling us about Hill.

DAVIS: Fiona Hill, if it isn't pretty obvious from what you heard, she's British-born.

SHAPIRO: American by choice, as she put it.

DAVIS: American by choice, a naturalized citizen. She also made a point to know that she comes from middle-class England, that her accent is the reflection of a middle-class upbringing, raised by a family of coal miners, you know - a similar story you might from a...

SHAPIRO: Child of a miner and a nurse.

DAVIS: Exactly. She's a career foreign service official. She was no longer with the National Security Council, but she was a top Russia adviser. That's her expertise. She also joins other characters in this impeachment narrative of being foreign-born naturalized citizens. She joins people like former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, as people who were born in other places and became naturalized citizens and have worked their careers in the national security apparatus.

SHAPIRO: And Ryan, gives us a snapshot of the other witness - Holmes.

LUCAS: So Holmes is a career foreign service officer. He's worked for the foreign service for the past 17 years - postings in a number of difficult spots, including the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. He was also in New Delhi; Kabul, Afghanistan - a couple other places. He currently serves as the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv. He worked closely with the ousted Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. He was, as you said, a late addition to all of this.

SHAPIRO: So Holmes was based in Kyiv. Hill was based in Washington. And each of them in today's hearing describes the experience of watching the U.S. agenda in Ukraine veering off in an unexpected direction. Here's Holmes.


HOLMES: Beginning in March 2019, the situation at the embassy and in Ukraine changed dramatically - specifically, the three priorities of security economy and justice and our support for Ukrainian democratic resistance to Russian aggression became overshadowed by a political agenda promoted by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a cadre of officials operating with a direct channel to the White House.

SHAPIRO: So what was their understanding of why this was happening?

DAVIS: Well, one of the things that so many of these officials testified to is they didn't understand why it was happening, that there had been these established U.S.-Ukrainian policies, and suddenly, in the spring, things started to shift. As he and others had testified to - the entrance of Rudy Giuliani, the smearing Yovanovitch and the sudden - and the start of a realization, of a growing realization, among the professional career class that there had emerged what was referred to as an irregular channel involving other officials who had a competing agenda from the White House.

SHAPIRO: There was so much discussion today of Giuliani. Let's listen to this bit where Hill describes a conversation she had with then-National Security Adviser John Bolton.


HILL: And he then, in the course of that discussion, said that Rudy Giuliani was a hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up.

DANIEL GOLDMAN: Did you understand what he meant by that?

HILL: I did, actually.

GOLDMAN: What did he mean?

HILL: Well, I think he meant that, obviously, what Mr. Giuliani was saying was pretty explosive in any case. He was frequently on television making quite incendiary remarks about everyone involved in this, that he 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.

SHAPIRO: You know, there was so much conversation over these two weeks of testimony about a, quote-unquote, "irregular" Ukraine channel, which, yesterday, U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland testified it wasn't irregular, that everybody important was in the loop on this. So explain the difference between the narrative that we heard today and what Sondland said yesterday.

LUCAS: Well, Fiona Hill actually addressed Sondland's testimony. She said that - she actually recounted a meeting that she had with Sondland where she was angry with him and didn't totally understand what he was doing, why the National Security Council was being kind of kept out of the loop. She said she realized that Sondland actually did have the signoff of all the senior officials. Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the president himself, were all tuned in to what Sondland was doing.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to that.


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 who need to know, that 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.

SHAPIRO: And therefore - so what is the consequence of that? Why is that important?

LUCAS: Well, these are the two channels. You have the irregular channel, which is a domestic political errand for the president, which is pursuing the president's own personal political interests; whereas the regular channel, the channel that Dr. Hill was working with, that was pursuing U.S. national interests, and that's where you get this diversion.

DAVIS: It does speak to part of the Republican argument, though, is that they have said, well, the president can enact the foreign policy any way he sees fit. And Fiona Hill made the point where she said, sure, he can, but all of the people entrusted with enacting that foreign policy had no idea...

SHAPIRO: Were out of the loop.

DAVIS: ...What was going on.

SHAPIRO: So the primary reason David Holmes was called to testify was because he overheard this now-famous phone call between Gordon Sondland, the EU ambassador, and President Trump. So let's listen to his actual description of that phone call in his testimony today.


HOLMES: This was a very distinctive experience in my - I've never seen anything like this in my foreign service career. Someone at a lunch, in a restaurant, making a call on a cellphone to the president of the United States - being able to hear his voice. He has a very distinctive personality, as we've all seen on television. Very colorful language was used. They were directly addressing something that I had been wondering about and working on for weeks and even months, a topic that had led to the recall of my former boss, the former ambassador.

SHAPIRO: So with so much talk during these hearings of hearsay, this is a person who actually heard the president's voice, heard the president's words, heard the conversation. What does this add to our understanding of the narrative?

DAVIS: Well, it undermined one of the core defenses from the White House and from Republicans in that no one could get inside the president's head. You're inferring what he was trying to do with these things. And David Holmes is the only person who testified that he heard the president directly ask for these investigations.

LUCAS: Now, we did hear Republicans push back against Holmes on this, saying that, well, you're saying that you overheard a conversation. You weren't on the phone directly. It was not on speakerphone. And we have to trust your recollection of this. That's how they tried to push back on that.

SHAPIRO: Let's listen to part of the Republican pushback here, which generally is - nothing actually happened, the aid to Ukraine ultimately got through, the interview on CNN never happened. This is the top Republican on the committee, Devin Nunes of California.


DEVIN NUNES: Democrats have tried to solve this dilemma with a simple slogan - he got caught. President Trump, we are to believe, was just about to do something wrong and getting caught was the only reason he backed down from whatever nefarious thoughtcrime the Democrats are accusing him of almost committing.

SHAPIRO: Sue, you've talked to a lot of Republicans on the Hill. Have they found this to be an effective argument?

DAVIS: I think it's the best argument they can land on at the end of all of this testimony because they have a point. The investigations did never - were never launched. The aid was released. And the president did meet with President Zelenskiy, although it was in New York; it was not in the Oval Office, as he requested, and that meeting still has not happened. But that is the defense that Republicans are going to continue to use, is that you can't impeach someone for actions that never took place.

SHAPIRO: I want to end with two short clips, the first from a Republican then from a Democrat. Let's first listen to Jim Jordan, who was brought in just to support the president in these hearings, speaking outside of the chamber.


JIM JORDAN: To get the call, to get the meeting and to get the money, there had to be an announcement. They got the call, they got the meeting, they got the money, and there was no announcement. That's as clear as it gets, and the American people see that.

SHAPIRO: And now I want to play you the chair, Adam Schiff of California, making his closing remarks today.


SCHIFF: The day after that, Donald Trump is back on the phone asking another nation...

SHAPIRO: The day after the Mueller testimony, that is.


SCHIFF: ...To involve itself in another U.S. election. That says to me this president believes he is above the law, beyond accountability. And in my view, there is nothing more dangerous than an unethical president who believes they are above the law.

DAVIS: Those were, of course, the final words of Adam Schiff in what may be the last public day of testimony in the impeachment investigation. The conclusion I think you can draw from that is that the sum total of this is that the House is likely to move forward on articles of impeachment of Donald Trump. They haven't committed to it, but can you hear someone speak about the president's actions in that way and think it's not going to happen?

SHAPIRO: Sue Davis and Ryan Lucas, thanks so much for your coverage.

DAVIS: You're welcome.

LUCAS: Thank you

(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIAN KAMAE'S "WAYSIDE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: November 24, 2019 at 9:00 PM PST
In this report, we incorrectly say that Fiona Hill told lawmakers about her middle class background. In fact, she said she comes from a working class background. Also, a previous version of the headline misspelled David Holmes' last name as Homes.
Susan Davis is a congressional correspondent for NPR and a co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. She has covered Congress, elections, and national politics since 2002 for publications including USA TODAY, The Wall Street Journal, National Journal and Roll Call. She appears regularly on television and radio outlets to discuss congressional and national politics, and she is a contributor on PBS's Washington Week with Robert Costa. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Philadelphia native.
Ryan Lucas
Ryan Lucas covers the Justice Department for NPR.