Diplomat testifies he heard Trump ask about 'investigation'

A career diplomat on Thursday described overhearing a conversation between President TrumpDonald John TrumpSessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines Priest among those police cleared from St. John's Church patio for Trump visit Trump criticizes CNN on split-screen audio of Rose Garden address, protesters clashing with police MORE and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandTop Democrat slams Trump's new EU envoy: Not 'a political donor's part-time job' Trump names new EU envoy, filling post left vacant by impeachment witness Sondland Ocasio-Cortez: Republicans are prioritizing big chains in coronavirus relief  MORE during which the president followed up on an “investigation” related to former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenPresidents and 'presidents' Biden to blast Trump's church photo op in Philadelphia speech Rudy Giuliani calls on Cuomo to remove Bill de Blasio MORE that he had raised on a call with Ukraine’s president a day earlier.

“I sat directly across from Ambassador Sondland,” David Holmes, a top U.S. embassy official based in Kyiv, said during his opening remarks at a public hearing of the House impeachment inquiry. “The president’s voice was loud and recognizable.”

Holmes told lawmakers that he heard Sondland tell Trump that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “loves your ass.”

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“So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” Trump asked, according to Holmes’s account.

“Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it,’ adding that [Ukrainian] President [Volodymyr] Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to,’” Holmes continued.

Holmes described his recollection of the July 26 conversation, which he overheard while at a lunch with Sondland at a restaurant in Kyiv, as “clear.” He added that his colleagues at the table also knew that Sondland was speaking with Trump.

“Even though I did not take notes of these statements, I have a clear recollection that these statements were made,” Holmes said.

Immediately after the phone call, Holmes said that Sondland told him that Trump did not “give a shit about Ukraine” and only cares about “‘big stuff’ that benefits the president. Holmes said Sondland specifically named the “Biden investigation” sought by Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy GiulianiRudy GiulianiRudy Giuliani calls on Cuomo to remove Bill de Blasio Sunday shows preview: States begin to reopen even as some areas in US see case counts increase Moussaoui says he now renounces terrorism, bin Laden MORE.

Holmes later said he was aware of Giuliani’s efforts to press for an investigation of Biden and his son’s business dealings in Ukraine — which the president's attorney had spoken about in the press — at the time he overheard Sondland’s phone call with Trump.

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“This was a very distinctive experience. I’ve never seen anything like this in my foreign service career. Someone at a lunch in a restaurant making a call on a cellphone to the president of the United States,” Holmes testified when asked why his recollection of the event was so clear.

“Very colorful language was used. They were directly addressing something I had been wondering about, working on for weeks and even months, a topic that had led to the recall of my former boss, the former ambassador,” Holmes said.

Holmes had already recounted the conversation at a private deposition last week in connection with the inquiry.

Trump sought to undercut Holmes’s testimony immediately before the diplomat spoke, tweeting that he has “never” been able to hear or understand a conversation he witnessed without it being on “speakerphone.”

“I have been watching people making phone calls my entire life. My hearing is, and has been, great. Never have I been watching a person making a call, which was not on speakerphone, and been able to hear or understand a conversation. I’ve even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!” Trump tweeted, one in a series of messages lashing out at Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.

Trump denied any knowledge of the July 26 phone call when details of it first became known last week.

In his public testimony on Thursday, Holmes described U.S. policy toward Ukraine as becoming “overshadowed by a political agenda” promoted by Giuliani and “and a cadre of officials operating with a direct channel to the White House.” Holmes also described an effort driven by Giuliani to spread “unsupported allegations” about then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie YovanovitchMarie YovanovitchJim Jordan requests documents from Pompeo regarding Hunter Biden, Burisma  Trump taps new ambassador to Ukraine America's diplomats deserve our respect MORE that ultimately led to her ouster in the spring.

Holmes also said that he was made aware by the end of June that officials in Ukraine were aware that “some action” on an investigation into Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company with ties to Biden's son, Hunter Biden, “was a precondition for an Oval Office meeting” between Zelensky and Trump. Holmes said he learned this from conversations with William Taylor, the chargé d'affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.

Holmes also described the White House meeting as “critical” to Zelensky.

“President Zelensky needed to show U.S. support at the highest levels in order to demonstrate to Russian President Putin that he had U.S. backing, as well as to advance his ambitious anti-corruption reforms at home,” Holmes said.

Holmes also said that it was his impression that $400 million in security aid to Ukraine temporarily held up over the summer was tied to the push for investigations.

House Democrats are investigating whether Trump abused his office in order to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival. Trump has said he raised the Bidens on the July 25 call with Zelensky because he wanted Kyiv to investigate “corruption” and denied any quid pro quo with Ukraine.

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The White House dismissed the testimony of Holmes and former National Security Council official Fiona Hill – who also appeared Thursday – saying they offered no firsthand information on why the aid was suspended.

"As has been the case throughout the Democrats' impeachment sham, today's witnesses rely heavily on their own presumptions, assumptions and opinions,” said White House press secretary Stephanie GrishamStephanie GrishamPence names new press secretary McEnany: Prayer 'made a lot of difference' in 2016 election McEnany stamps her brand on White House press operation MORE.

“These two witnesses, just like the rest, have no personal or direct knowledge regarding why U.S. aid was temporarily withheld. The Democrats' are clearly being motivated by a sick hatred for President Trump and their rabid desire to overturn the 2016 election. The American people deserve better.”

Holmes's testimony came a day after Sondland testified that the White House meeting was conditioned on Ukraine launching investigations into 2016 election interference and Burisma. Sondland also said that the effort to press Ukraine for the investigations was widely known, implicating top Trump administration officials including Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoPresidents and 'presidents' The Hill's Morning Report - Trump mobilizes military against 'angry mob,' holds controversial photo op The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden addresses protests over George Floyd's death MORE and acting White House chief of staff Mick MulvaneyMick Mulvaney12 things to know today about coronavirus Mulvaney: 'We've overreacted a little bit' to coronavirus The Memo: Trump agenda rolls on amid pandemic MORE.

Sondland largely confirmed Holmes's account of his July 26 call with Trump on Wednesday, saying his description of Zelensky’s favor for Trump — “loves your ass” — sounded like “something I would say.” Sondland has denied, however, knowing that the Burisma investigation had a connection to the Bidens until reading the transcript of Trump’s call with Zelensky when it was released by the White House in September.

Sondland said Wednesday he did not "recall" saying the name "Biden" following the phone conversation.

"The only part of Mr. Holmes' recounting that I take exception with is I do not recall mentioning the Bidens. That did not enter my mind. It was Burisma and 2016 elections," Sondland testified.

— This report was updated at 1:33 p.m.