Congress

Fiona Hill forceful, direct in countering Republican defense of Trump

Former NSC aide fills in critical blanks after more than a week of impeachment hearings

Fiona Hill, former senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council, and David Holmes, political counselor for the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, are sworn in before testifying during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

The House Intelligence Committee's last witness of the week in the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump connected the dots between current and former administration witnesses, pushed back against previous accounts and illuminated fault lines in American diplomacy. 

Fiona Hill, a Russia expert who worked on Trump’s National Security Council, delivered perhaps the most forceful testimony countering the Republican defense of Trump and his dealings in Ukraine.

In direct and straightforward language, Hill offered firsthand knowledge of conversations and meetings with an array of key players including Trump’s Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and National Security Adviser John Bolton. Volker and Bolton have since resigned.

Hill filled in the blanks left by conflicting and sometimes erratic testimony from witnesses over the last eight days. She responded with clarity and confidence to questions about minutiae of other previous testimony, due in part to her direct knowledge of the events in question and ability to offer personal recollections to corroborate — or contradict —the prevailing narrative.

In recent days, Hill said that she had faced attacks and “doxing” attempts online, but lawmakers were largely unable to sow the kind of doubt about her detailed testimony as they had with Sondland, who offered variable accounts over three separate interactions with the committee.

On Wednesday, Sondland, a Trump donor and fellow hotelier, told Congress that the president directed him to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Ukrainian energy company Burisma and, in turn, former Vice President Joe Biden, a 2020 presidential hopeful, and his son Hunter. The effort to secure the investigation is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.

In her own testimony, Hill said she came to understand that Sondland was on a “domestic political errand” and was not engaged in furthering the foreign policy of the United States.

Hill told the committee that her misunderstanding of Sondland’s responsibilities led to tension between the two.

Hill said she felt as if she, a member of the National Security Council, were out of the loop as she became aware that Sondland was coordinating with Bolton, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney while not working with the NSC.

After realizing his political role, Hill testified that she told Sondland that it was “all going to blow up.”

Sondland stressed that the president never directly told him U.S. military aid to Ukraine was contingent upon the politically motivated investigations but said he presumed “two plus two equals four.” He testified, among other new revelations Wednesday, that Pompeo signed off on the Ukraine pressure campaign.

Hill also offered forceful pushback against testimony from her successor Tim Morrison that she had concerns about Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman's judgment, offering effusive praise for Vindman. Both Morrison and Vindman testified on Tuesday.

As Ukraine policy became more political at the White House and conversations arose about what Vindman might do if he were to leave the military, she didn’t think politics would be a good fit. Hill said she did not feel he had the “political antennae for something straying into domestic politics, not everybody is suited for that.”

Peddling ‘fictions’

Hill publicly rebutted a Republican narrative that Ukraine intervened in the 2016 elections while reasserting that Russia has and continues to meddle in U.S. politics.

Hill’s comments directly challenged defenses made by Republican members of the panel who have grasped for debunked conspiracy theories throughout the proceedings.

[Who’s holding the impeachment hearings? Meet the House Intelligence Committee]

“Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Hill told the committee during its fifth day of public hearings. “This is a fictional narrative.”

Hill went on to say that “these fictions” hurt the United States, even if Republicans deploy them purely for domestic political purposes.

“President Putin and the Russian security services operate like a super PAC,” Hill said. “They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives.”

Hill testified alongside David Holmes, a Foreign Service officer stationed in Kyiv. Holmes said that promoting a narrative that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 elections would benefit Moscow.

Holmes said such a theory would “drive a wedge between the United States and Ukraine, which Russia wants to essentially get back into its sphere of influence.”

Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff of California called the Republican narrative a “discredited conspiracy theory.”

Hill’s written testimony, delivered to the panel before the hearing, irked California Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the panel and an ardent Trump defender.

Nunes reminded Hill that committee Republicans in 2018 published a report on Russia’s 2016 election interference that disputed that Russia was trying to help Trump in the 2016 elections.

Theirs was the only U.S. government entity that came to that conclusion. Russian interference in the 2016 election has been confirmed by the U.S. intelligence community. 

Kyiv call

Holmes, meanwhile, said that he overheard a phone conversation between Trump and Sondland.

Holmes, who was eating lunch in Kyiv with Sondland, said he heard Trump ask the ambassador if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is going to “do the investigation” and that he heard Sondland reply that Zelenskiy is “gonna do it.”

During Democrats’ 45 minutes of questioning, staff counsel focused mainly on the phone call Holmes overheard between Sondland and Trump.

Holmes described the restaurant in Kyiv where he and Sondland were when the call took place and said Sondland made the call from a cellphone that was not secure.

Holmes said that even though the call was not on speakerphone he was able to hear Trump through the receiver. Holmes said Trump’s voice was so loud that Sondland “winced” and held the phone away from his ear.

Holmes testified that the investigation mentioned was related to the investigation into the Bidens.

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