Impeachment witness denounces ‘fictional’ Ukraine election interference

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A former White House Russia analyst sternly warned Republican lawmakers defending President Donald Trump in the impeachment probe Thursday to quit pushing a “fictional” narrative that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election.

Fiona Hill, a career expert on Russia, and David Holmes, a State Department official in Kyiv who was a late addition to the probe, are capping an intense week of testimony in the historic inquiry.

The impeachment inquiry focuses on allegations that Trump sought investigations of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son — and the discredited idea that Ukraine rather than Russia interfered in the 2016 U.S. election — in return for badly needed U.S. military aid and a White House visit the new Ukrainian president wanted that would demonstrate his backing from the West.

Holmes testified that he came forward after overhearing Trump ask about “investigations” during a phone call with Ambassador Gordon Sondland at a Kyiv restaurant this summer. Holmes said he realized “those events potentially bore on the question of whether the president did, in fact, have knowledge that those senior officials were using the levers of our diplomatic power” to push Ukraine to investigate his rivals.

As Holmes was delivering opening remarks, Trump tried to undercut the career diplomat’s account of overhearing the conversation. The president tweeted that while his own hearing is “great,” he’s never been able to understand another person’s conversation that wasn’t on speaker. “Try it,” he suggested.

Holmes also testified about his growing concern as Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, orchestrated Ukraine policy outside official diplomatic channels. It was a concern shared by others, he testified.

“My recollection is that Ambassador Sondland stated, ‘Every time Rudy gets involved he goes and f—s everything up.’”

The president instructed his top diplomats to work with Giuliani, who was publicly pursuing investigations into Democrats, according to Sondland and others testifying during the week of blockbuster public hearings.

The landmark House impeachment inquiry was sparked after another call, on July 25, when Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for “a favor” — the investigations. A still-anonymous whistleblower’s official government complaint about that call led the House to launch the current probe.

Hill was an aide to former national security adviser John Bolton and stressed that she is “nonpartisan” and has worked under Republican and Democratic presidents.

“I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” Hill said in prepared opening remarks to the House Intelligence Committee.

She warned that Russia is gearing up to intervene again in the 2020 U.S. election: “We are running out of time to stop them.”

Trump has told others testifying in the inquiry that Ukraine tried to “take me down” in the 2016 election and.

“I have no interest in advancing the outcome of your inquiry in any particular direction, except toward the truth,” Hill said.

But she said the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that Russia meddled in the U.S. election “is beyond dispute.”

She said, “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternative narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016,” she said.

Trump as well as Republicans on the panel, including ranking GOP Rep. Devin Nunes of California, continue to advance the idea that Russian interference was a “hoax,” and that it was Ukraine that was trying to swing the election, part of a desperate effort by Democrats to stop Trump’s presidency.

“That is the Democrats’ pitiful legacy,” Nunes said in his opening remarks. He called it all part of the same effort, from “the Russia hoax” to the “shoddy sequel of the impeachment inquiry.”

The witnesses testifying publicly have all previously appeared for private depositions, most having received subpoenas compelling their testimony.

Holmes, speaking about the July 26 call between Trump and Sondland, the day after the president’s call with Zelenskiy, has told investigators he heard Trump ask, “So he’s going to do the investigation?”

According to Holmes, Sondland replied that Zelenskiy “will, quote, ‘do anything you ask him to.’”

Hill said national security adviser John Bolton told her separately he didn’t want to be involved in any “drug deal” Sondland and Trump’s acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were cooking up over the Ukrainian investigations Trump wanted.

Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and donor to Trump’s inauguration, appeared before lawmakers Wednesday in a marathon session.

He declared that Trump and Giuliani explicitly sought a “quid pro quo” with Ukraine, leveraging an Oval Office visit for political investigations of Democrats. But he also came to believe the trade involved much more.

Sondland testified it was his understanding the president was holding up nearly $400 million in military aid, which Ukraine badly needs with an invading Russia on its border, in exchange for the country’s announcement of the investigations.

Later Wednesday, another witness undercut a main Republican argument — that Ukraine didn’t even realize the money was being held up. The Defense Department’s Laura Cooper testified that Ukrainian officials started asking about it on July 25, which was the day of Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy, when he first asked for a “favor.”

In Moscow on Wednesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he was pleased that the “political battles” in Washington had overtaken the Russia allegations, which are supported by the U.S. intelligence agencies.

“Thank God,” Putin said, “no one is accusing us of interfering in the U.S. elections anymore. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.”

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