Throughout the first week of the House of Representatives’ impeachment hearings, the witnesses, most of them serving career U.S. diplomats, have attempted agnosticism on the merits of impeaching President Trump and sidestep often rancorous Republican questioning. But the White House’s former top Russia official made it clear on Thursday that she wasn’t going to follow the same script.
Fiona Hill was the National Security Council senior director for Russia and Eurasia until days before the now-infamous July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Zelensky for the “favor” of investigating Trump’s domestic political rivals. After describing her “pride in being a nonpartisan” expert, Hill, now out of government, tacitly warned Republicans that their descent into conspiracy theory to save Trump’s presidency is damaging the country.
Hill tied the Ukraine pressure campaign back to the 2016 Russian interference that the pressure campaign was supposed to render murky. “The Russian interest is to delegitimize the entire presidency,” Hill testified, saying that whomever was elected in 2016 would be “under a cloud.” It aided Russian interests, she said, to “pit one side of the electorate against the other.”
Always an awkward fit within the Trump administration—Hill has been as distrustful of Vladmir Putin as Trump has been solicitous—Hill told the inquiry on Thursday that a “fictional narrative” about Ukranian electoral interference in 2016, repeatedly voiced during the hearings by ranking Republican Devin Nunes (R-CA), was an invention of the Russian security services. Even before Hill spoke, Nunes, who has tethered himself to Trump, attempted to preempt her criticism. Later, Hill’s statement drew anger from committee Republican Reps. Mike Turner (R-OH) and John Ratcliffe (R-TX).
Hill also suggested that the impeachment inquiry into her former boss was legitimate—going far further than any previous witness before the sharply divided committee, and contradicting Trump, who rejects all accusations of wrongdoing.
“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,” Hill said.
The witness sitting next to Hill on Thursday morning—David Holmes, the political director at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv—shored up key reasons why Democrats consider the inquiry necessary. Holmes overheard a July 26 phone call between Trump and U.S. Amb. to the European Union Gordon Sondland in which the president asked about the status of Ukraine’s investigations into his political rivals.
Holmes also raised serious questions regarding what Sondland knew and when. He testified that by late June, he had understood that the “investigations” that Sondland had been talking to his boss, Amb. Bill Taylor, were about investigating Burisma and the Bidens. Holmes quoted Sondland telling him on July 26 that Trump only cares about “big stuff” like “the Biden investigation Mr. Giuliani was pushing.” That significantly undercuts Sondland, who testified on Wednesday that he had not made that connection until September.
While Hill did not call out Nunes by name, her opening statement tacitly connected the Trump administration’s pressure on Ukraine to the fallout from Russia’s 2016 electoral interference. Hill said the agnosticism or skepticism about that interference, confirmed by U.S. intelligence and grudgingly supported by committee Republicans in a 2018 report that absolved Trump of collusion, was tearing the United States apart. Nunes, in his own opening statement, accused Democrats of doing that instead.
“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 said.
Nunes, appearing incensed by Hill’s shot across his bow in her prepared remarks, prebutted them in his opening statement by pointing to the March 2018 report published by committee Republicans to serve as a counter narrative during Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling continued. Nunes had a staff member put a copy of the document next to both Hill and Holmes “so they can have a recollection of their memory.” Democrats dismissed the report as a “whitewash” that focused more on aiding Trump politically than wrongdoing in the election.
Emphasizing her working-class English immigrant background, Hill implored the committee to “please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.” More harshly, she said she “refuse[d] to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative” exonerating Russia of culpability.
Despite raising questions about the credibility of Hill’s testimony, GOP lawmakers seemed to run out of questions for her—or were unwilling to ask them. During his five minutes, Turner, who is considered one of his side’s most effective inquisitors, ranted for several minutes about how Hill’s testimony was based on hearsay.
“No matter how much we believe we know,” said Turner, “it is still just what we’ve heard.”
Turner then directed his attention to Holmes without posing a question to Hill or allowing her to respond. “Is there a question for Dr. Hill?” quipped her attorney. Turner ignored him.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-OH) decided to try the same tactic, embarking on a lengthy monologue about the damage the impeachment process is doing to the country and repeatedly referred to the process as a coup.
Like Turner, he had no question for Hill.
“Can I actually say something?” asked Hill. Schiff allowed her time to respond after Wenstrup objected. After calling Wenstrup’s speech “elegant” and “eloquent,” she defended herself—and those who also came forward to testify.
"All of us who came here under a legal obligation also felt we had a moral obligation to do so. We came here as fact witnesses,” she said. “I know this has put a huge cloud over this presidency and over our whole democratic system… that’s why, as a nonpartisan person, an expert on Russia, I wanted to try to see if I could help.”
In the middle of her response, Hill couldn’t help but note that Turner had left the room. “I think it’s unfortunate,” she said—because his comments were eloquent, too.
By contrast, Hill poked holes in other aspects of the Republican narrative on Ukraine. In contrast to Nunes’ portrayal of Ukrainian election interference, Hill brought up his cited evidence of Ukrainian disparagement of Trump during the campaign. She said that was “ill-advised,” but nothing like the multifaceted campaign Putin directed, involving social-media-borne propaganda and theft of internal Democratic documents. Hill noted it understandable that Trump would be mad at other nations that “bet on the wrong horse” in the 2016 election – though she pointed out that in those cases, “it did not affect security assistance or other things.”
While Hill left the administration early in the fateful summer of 2019, she attended the July 10 White House meeting in which Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, pressed two senior Ukranian officials for assurances of the investigations if Zelensky wanted a coveted White House meeting. The Daily Beast reported that the Ukrainians turned to Hill, an internationally respected figure, for clarification about whether that was indeed an official U.S. precondition.
Hill also has implicated the White House acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, in the scheme. In her October closed-door deposition, Hill said her boss, former national security adviser John Bolton, opposed what she memorably said Bolton wanted no part of “whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up.” Bolton, according to Hill, told her to report Sondland’s pressure on the Ukrainians to NSC attorney John Eisenberg.
Bolton, of course, has notably declined to testify in front of investigators either in public or private, citing the need for a resolution to a lawsuit in federal court challenging the White House’s blanket claims of executive privilege; the timeline for the suit is not clear.
During her deposition, Hill confirmed that Trumpworld’s suspicions had already manifested as a smear campaign that raised baseless allegations against her, like a supposed connection to billionaire George Soros.
“My entire first year of my tenure at the National Security Council was filled with hateful calls, conspiracy theories, which has started again, frankly,” she testified in October, “as it’s been announced that I’ve been giving this deposition, accusing me of being a Soros mole in the White House, of colluding with all kinds of enemies of the president, and, you know, of various improprieties.”
Throughout the televised Capitol Hill hearing on Thursday, the White House’s rapid-response operation blasted out numerous emails of talking points and brief memos advising Trump surrogates and media allies, including several messages knocking key portions of Hill’s testimony in real-time, according to emails reviewed by The Daily Beast.
“[Fiona] Hill testified that she has absolutely no direct knowledge of both the [Zelensky] call and why the aid was withheld,” reads one of the emails the Trump White House sent out on Thursday morning.
Another memo heavily references and links out to a 2017 Politico article about how “Ukrainian Efforts to Sabotage Trump Backfire,” to counter Hill’s insistence that Ukraine did not meddle in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and that Republican assertions to the contrary were bunk conspiracy theories favored by the Kremlin.
Holmes, who had a front-row seat to Trumpworld’s designs on Ukraine from his vantage point in Kyiv, made it clear in his testimony Thursday he believed the president personally sought investigations. The diplomat suggested he felt compelled to come forward after seeing some float the idea that senior officials were “freelancing” on Ukraine and somehow working outside the knowledge or direction of the president.
“My clear impression was that the security assistance hold was likely intended by the president either as an expression of dissatisfaction that the Ukrainians had not yet agreed to the Burisma/Biden investigation or as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so,” Holmes testified.
Beyond that, Holmes also raised an implicit rebuttal of Trump defenders’ claims that the president released the hold on U.S. security assistance after he became convinced of Zelensky’s trustworthiness.
“The hold was finally lifted,” said Holmes, “after significant press coverage and bipartisan congressional expressions of concern about the withholding of security assistance.”
Additional reporting: Asawin Suebsaeng