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How testimonies from Fiona Hill and David Holmes filled in Sondland’s ‘gaps’

In the week’s final day of public impeachment hearings, Dr. Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia, and David Holmes, the political affairs counselor at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, testified to the House. Lisa Desjardins, Yamiche Alcindor and Nick Schifrin join Judy Woodruff to discuss how the information they shared filled in the gaps.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Pressure on Ukraine for investigations was a domestic political errand that would — quote — "blow up."

    That is what we heard in the final day of public impeachment hearings this week. It was another full day, with a lot to absorb.

    Here again to break down the highlights and what they mean, Lisa Desjardins is at the Capitol. She was in the hearing room. Yamiche Alcindor is at the White House. And Nick Schifrin is here at the table with me.

    Hello to all of you. A lot to unpack here.

    But let's start with listening to one of today's two witnesses. He is a diplomat, David Holmes. He came to talk about his firsthand sighting, what he saw at a moment that has received so much attention in these hearings.

    And let's listen to part of what David Holmes had to say.

  • David Holmes:

    The four of us went to a nearby restaurant and sat on an outdoor terrace.

    I sat directly across from Ambassador Sondland, and the two staffers sat off to our sides. At first, the lunch was largely social. Ambassador Sondland 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.

    During the lunch, Ambassador Sondland said that he was going to call President Trump to give him an update. Ambassador Sondland placed a call on his mobile phone, and I heard him announce himself several times, along the lines of "Gordon Sondland holding for the President."

    It appeared that he was being transferred through several layers of switchboards and assistants. And I then noticed Ambassador Sondland's demeanor change and understood that he had been connected to President Trump.

    While Ambassador Sondland's phone was not on speakerphone, I could hear the president's voice through the earpiece of the phone. The president's voice was very loud and recognizable.

    And Ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume.

    I heard Ambassador Sondland greet the President and explain that he was calling from Kiev. I heard President Trump then clarify that Ambassador Sondland was in Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland replied, yes, he was in Ukraine, and went on to state that President Zelensky — quote — "loves your ass."

    I then heard President Trump ask, "So, he's going to do the investigation?"

    Ambassador Sondland replied that, "He's going to do it," adding that, "President Zelensky will do anything you ask him to do."

    Even though I did not take notes of these statements, I have a clear recollection that these statements were made. I believe that my colleagues who were sitting at the table also knew that Ambassador Sondland was speaking with the president.

    I then took the opportunity to ask Ambassador Sondland for his candid impression of the president's views on Ukraine.

    In particular, I asked Ambassador Sondland if it was true that the president did not "give a expletive about Ukraine."

    Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not "give an expletive about Ukraine."

    I asked why not.

    Ambassador Sondland stated that the president only cares about 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.

    The conversation then moved on to other topics.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So let's go to you first, Lisa, on this.

    We — that's David Holmes. And he is referring to Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

    We heard from Ambassador Sondland yesterday. How does this fit in with what Sondland said yesterday?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right.

    This was very important testimony, because there are some gaps in Ambassador Sondland's memory. And this also is important connective tissue about a key moment in time.

    Remember, Judy, this all kind of starts with that July 25 phone call between President Trump and the Ukrainian president, Zelensky. So let's think about that phone call like this, Zelensky and Trump on the call.

    What we learned from David Holmes was what happened to those two different players. He testified today that Zelensky, the next day after that call, met with him, Holmes and Sondland, in Ukraine, and told them that, after the call, he felt like there had been some very sensitive issues raised on that call.

    He said it three times, according to Holmes. This is what Zelensky is thinking about. That was sensitive issues. He's feeling some pressure, or he's cautious. He's worried about sensitive issues.

    Just a couple of hours later after that, President Trump — Ambassador Sondland makes that phone call that David Holmes overhears. And what does he say? President Trump immediately says, is he going to do the investigations, meaning Zelensky?

    Ambassador Sondland, according to David Holmes, says, yes, he's going to do the investigations, completely contrary to what Zelensky just told that group hours earlier, that he had — that there are sensitive issues and he could only follow up in person with the president.

    Now, in between those two things, Zelensky had a closed-door meeting with — or a Zelensky aide had a closed-door meeting with Mr. Sondland.

    That's where Mr. Sondland, others have testified, said, in order to get the aid, you have to do these investigations.

    So, while there's not a direct link to the president exactly, it's getting closer in the testimony, the idea that right after the phone call President Trump wanted to know about the investigations. President Zelensky was worried about the investigations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, that brings us to you, Yamiche. You're at the White House. What is the White House saying about this?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, first, it's really critical to look at David Holmes' testimony and remember that we learned about him, we learned about what he overheard when the current U.S. — top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, William Taylor, said that he had an aide who overheard this conversation.

    So this has been really percolating and people have been thinking about this for a long time. So the White House has been having a long time to prepare itself to say, hey, look, the president has not been directly implicated.

    And that's what the White House did today. In real time, the White House was saying, look, a lot of people have a lot of things to say about what the president did or didn't do, but at the end of the day no one has directly linked the president to saying to anybody, I need an investigation into Joe Biden and Hunter Biden in order for them to — in order for Ukraine to get this military aid.

    I want to read to you a White House statement that basically sums that up.

    But here's what Stephanie Grisham, the White House press secretary, had to say.

    She said: "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 rapid desire to overturn the 2016 election."

    You also have the attorney for Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff. His attorney put out a statement saying that Fiona Hill was essentially misguided and misrepresenting her relationship with Mick Mulvaney.

    They're essentially saying that Mick Mulvaney wasn't any part of this. That's important, because, even though we haven't heard from Mick — from Fiona Hill yet in our — in the sound that we're playing, what you have is Fiona Hill saying that the White House was directly involved, and essentially bolstering David Holmes' testimony.

    But the White House is sticking to the fact they think this is a partisan attack, this is all about people being mad about the 2016 election.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let's listen now to a little bit of what Fiona Hill had to say. She is a former White House adviser, national security adviser, and expert on Russia.

    Here's part of that.

  • Fiona Hill:

    Unfortunately, I had a bit of a blowup with Ambassador Sondland. And I had a couple of testy encounters with him.

    One of those was in June 18, when I actually said to him, "Who put you in charge of Ukraine?"

    And I will admit I was a bit rude. And that's when he told me the president, which shut me up.

    On this other meeting, it was about 15, 20 minutes, exactly as he depicted it was. I was actually, to be honest, angry with him. And, you know, I hate to say it, but, often, when women show anger, it's not fully appreciated. It's often pushed onto emotional issues, perhaps, or deflected onto other people.

    And what I was angry about was that he wasn't coordinating with us. Now, I actually realize, having listened to his deposition, that he was absolutely right, that he wasn't coordinating with us because we weren't doing the same thing that he was doing.

    So I was upset with him that he wasn't fully telling us about all of the meetings that he was having.

    And he said to me: "But I'm briefing the president. I'm briefing Chief of Staff Mulvaney. I'm briefing Secretary Pompeo. And I have talked to Ambassador Bolton. Who else do I have to deal with?"

    And the point is we have a robust interagency process that deals with Ukraine. It includes Mr. Holmes. It includes Ambassador Taylor, as the charge in Ukraine. It includes a whole lot of other people.

    But it struck me when — yesterday, when you put up on the screen Ambassador Sondland's e-mails, and who was on these e-mails, and he said, these are the people need to know, that he was absolutely right, because he was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy.

    And those two things had just diverged.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick Schifrin, how significant, what Fiona Hill is saying here?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This is the heart of what you and I have been talking about, Judy, the divide between national security policy of President Trump and the Trump administration and that of Trump's confidants, led by Rudy Giuliani and Ambassador Sondland.

    And Hill actually apologized, because she admitted that Sondland wasn't operating in the irregular channel, as it's been dubbed. He was talking to the president of the United States, just that the president of the United States wasn't talking to the National Security Council staff, or wasn't listening to the official channel.

    And the implication of that, of course, is that — the implication of what she's saying, is that the president was looking for a domestic political errand, in her words, because she says that Biden and Burisma are the same thing.

    Biden and Burisma, Burisma, the energy company in Ukraine that had Hunter Biden on the board, she says that they're the same thing. Rudy Giuliani was saying that they were same thing. President Trump used the words Biden in the context of Burisma on the July 25 call.

    And she said it's not credible that any other diplomat, including Ambassador Sondland, including another diplomat, Ambassador Volker, did not know about that.

    So, for 55 days, what Fiona Hill is saying is that there was a triumph over — of domestic politics over national security.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, separately, we know that Fiona Hill, and, in fact, in her opening statements, had some very strong words contradicting what she said she felt were Republican points that Republicans have made about Ukraine and its role in the 2016 election.

    Let's listen to this from Fiona Hill.

  • Fiona Hill:

    The impacts of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today.

    Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career Foreign Service is being undermined. U.S. support for Ukraine, which continues to face armed Russian aggression, has been politicized.

    The Russian government's goal is to weaken our country, to diminish America's global role, and to neutralize a perceived U.S. threat to Russian interests. President Putin and the Russian security services aim to counter U.S. foreign policy objectives in Europe, including in Ukraine, where Moscow wishes to reassert political and economic dominance.

    I say this not as an alarmist, but as a realist. As Republicans and Democrats have agreed for decades, Ukraine is a valued partner of the United States. And it plays an important role in our national security.

    And as I told a committee last month, I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary and that Ukraine, not Russia, attacked us in 2016.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, now I want to turn to you, Lisa.

    Put this in the — in context with what Republicans on the committee have been saying about this.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This is an interesting situation, Judy, because, on the one hand, there's a narrative that Rudy Giuliani was pushing forth that the Ukrainian government itself, as we heard from Fiona Hill, was trying to manipulate the election.

    And we heard more of that today from Republicans than we have in the past. They point to things like an op-ed, for example, from the Ukrainian ambassador, in which the Ukrainian ambassador sort of brought up the idea that candidate Trump was saying he would — could consider allowing Russia to take over the Crimea.

    That obviously is a huge sovereign question from Ukraine. And the ambassador in that op-ed pushed back against that idea, never fully said that she opposed candidate Trump, just said that this would be a national — a security risk.

    That op-ed, to Republicans, is evidence that Ukraine had reason to have a bias against the president, and that's why they were going after him.

    They also point to sort of theories that there were some cyber-activities in Ukraine that were targeted against the president. This has not been proven. And they're putting forth this theory kind of more than I have seen in the past couple of — then I have seen recently.

    So it's something to watch. And, meanwhile, it does seem that they're also spending more time on the Bidens. And it does look like perhaps the president will get some kind of investigation of the Bidens, because, today, Judy, in the Senate, Trump ally Senator Lindsey Graham, who is the head of the Judiciary Committee in the Senate, sent a letter to the State Department, asking them for documents about Hunter Biden, about Burisma, about Vice President Joe Biden when he was vice president.

    It's not yet an investigation. So far, it is a request for information from the senator. But this is clearly something the president still cares about and his allies are still pushing for.

    One other note. Republicans are pushing back at the same time at the idea that they don't believe that Russia was ever meddling. I want to show a picture. This is of Representative Mike Turner of Ohio.

    He held up a report. What is that? That's the report from the House Intelligence Committee that did find that, in fact, Russia was trying to meddle in the elections. And he said Republicans did, in fact, sign on to that.

    So, Republicans are trying to shore up the idea that they believe Russia was a factor, while pointing to Ukraine. They're trying to walk some difficult lines here, especially with these Ukraine theories, the broad ones, have not been proven.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we just saw a photo of that report being held up. It was actually held up by the ranking — ranking Republican on the committee, Devin Nunes.

    But I do want to come to Yamiche and ask you, how does this fit in with the narrative we have been hearing from the White House, which has still held out? We know the president has been skeptical about Russia's role in the election.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, there are two big things to look at.

    The first is President Trump's relationship with Russia. Critics of the president said that, through his foreign policy and through his public statements, that, again and again, he has bolstered the standing of Russia, that he's played into Russia's hands.

    In Helsinki, Finland, when he was standing next to the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, he was asked about the idea that Russia meddled in the 2016 election, and he said, well, I asked Putin about it, and he says he didn't do it, so he didn't do it.

    That was, of course, contradicting multiple intelligence — intelligence agencies within the Trump administration itself. So the president has been someone who has been skeptical of this idea that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, but there really hasn't been anyone else really questioning that.

    The other thing to note is that President Trump has also felt like talking about Russia meddling in the 2016 election, it seems to delegitimize his win. So he doesn't like talking about what they could have done in the 2016 election, because he thinks that that would mean that he was not duly elected.

    And there have been people that have cast doubt about whether or not the president was affectionately — legitimately elected. But there's, of course, no evidence that Russia changed any actual voting totals. So most people have, of course, said that the president was elected fairly.

    The second thing to note is that the president often operates in a very personal way when it comes to foreign policy. He likes to have personal relationships. He likes to have bilateral meetings with leaders.

    In this case, he decided early on that Ukraine, as a whole, did not support his 2016 presidential election. As a result, he was telling officials again and again that Ukraine tried to take him down. He was again thinking about the fact that Ukraine was somehow helping Democrats into trying to defeat him.

    Some people — witnesses who have come before Congress say that that really was coming from Rudy Giuliani, his personal attorney. But for whatever reason, President Trump was very, very negative on Ukraine.

    And the Ukrainians were very — warned about that. So you have the president essentially continuing to hold on to these, in some ways, debunked claims that Ukraine was really against him overall.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So there's one other chunk that we want to play for you of Fiona Hill, the Russia expert who was working at the White House.

    And this has to do with the role Rudy Giuliani, the president's good friend, personal attorney, has played in Ukraine.

    Let's listen.

  • Fiona Hill:

    And Ambassador Bolton had looked pained, basically indicated with body language that there was nothing much that we could do about it.

    And he then, in the course of that discussion, said that Rudy Giuliani was a hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up.

  • Man:

    Did you understand what he meant by that?

  • Fiona Hill:

    I did, actually.

  • Man:

    What did he mean?

  • Fiona Hill:

    Well, I think he meant that, obviously, what Mr. Giuliani was saying was pretty explosive in any case. And he was frequently on television making quite incendiary remarks about everyone involved in this, and that he was clearly pushing forward issues and ideas that would probably come back to haunt us.

    And, in fact, I think that that's where we are today.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick, what do we take away, last day of televised hearings here?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, so a real divide between President Trump and the Trump administration policy.

    We have talked a lot about this. What was the policy? Strong support for Ukraine and support for Ukraine combating corruption overall. For 55 days, what was President Trump's policy? Holding military support for Ukraine, investigate two specific things, 2016 and Biden.

    The whole apparatus scrambles during those 55 days, Pentagon, State, NSC asking, hey, has the policy changed? Is there a memo?

    No, of course there's not a memo, because there is no structure. There is no traditional process. What's the process in this White House? It's Gordon Sondland e-mailing Mike Pompeo, Rudy Giuliani talking to the president.

    And when it comes to that process, the people who know best, Giuliani, Pompeo, Mulvaney, the chief of staff, Secretary Perry, those are people who have not heard from at all.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And just quickly, Yamiche, at the White House, they're feeling how as we come to the end of this public hearing?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    White House aides feel like the president is in good standing, because no one has directly connected the president to giving a specific order to withhold aid in exchange for an investigation into Joe Biden.

    The White House also continuing to not comply with any sort of subpoenas, and they're continuing to tell officials that are working, both current and former, not to comply with this impeachment inquiry.

    So the president's going to continue to defend himself and continue to say this is unfair.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And finally to you, Lisa. Button it up for us.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    You got it.

    We had nine witnesses in three days, Judy. This is now going to move forward. Democrats feel confident about their case. Republicans say they're ready to defend their president.

    Voters are going to talk a lot about it over the holidays, I have a feeling.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Coming up on Thanksgiving week.

    Lisa Desjardins at the Capitol, Yamiche Alcindor at the White House, Nick Schifrin here in the studio, thank you.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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