David Holmes, a Kyiv-based State Department aide, told the House lawmakers leading the impeachment inquiry that he overheard a July call between President Donald Trump and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland in which they discussed their efforts to pressure Ukraine into investigating Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Holmes’s opening statement — part of a closed-door testimony — was first obtained by CNN on Friday. It provides new firsthand information about Trump’s role in pressuring Ukraine, and also further highlights the key role Sondland, a former hotel magnate and Trump donor, has played in advancing Trump’s Ukraine agenda.
Holmes is a political counselor in the US embassy in Kiev, and an aide to William “Bill” Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine. Taylor mentioned Holmes witnessed the Trump-Sondland call during his opening statement in the first public impeachment hearing Wednesday.
In his sworn statement, Holmes explained that he overheard the conversation while sharing a bottle of wine with Sondland at a restaurant in Kyiv on July 26 — one day after Trump infamously pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate Biden over the phone. Holmes said that Trump was speaking so loudly that Sondland pulled the phone away from his ear, and that the back-and-forth between the two men was fully audible. He also indicated two other people overheard the conversation as well.
According to Holmes, Trump asked Sondland, who had just come out of his own meeting with Zelensky, “So, he’s going to do the investigation?”
Sondland responded by saying that Zelensky “loves your ass,” that he would pursue the investigation, and that he would do “anything you ask him to.”
After the call, Holmes inquired about Trump’s true feelings about Ukraine. Holmes said Sondland told him that Trump only cares about “the big stuff” when it comes to Ukraine. Holmes said he noted that Ukraine’s armed conflict with Russia was “big stuff,” but Sondland clarified that he meant something else — he was thinking “‘big stuff’ that benefits the president, like the ‘Biden investigation.’”
In his statement, Holmes also points out that he believed that the broader diplomatic mission in Ukraine had become politicized at the behest of the White House:
All together, the testimony is a big blow for the Trump administration, as it offers new evidence of Trump’s personal involvement in the efforts to pressure Ukraine and undercuts two Republican defenses of the president.
This is bad news for Trump and the Republicans
Holmes’ testimony has a few different implications for how we understand Trump’s conduct regarding Ukraine and the direction of the impeachment hearings.
First of all, the fact that Holmes bore witness to Trump and Sondland’s exchange directly is significant. Republicans complained this week that witnesses in the impeachment inquiry lack firsthand information. (It’s worth noting that part of the reason lawmakers have heard from few witnesses with direct knowledge of Trump’s requests of Ukraine is that key figures in the scandal, like acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, refuse to testify.)
Holmes’ testimony serves as a counterpoint to that grievance, while also offering support for the testimony of Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who was on Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky. Vindman told Congress Trump pressed an investigation into the Bidens on that call, and that the president made it clear the Ukrainians had to launch such an investigation before he would meet with them.
Secondly, the call further undermines the already unpersuasive Republican defense that Trump was withholding military aid from Ukraine only in order to ensure the money would not be embezzled by corrupt actors.
That line of defense has already been weakened by Trump’s own officials, including acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, who have said the $391 million in aid was withheld for other reasons, involving either Democrats broadly or the Bidens directly.
But the conversation Holmes said he had with Sondland pokes further holes in this defense; according to Holmes, Sondland told him Trump does not “give a shit about Ukraine” and said that the president’s concern with the country stemmed only from political self-interest.
Holmes’ testimony highlights Sondland as a key figure in the impeachment inquiry
Holmes’ statement also confirms it was Trump himself, not his aides, who led the push for an investigation into Biden while simultaneously making Sondland’s testimony appear to be less credible.
In previous testimony, Sondland has seemingly attempted to minimize Trump’s role in the affair, suggesting that it was primarily Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani who was driving the Ukraine agenda. Vindman, Taylor, and other witnesses have testified that Sondland told his colleagues something different when they questioned him about the investigations: That the White House was driving the pro-investigation pressure campaign.
Holmes’ testimony supports this second narrative, and would suggest Sondland was well aware of who was leading the push for an investigation and why he wanted it, given Sondland had a direct line to Trump, and given he used it to give Trump status reports on how things were going towards pressuring Zelensky. This would appear to indicate Trump was hands-on and directly involved very early — at least as early as late July.
Sondland has also claimed he, for a long time, did not know at that calls from Giuliani and others for an investigation into Burisma — a Ukrainian company Joe Biden’s son sat of the board of, and that is central to Trump’s unsubstantiated claims Biden misused the office of the vice president — had anything to do with the Bidens.
“I did not understand until much later that Mr. Giuliani’s agenda might have also included an effort to prompt the Ukrainians to investigate Vice President Biden or his son,” he said.
Not knowing this would have been difficult, as it would have required Sondland to avoid news outlets and social media for much of the spring, when Giuliani openly tweeted about and discussed the Bidens and their connection to Ukraine. Trump also discussed the matter on Fox News around the same time.
Holmes suggests Sondland did, in fact, know Trump was interested specifically not in anti-corruption efforts or some company called Burisma, but the Bidens. Holmes quotes Sondland as telling him Trump was interested in “big stuff” like the “Biden investigation.”
As a witness in the impeachment inquiry, Sondland has already established a record of hard-to-believe memory failures, and changed his account of events before through revised testimony. It is possible his mention of the Bidens is part of these failures.
But Holmes’ testimony further underscores why Sondland is a key witness in the inquiry — increasingly it seems Sondland was an important link between the president and the Ukrainians, the conduit by which the president’s demands of Ukraine were transmitted.
It is a matter that is sure to come up when the ambassador testifies publicly on November 20. His lawyer has already promised as much, saying in a statement, “Sondland will address any issues that arise from this in his testimony next week.”