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Hill, Holmes offer damaging impeachment testimony: Five takeaways

In what could be the last round of public hearings in the Democrats' high-speed impeachment inquiry, two senior national security experts testified Thursday that President Trump had pressed for investigations in Ukraine that were designed to help him politically.

David Holmes, a State Department veteran now based in Kyiv, and Fiona Hill, Trump's former leading adviser on Russian affairs, testified for almost six hours on Capitol Hill, where they painted a damaging portrait of Trump and his allies clamoring for the launch of foreign-born probes that appeared to lack a national security objective. 

Holmes described an episode in Kyiv in July when he overheard a phone conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, in which the president sought updates on the investigations into the 2016 elections and the son of former Vice President Joe Biden. "I've never seen anything like this in my foreign service career," he said. 

Hill, who left her post voluntarily over the summer, voiced similarly dire concerns that Trump, through personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, threatened "to blow up" years of foreign policy objectives in Kyiv in pursuit of personal political interests. And she dismissed the GOP's argument that the investigation is a politically motivated "witch hunt." 

"If the president or anyone else impedes or subverts the national security of the United States in order to further domestic political or personal interest," she said, "that is more than worthy of your attention."

The combination appeared to lend new momentum to the Democrats investigating Trump, as many in the party are hoping to stage a vote on impeachment articles before Christmas. 

Here are five takeaways from Thursday's marathon testimony.

Hill shuts down GOP conspiracy theory

From the start of her testimony, Hill made clear she would not allow Republicans to perpetuate their conspiracy theory that Ukraine - not Russia - had interfered in the 2016 presidential election.

The British-born national security expert sternly warned GOP Intelligence members that continuing to assert that narrative bolstered Russia and weakened Ukraine.

"[S]ome 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 in her opening statement. "This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves."

"I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests," Hill added.

Later, during an exchange with Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), Hill reiterated that it "suits the Russian government very much if we are also looking at Ukraine as somehow or perpetrator of malign acts against us."

Hill's warnings didn't stop Republicans from going there. Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the top Republican on Intelligence, said Trump had "good reason to be wary of Ukrainian meddling against his campaign."

He and other Republicans repeatedly invoked Alexandra Chalupa, a Democratic National Committee official who they allege "colluded with Ukrainian officials to smear the Trump campaign."

Chalupa told Politico in 2017 that Ukrainian embassy officials helped her raise awareness about then-Trump campaign Chairman Paul Manafort receiving off-the-book payments from Ukraine's pro-Russia political party. But Chalupa rejected the idea that embassy officials were conspiring to interfere in the 2016 election.

Holmes gives details, color about Trump-Sondland call

Holmes told lawmakers in broad strokes last week how, over lunch on July 26, he'd overheard a phone call where Trump asked directly for investigations into his political opponents. 

On Thursday, the well-coiffed diplomatic aide brought everyone watching at home to the table.

Before the cameras, Holmes set the scene at SHO restaurant in central Kyiv. It had glass doors and opened onto an outdoor terrace. He, Sondland and two staffers sat down at a table for four, which had a runner down the middle. Holmes sat across from Sondland and they shared an appetizer. 

Sondland whipped out his unsecure cell phone and called Trump. When the president came on the line, his voice was loud and distinctive. Sondland "winced," Holmes said, using his left hand to mimic how exactly the ambassador pulled the phone away from his ear.

"That's how I was able to hear," Holmes said, recounting the call.

Trump asked about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, with whom Sondland had just met. 

"He loves your ass," Sondland told Trump. 

"Is he going to do the investigation?" Trump replied. 

"Oh yeah, he's going to do it," Sondland answered. "He'll do anything you ask."

Observing Holmes's testimony, author and NBC News reporter Jonathan Allen tweeted: "Holmes is one guy you want describing the room for a book."

Redundancy is part of the strategy

To anyone monitoring impeachment closely, much of Thursday's testimony held a familiar ring. For the Democrats orchestrating the process, that was the point.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) frequently stresses the importance of bringing the public along if any legislative endeavor is to be successful - "Public sentiment is everything," she says - and for no issue does that motto ring more true than for impeachment. 

With much at stake, Democrats seemed intent on featuring the most convincing narratives. And the public hearings - which jammed a dozen witnesses into a span of just two weeks - featured no figure who hadn't testified previously behind closed doors. Democrats, therefore, knew what was coming. And the witnesses largely delivered. 

Hill offered a searing assessment of Giuliani's role in Ukraine, reiterating perhaps the most memorable anecdote from her previous testimony, in which John Bolton, Trump's former national security advisor, said Trump's personal lawyer was a time bomb waiting to go off - and flatten everyone in proximity. 

"Ambassador Bolton had looked pained, basically indicated with body language that there was nothing which we could do about it," Hill said of Giuliani's efforts to smear his political adversaries. "And he then, in the course of that discussion, said that Rudy Giuliani was a hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up."

Holmes, for his part, also used the public forum to amplify the most damning part of his previous testimony. He offered a blow-by-blow chronicle of his eavesdropping on the Trump-Sondland phone call in July, providing a first-hand account of Trump's alleged involvement in the pressure campaign. 

"And then Ambassador Sondland said, 'He loves your ass. He'll do anything you want,'" Holmes recounted. "He said is he going to do the investigation."

Schiff, Democrats not waiting for the courts

By all appearances, Thursday's hearing will be the last of seven to be conducted by the Intelligence Committee in their open-interview stage of the impeachment inquiry. 

Although Schiff has not ruled out the possibility of entertaining more witnesses, he has dismissed the notion that Democrats will pause the process while courts decide the fate of officials who have refused to testify. And Pelosi on Thursday amplified that message in no uncertain terms, saying Democrats would "absolutely not" wait for the judiciary to weigh in. 

"We cannot be at the mercy of the courts," she told reporters in the Capitol. 

"We're moving at the pace the truth takes us. And when more evidence unfolds, if that requires more time, that's when we'll go," she continued. "[But] we're not going to wait 'til the courts decide."

While most witnesses have cooperated throughout the impeachment investigation, many under subpoena, a number of prominent figures have refused to testify, citing executive privilege. That list includes Bolton and Mick Mulvaney, the president's acting chief of staff. 

Testifying Wednesday, Sondland, had implicated both figures - as well as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo - in Trump's campaign to find dirt on political rivals. Even so, Democrats seem to be eyeing a plan to wrap up their inquiry in the lower chamber by Christmas. With that in mind, there's no appetite to wait for the courts to rule on the disputed witnesses. 

"It's a technique. It's obstruction of justice, obstruction of Congress," Pelosi said. "So we cannot let their further obstruction of Congress be an impediment to our honoring of our oath of office." 

Where do we go from here?

There will be no rest this Thanksgiving for Intelligence Committee Democrats.

With the key panel wrapping up its public hearings, lawmakers and staffers are expected to use the Thanksgiving week recess to distill hours and hours of witness testimony on the Trump-Ukraine scandal into a comprehensive report.

"I think there will be a number of Intel folks who will have a very busy Thanksgiving," said Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), a member of Pelosi's leadership team and the Judiciary Committee.

In early December, that report will be handed over to Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), whose committee will be drafting the articles of impeachment against Trump. There is a debate among Democrats about whether Judiciary would hold a series of open hearings of their own, or if the panel would hold a single hearing, mark up the articles, and send them to the House floor for a vote. 

Nadler told The Hill he had no announcement on that front. A House vote to impeach Trump could come right before Christmas, or be delayed until after the New Year. But many Democrats had seen enough evidence.

"Some people talk about bribery, other people talk about coercion, abuse of power, solicitation of foreign influence and election, and obstruction," one Intelligence member, Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), told reporters Thursday. "That's five [articles] right there, and we've seen evidence of all of those potential issues. This is quite a bit."

Yet Democrats had hoped these seven public hearings would move American public opinion in favor of impeachment, and add pressure on Senate Republicans. Recent polls suggest, however, that support for impeachment has dipped since the hearings began.

An Emerson poll out Thursday revealed that Trump's approval rating was at 48 percent, up from 43 percent in October. And support for impeachment, the poll showed, is at 45 percent, down from 48 percent in October. 

The shifting poll numbers are a big reason why not a single House Republican has said the impeachment hearings have changed their mind. Even Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas), a centrist lawmaker who is retiring, said he was disturbed by some of Trump's words and actions pertaining to Ukraine but would not back impeachment. 

"An impeachable offense should be compelling, overwhelmingly clear, and unambiguous, and it's not something to be rushed or taken lightly," Hurd said during Thursday's hearing. "I have not heard evidence proving the president committed bribery or extortion."

 

 

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