WASHINGTON – The final testimony of an extraordinary week of impeachment hearings came from a former White House national security adviser who wrote the book on Vladimir Putin — literally — and a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine who overheard a pivotal conversation between President Donald Trump and European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland.
Fiona Hill is a Russia expert who’s written extensively on the Kremlin, and she made that clear from the outset when she scolded Republican lawmakers for propagating what she said was a “fictional narrative” — that somehow Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Those discredited theories have been advanced by Trump himself, who in a July 25 phone call at the center of the impeachment inquiry asked Ukraine’s leader to investigate the possibility.
Hill said the unwillingness by some to accept Russia’s role has profound consequences at a time when Russia’s security services have “geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election.” Putin, she said, deploys millions of dollars to “weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives.”
“When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each another, degrade our institutions and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy,” Hill said.
She also implored impeachment investigators to stop advancing fictions that she said distract from the attention needed to fight Russian interference.
“In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” Hill said.
The July 26 lunch on an outdoor terrace in a Kyiv restaurant started out social enough. There was a bottle of wine and casual chatter about marketing strategies for Sondland’s hotel business.
Then, according to David Holmes, a counselor at the U.S. embassy there, Sondland said he was going to call Trump to give him an update. The conversation Holmes overheard was loud — and memorable.
Holmes said he heard Sondland tell Trump that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy “loves your ass.”
“I then heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?’ Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it.’” He said Sondland told Trump that Zelenskiy will do “anything you ask him to.”
When the call ended, Holmes said he asked Sondland if it was true that Trump did not “give a s--t about Ukraine.” Sondland said that was indeed the case and that the president only cares about the “big stuff.”
“I noted that there was ‘big stuff’ going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia, and Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant ‘big stuff’ that benefits the president, like the Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing.” That was a reference to Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer who had been pushing for Ukraine investigations.
The account of the conversation largely lined up with Sondland’s version, though Sondland testified Wednesday that he doesn’t remember discussing Biden.
Hill’s testimony also vividly outlined the diverging objectives of Trump’s official staff and a parallel effort led by Giuliani.
She described her alarm with the work of Sondland, who was central in trying to get Ukraine to announce political investigations the president wanted. Sondland acknowledged his role in those efforts Wednesday, laying out the contours of a quid pro quo with Ukraine. “Everyone,” he said, “was in the loop.”
But Hill insisted that she was never on the same page with Sondland.
“He was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security policy,” she said.
She said in retrospect, she thinks she may have been unfair to Sondland because she can see now that Sondland was trying to carry out something that the president had instructed him to do.