In the past two weeks, the Democratic-led House heard more than 30 hours of public testimony from a dozen witnesses on Ukraine.
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The witnesses included Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine; Bill Taylor, who replaced Yovanovich as top diplomat in Ukraine this spring; George Kent, a senior State Department official; Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council aide who worked on Ukraine; Jennifer Williams, an adviser to Vice President Mike Pence; Kurt Volker, former special U.S. envoy on Ukraine; Laura Cooper, a Defense Department official; David Hale, another State Department official; Fiona Hill, former director for Europe and Russia at the NSC; Tim Morrison, outgoing senior director for Europe and Russia; David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine; and EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland.
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Ambassador Bill Taylor and George Kent arrive at a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 13, 2019.
Here’s what we learned:
No one testifying thought what Trump said on the July 25 call was good, let alone ‘perfect’
Trump has repeatedly defended his phone call to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in which he pressed for an investigation into a widely discredited conspiracy theory on 2016 election interference, as well as a probe into Democrat Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
Every witness called to testify, including political appointees and those requested to testify by Republicans, thought those requests were unhelpful — if not outright damaging — to U.S. security interests.
The career diplomats, including Ambassador Bill Taylor, now the top diplomat in Ukraine, described the country as a fragile democracy actively trying to free itself from Russia’s grip. They unanimously testified that the newly elected government’s anti-corruption efforts were a rare opportunity for U.S. to keep Russian aggression in check. Instead, Trump focused on what former National Security Council Russia expert Fiona Hill described as a «domestic political errand.»
Vice President Mike Pence’s aide Jennifer Williams, who was on the call, said she thought the president’s words on the phone were «unusual and inappropriate,» while the NSC’s Ukraine expert, Army. Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, also on the call, said, «I couldn’t believe what I was hearing» and that it was his «worst fear of how our Ukraine policy could play out.»
«It is improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and a political opponent,» testified Vindman, who had been detailed to the NSC to work on Ukraine policy.
Jennifer Williams and Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman take their seats to testify before a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Nov. 19, 2019.
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The two witnesses called by Republicans — the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker and NSC official Tim Morrison — also agreed Trump’s words were unhelpful. Volker agreed «these are not things we should be pursing as part of our national security strategy with Ukraine.»
And while Morrison — a longtime GOP legislative aide who had just moved over to the NSC as a political appointee — said he didn’t think Trump’s words were illegal, he testified that «it’s not what we recommended the president discuss» and that he was so concerned the transcript would leak that he reported it to White House legal counsel and asked that they restrict its access.
The witnesses testified that Giuliani was chasing false ‘conspiracy theories’ on Ukraine and Biden
Several of the witnesses, including Volker, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, former U.S. Ambassador Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and Hill, took direct aim at claims spread by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and embraced by Trump.
Yovanovitch and Hill specifically called out Trump’s claims that Ukraine — not Russia — was to blame for 2016 election meddling as false.
While some Ukrainian politicians did support Hillary Clinton over Trump, U.S. intelligence and a bipartisan Senate inquiry found the primary culprit behind election interference was Russia, which engaged in a widespread, invasive and secretive campaign to sway voters in support of Trump.
«This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,» Hill testified on Thursday. «The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016.»
The witnesses also pushed back against allegations of corruption against former Vice President Joe Biden. Volker, a Trump appointee and a witness requested by Republicans, and others testified that Biden’s actions in Ukraine at the time were backed by U.S. policy and the desire of other western powers.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images
Tim Morrison, the top Russia and Europe adviser on the National Security Council speaks as Former Special Envoy for Ukraine, Kurt Volker, looks on during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 19, 2019.
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Volker called out the allegations of Biden corruption and Ukrainian election meddling as «conspiracy theories» pushed by a «self-serving» Ukrainian politician and «not things that we should be pursing as part of our national security strategy.»
The State Department’s Kent also described a «campaign of lies» pushed by Giuliani intended to unfairly smear Ambassador Yovanovitch. And Yovanovitch testified that Giuliani was talking to «individuals with questionable motives» whom she said made «suspect» claims, an apparent reference to the former Ukrainian prosecutor general that the State Department regarded as corrupt and two associates of Giuliani who have since been charged with campaign finance violations.
«I do not understand Mr. Giuliani’s motives for attacking me, not can I offer an opinion on whether he believed the allegations he spread about me,» she testified. «Clearly, no one at the State Department did.»
Giuliani insisted on Twitter that the witness testimony is part of a Democratic cover-up and that he has «no policy agenda other than to defend my client,» the president.
«It will all be revealed very soon,» Giuliani tweeted Thursday following Hill’s testimony.
One ‘quid pro quo’ was direct, another implied and ‘everyone was in the loop’
The most riveting testimony in the past two weeks came from Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, and others close to him, described his contacts with the president.
Sondland was the wealthy hotelier who, after donating $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, was nominated to the ambassador post. He said «as a presidential appointee, I followed the directions of the president» to work with Giuliani.
What Trump and Giuliani wanted, according to Sondland’s testimony, was for Ukraine to agree to investigate his claims of 2016 election meddling and Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that had given Biden’s son, Hunter, a seat on its board while his father was vice president. (Hunter Biden has acknowledged his role was a perceived conflict of interest but denies any wrongdoing.)
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Gordon Sondland, the U.S ambassador to the European Union, waits to testify before the House Intelligence Committee during an impeachment hearing on Capitol Hill, Nov. 20, 2019 in Washington, D.C.
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Sondland also testified that it was clear to him the White House would not schedule to a presidential summit sought by the Ukrainian government unless it agreed to announce — even if it didn’t follow through — on an investigation supporting Giuliani’s claims. Sondland made this clear to the Ukrainians with the help of Volker, at one point the two of them coordinating on a draft statement that could be delivered by Zelenskiy.
«I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,» he said.
By mid-July, Sondland said he assumed the hold on nearly $400 million in much-needed security assistance for Ukraine was part of the deal, too. He noted in his testimony that Trump never told him to the connect the two, but the connection was a logical conclusion, he said.
So, when Sondland had an opportunity to meet with a top Ukrainian aide on Sept. 1 in Warsaw, Poland, he said he told the Ukrainian aide that the money hinged on its willingness to investigate Giuliani’s claims.
Sondland said he described briefing Trump’s top aides on what he was doing, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney. He says he also remembers referencing the push to Vice President Pence who he says «nodded.»
Pence and Perry’s offices have denied putting any political pressure on Ukraine, while Mulvaney has referred to witness testimony about his role as «speculation.» Pompeo has not directly addressed allegations of his involvement, saying only that he was «proud of what we’ve accomplished» on Ukraine. All four have declined to cooperate with the congressional inquiry.
Sondland insisted, though, that not only were the top officials aware of his work, no one pushed back.
«Everyone was in the loop,» Sondland testified. «It was no secret.»
J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Former White House national security aide Fiona Hill, center, and David Holmes, right, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, Nov. 21, 2019.
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The White House knew about the whistleblower complaint when Trump told Sondland ‘no quid pro quo’
Some of the most colorful testimony came from David Holmes, the State Department staffer who testified to overhearing Trump in a private cellphone call with Sondland in a restaurant in Kyiv, Ukraine.
Holmes, who said he could hear the president’s voice ask about «the investigations,» said Sondland responded that Zelenskiy will do what he wants because he, «loves your ass.»
Holmes also testified to later being told by Sondland that Trump didn’t care about Ukraine, «only big stuff that matters to him, like this Biden investigation that Giuliani is pushing.» (Sondland testified that he recalled telling Holmes that the president cared about «Burisma,» the gas company, not Biden specifically).
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But even though they chatted by phone on occasion, Sondland testified on not being entirely clear on what Trump wanted from Ukraine. And after being challenged by Ambassador Taylor — who said it would be «crazy» to withhold aid to help a political campaign — Sondland said he called the president on Sept. 9 to ask.
At this point, the White House was already aware of the Aug. 12 whistleblower complaint alleging a quid pro quo. And it was the same day details were provided to Capitol Hill. Democrats immediately announced an inquiry.
Sondland said he called the president, who was in a bad mood, with an open-ended question — «What do you want from Ukraine?»
«I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo,» Trump told Sondland, according to the ambassador’s testimony.
The White House lifted the freeze on military aid two days later.