A 'domestic political errand'

Witness says Ambassador Sondland was trying to carry out something president instructed him to do

Friday, November 22, 2019

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WASHINGTON, DC, USA (AP) — 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 counsellor at the US 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 US presidential election.

Those discredited theories have been advanced by Trump himself, who in a July 25 phone call at the centre 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 “weaponise 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 big stuff'

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 counsellor at the US 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.

Immigrant stories

Hill, a British-born immigrant, said Trump allies who have suggested her National Security Council colleague Lt Col Alexander Vindman has dual loyalty were being “deeply unfair”.

Vindman was three years old in 1979 when his family fled the Soviet-controlled Ukraine for the US. During his army career, Vindman served as an infantry officer and did tours in South Korea, Germany and Iraq. In October 2004, he was wounded by a roadside bomb and awarded the Purple Heart.

But Vindman, an National Security Council Ukraine specialist, has faced questions from Trump allies about whether his loyalties may be divided because of his origins. He has steadfastly maintained his loyalty is to the United States.

“This is a country of immigrants,” Hill reminded lawmakers. “This is what, for me, really does make America great. I'm sure that every single person here — some people perhaps came reluctantly, and some came by choice, as I did. For me, this is the essence of Americans and why I wanted to be here and why I wanted to stay here.”

The missing witness

His name was mentioned dozens of times yesterday alone, but former national security adviser John Bolton was nowhere to be seen in the committee room. In fact, media reports indicated he was in New York.

Bolton hasn't been subpoenaed to appear, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff has so far suggested he won't be, even though his testimony could be of high interest to impeachment investigators.

Schiff has indicated he doesn't want a prolonged court battle over Bolton's testimony, and Democrats have said they already have a mountain of evidence in their impeachment probe.

Still, Hill described colourful language from Bolton — she quoted him as saying that he didn't want to be part of “whatever drug deal” Sondland and White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were “cooking up”, and she described Giuliani as a “hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up”. She described seeing him “stiffen” and abruptly end a White House meeting last July when Sondland brought up the topic of investigations.

Holmes described an August visit to Ukraine by Bolton in which he told an adviser to Zelenskiy that military aid for Ukraine would not be lifted before an upcoming meeting in Warsaw and that it would turn on whether Zelenskiy was able to “favourably impress President Trump”.

Trump on the defensive

Even before Hill's testimony began, Trump excoriated the Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry.

In a series of tweets, Trump urged House Republican allies to “Keep fighting tough”, and told them they are “dealing with human scum who have taken Due Process and all of the Republican Party's rights away from us during the most unfair hearings in American History”.

Still, Trump insisted that “we are winning big” and warned that “they will soon be on our turf” — presumably a reference to the inquiry moving to the Senate, which Republicans control.

Trump has repeatedly proclaimed his innocence and accused Democrats and the media of pursuing a “witch hunt” to damage him heading into his 2020 reelection bid.

He claimed that he and Republicans “had a GREAT day” of testimony Wednesday, even though Sondland bolstered Democrats' impeachment narrative as he repeatedly talked of a “quid pro quo”. Trump complained that, when he “got home to the White House & checked out the news coverage on much of television, you would have no idea they were reporting on the same event.”

“FAKE & CORRUPT NEWS!” he tweeted.


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