White House

Trump comes out swinging, but Fiona Hill fights back in dramatic impeachment finale

Kyiv embassy official says he had ‘never seen anything like’ Sondland cafe call with U.S. president

Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council Russia adviser, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee during a hearing on the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Donald Trump came out swinging Thursday morning, but two witnesses who testified for hours in the impeachment inquiry pulled no punches as they overshadowed the president’s morning attacks.

Testimony by Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council Russia expert, and David Holmes, an official in the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, further undercut several contentions pushed by Trump, GOP lawmakers and the president’s surrogates. Hill, for instance, dismissed a conspiracy theory rejected by American intelligence agencies but espoused by Trump and other Republicans that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 U.S. election.

The commander-in-chief seemed as fired up as he has been during the five public impeachment hearings, using words in tweets like “human scum” — long used by anti-Semites to insult Jews — to slam Democrats. Hill and Holmes were stoic, businesslike and detailed, offering a striking juxtaposition to the often-emotional and vague president.

Here are four takeaways as Trump watched Day 5 of the public hearings.

The call

For weeks, July 25 was the focus of Democrats’ inquiry. But on what might be the final two days of public hearings, July 26 became paramount.

[Teflon veep: Pence emerges largely unscathed as Sondland, Dems say he knew of quid pro quo]

That’s the day U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, while sitting on an outdoor terrace of a Kyiv cafe, decided to phone Trump on an unsecured line to discuss Ukraine, he and Holmes testified. The president asked about the investigations of Democrats that he a day earlier told Zelenskiy he would consider “a favor,” Sondland and Holmes said.

Holmes described the beginning of the lunch — which also included two unnamed U.S. diplomatic aides — as “social” and noted the ambassador “selected a bottle of wine that he shared among the four of us, and we discussed topics such as marketing strategies for his hotel business.”

Then Sondland called POTUS, who was talking loudly. Holmes appeared to put an end to what might be dubbed speakerphone-gate, which Trump set off with a morning tweet in which he tried dismissing Holmes’s deposition testimony that he could hear Trump from across the cafe table. The president admitted to attempting to eavesdrop on others’ phone calls, but failing to hear much.

“While Ambassador Sondland's phone was not on speakerphone, I could hear the president's voice through the earpiece of the phone,” Holmes said. “The president's voice was loud and recognizable, and Ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume.”

The embassy official expressed concern about Sondland’s brashness and skirting of any semblance of security protocol.

“So this was a very distinctive experience,” Holmes said. “I've never seen anything like this in my foreign service career of someone at a lunch in a restaurant making a call on a cell phone to the president of the United States.”

The ‘drug deal’

Hill worked for John Bolton, the former White House national security adviser Trump fired earlier this year. Several witnesses have described the hawkish conservative as the one who first dubbed the idea of pressing Ukrainian officials to trade a White House meeting and a $400 million military aid package for them announcing Trump’s desired investigations as a “drug deal.”

[Fiona Hill chides Republicans for peddling ‘fictions’ on Ukraine, Russia]

Hill expressed surprise when Sondland informed her he had, in her words, “an agreement with Chief of Staff [Mick] Mulvaney that, in return for investigations, this meeting would get scheduled.”

Meantime, also pushing for the investigations was Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani. Hill testified Bolton felt powerless to stop this aspect of the so-called “drug deal.”

“I had asked if there was anything that we could do about it. And Ambassador Bolton had looked pained, basically indicated with body language that there was nothing which we could do about it,” she said. “And he then, in the course of that discussion, said that Rudy Giuliani was a hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up.”

Asked if she took her concerns about what Mulvaney and Sondland were, in her words, “cooking up,” the British-born Hill responded: “I certainly did.”

The presidential explosion

Trump continued his evolution, which started last week with him and his West Wing aides describing him as “too busy” to watch the hearings.

On Thursday, he was his own communications director and rapid response team — and again appeared to be watching.

The president fired off a slew of morning tweets that included calling Schiff and House Democrats “human scum.” He also appeared to mock House Democrats over the GOP Senate majority — which has yet to break with him ahead of a possible post-impeachment trial — writing: “They will soon be on our turf.”

The bottom line

But after hours and hours of testimony, not a single GOP senator has announced being swayed enough to vote for Trump’s removal in a possible Senate trial.

“This has been the warm-up act,” GOP Rep. Chris Stewart of Utah said Thursday. “We’re going to send this along to the U.S. Senate. And that’s the good news. ... I look forward to them completing the job we could have done here.”

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