LIVEBLOG: Ex-White House Aide Torches GOP Conspiracy Theories

WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21: Fiona Hill, the National Security Council’s former senior director for Europe and Russia, arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee in the Longworth House Office Build... WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 21: Fiona Hill, the National Security Council’s former senior director for Europe and Russia, arrives to testify before the House Intelligence Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill November 21, 2019 in Washington, DC. The committee heard testimony during the fifth day of open hearings in the impeachment inquiry against U.S. President Donald Trump, whom House Democrats say held back U.S. military aid for Ukraine while demanding it investigate his political rivals and the unfounded conspiracy theory that Ukrainians, not Russians, were behind the 2016 computer hacking of the Democratic National Committee. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) MORE LESS
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November 21, 2019 8:50 a.m.
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Former National Security Council senior director Fiona Hill and State Department aide David Holmes are due to testify as part of the impeachment inquiry Thursday, both expected to provide key insights.

Hill worked under former National Security Advisor John Bolton, and is well-positioned to describe his reactions to the “drug deal” helmed by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani. She also personally registered her concern about the pressure campaign at the time.

Based on her opening statement, she is unlikely to accept the conspiracy theories peddled this week by Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA). In her prepared remarks, she blasted the bogus Republican conspiracy theory that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election, calling it a “harmful” “fiction” that perpetuates malicious Russian interests.

Joining Hill will be Holmes, who works in the U.S. embassy in Kyiv. He overheard a July 26 phone conversation in Kyiv between Trump and Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, during which Trump raised the investigations.

According to Holmes’ private deposition, Sondland told him after he call that Trump didn’t give a “shit” about Ukraine, beyond the “big stuff” that helps him, like a Biden probe. Sondland has disputed that aspect of Holmes’ account, but didn’t dispute his recounting of the call itself.

We’ll be liveblogging the hearing below:

4:20 p.m.: Schiff gaveled out after his closing his remarks, his longest and most animated closing statement so far.

4:18 p.m.: Schiff pointed out that Trump’s Zelensky call happened the day after special counsel Robert Mueller’s public testimony: “That says to me this President is above the law.”

4:15 p.m.: Schiff compared Trump’s “no quid pro quo” claim to Sondland to Richard Nixon’s infamous “I am not a crook” line.

4:01 p.m.: Schiff in his closing remarks noted that for all the “indignation” Republicans showed after Hill called out their conspiracy theories about Russia, they were “silent” when Trump questioned the assessment that Russia meddled in 2016.

3:51 p.m.: Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) asked Hill about some of the smears that have been launched against her, including that she was a George Soros plant. The back-and-forth led to a discussion about Soros being invoked as an anti-semitic trope, and Hill tying the Soros conspiracy theories to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, while giving a brief history about the early 20th century anti-semitic texts.

3:50 p.m.: Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL) asked Hill about the case of Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian gas billionaire with Russia ties fighting a U.S. extradition warrant. Firtash cameo-ed in the pressure campaign by reportedly helping put negative information about the Bidens into the public sphere. Hill told Krishnamoorthi that it appeared Firtash had used American foreign policy to advance his own interests, saying “that there is a subversion of American foreign policy to push these people’s personal interests.”

3:41 p.m.: Hill: “It is not credible to me” that Sondland was “oblivious” that the Burisma investigation was about the Bidens.

3:36 p.m.: At first it was just Republicans, but now Democrats — and specifically Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT) — are using their question period to have their final say on the matter, rather than probe the witnesses. This is the last impeachment hearing scheduled in front of House Intel.

3:27 p.m.: Republicans finally found a line of questioning with Hill that produces answers they can run with. Jordan got Hill to reiterate from her private testimony that the Steele dossier was a “rabbit hole” and that Steele “got played.” He then pivoted to his usual monologue of an alleged lack of quid pro quo in Trump’s Ukraine demands.

3:18 p.m.: Conaway, noting the “unflattering” information that came out from Holmes’ account of the Trump-Sondland call, wanted a promise from Holmes that he wouldn’t tell people outside of official channels information that would be unflattering for the “principals.” Holmes first pointed out that it was Sondland who wasn’t practicing discretion with call. He later added when he told others outside the official channel about the call, he didn’t tell them the unflattering information.

3:08 p.m.: Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), a moderate who is retiring from Congress after this term, has stayed with the party line during these proceedings. But on Thursday, he voiced some mild criticism of Trump’s comments on the call and broader foreign policy. Still, he criticized the impeachment proceedings and voiced the usual process complaints. He had no questions for the witnesses.

3:04 p.m.: Holmes responded to Turner’s claim that he embarrassed Zelensky. “I have the deepest respect” for Zelensky, Holmes said, while praising his background.

2:50 p.m.: Hill recalled reporting the July 10 episode to John Eisenberg, a top lawyer for the NSC. She said that she mentioned to Eisenberg that he might want to speak to Vindman, and Eisenberg told her that they should continue to come to him about concerns with these issues. Earlier in the week, Republicans made hay out of a claim that Vindman went outside of the chain of command by going straight to Eisenberg rather than Tim Morrison — Hill’s replacement — after the July 25 call.

2:43 p.m.: Hill is asked about a childhood anecdote involving someone setting her pigtails on fire while she was taking a test. Hill reportedly snubbed the fire out with her hand and finished the test. She said she’s told the story occasionally because of its unfortunate consequence: “My mother gave me a bowl hair cut.”

2:35 p.m.: After several Republicans complained about how Hill described their theories in her opening statement, Hill took an opportunity to respond by praising one of those Republicans for making an “eloquent” statement about his military service. She clarifies that the concerns she raised in her opening statements referred to questions that came up in her deposition.

2:30 p.m.: Schiff subtly called out Ratcliffe’s false characterization of Sondland’s testimony by reading Sondland’s opening statement in which the EU ambassador admitted that investigations had likely come up during a meeting with a Zelensky adviser ahead of his phone call with Trump.

2:26 p.m.: Rep. Mike Turner (R-OH) scolded Holmes for “embarass[ing]” Zelensky by making public what Sondland said about him on the July 26 call.

2:19 p.m.: Even though Sondland has backed Holmes’ account of the Trump-Sondland call, Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-TX) tried to trip up Holmes on his recollection by asking very specific questions about it. At the end of the questioning, Ratcliffe also mischaracterized Sondland’s testimony by claiming that investigations did not come up in a Sondland meeting with a Zelensky advisor before the call. Sondland had testified the topic had.

2:11 p.m.: Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) spent his questioning going through the GOP allegation of Ukraine meddling in 2016, and Hill noted that a few Ukrainian officials criticizing Trump is not the same as a top down attack like the one launched by Russia. Hill also said officials from several other countries, including allies, also criticized Trump during the campaign — they even collected all those negative comments — but Trump has not seized on the negative views expressed by officials from those countries the way he did with Ukraine.

1:59 p.m.: Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) took the first five minute period of GOP questioning to tangle with Holmes over why he didn’t tell Bill Taylor, the lead diplomat in Ukraine who testified earlier in the impeachment probe, about the July 26 Trump-Sondland call. Holmes said that Taylor was on front lines in Ukraine when Holmes returned to the office from his lunch with Sondland, and the next day he went on vacation. When he returned from the vacation, he believed that Taylor had been briefed on the call by then because there was a “nodding agreement” when Trump’s lack of interest in Ukraine came up in a meeting.

1:42 p.m.: Hill contradicted the testimony of her replacement at the NSC, Tim Morrison, who testified this week that Hill had expressed “concerns” to him about the judgement of the NSC’s Ukraine director, Alexander Vindman.

“I did not relate any concerns in general terms about Col. Vindman’s judgement,” she said. Rather, Hill recalled, she’d made a specific point — that “perhaps [Vindman] wasn’t as well suited for something that would be much more political. I did not feel that he had the political antenna to deal with something that was straying into domestic politics.”

1:38 p.m.: Castor asked Hill about a meeting with Sondland before she left the NSC. Sondland had claimed that Hill was upset, and expressed anger with Trump and Bolton as they met over coffee. Hill had disputed that account.

On Thursday, Castor’s question backfired on him. “I was actually, to be honest, angry with him,” Hill recalled, explaining that she was frustrated with Sondland because he was not coordinating with the NSC in his Ukraine dealings. Sondland, in her telling, responded that he was briefing plenty of other people — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney and Bolton. “Who else do I have to deal with?” Hill recalled Sondland said.

But now, Hill testified, she realized that Sondland wasn’t wrong. He was “involved in a domestic political errand” and she was working on national security. He had been given a different remit than what she was working in. She had not been fair to Sondland, she said, given that he was just carrying out what he had been instructed to do.

1:33 p.m.: A question from Nunes to Hill about whether she briefed the President or Bolton about Burisma or alleged Ukraine meddling in the 2016 U.S. election didn’t go very far.

“The whole briefing process didn’t work in the way that you’re suggesting,” Hill told Nunes, explaining that Ukraine wasn’t a top priority when she joined the NSC and that briefings were typically organized around meetings scheduled related to those countries.

1:27 p.m.: Castor asked a few questions about the delegation sent to the Ukraine inauguration and then Nunes jumped in again to ask questions about Burisma. Nunes is taking more of a role in this 45 minute question period than he has in previous hearings.

1:21 p.m.: Nunes took over questioning from Castor. He asked Holmes questions about the Black Ledger and the Steele dossier that seemed to confuse Holmes. The questions were a wind up for Nunes to ask both witnesses whether it was appropriate for political parties to hire foreign operative to dig up dirt on their opponents. Both witnesses said no.

1:16 p.m.: Hill said she “changed” her “mind” about providing lethal arms to Ukraine. A 2015 op-ed she wrote opposing the move has been touted by Trump’s allies, but she testified Thursday that her view reversed after she entered the Trump administration.

1:15 p.m.: Hill also described being concerned, at the time of her NSC departure, about a “channel” operating in Ukraine that was “different” than the one she was a part of.

1:14 p.m.: Hill acknowledged that Trump had every right to remove an ambassador for any reason, but said that Yovanovitch’s reputation being maligned was “completely unnecessary.”

1:11 p.m.: Hill testified Sondland got more involved in Ukraine after Yovanovitch was ousted. “It was at the juncture that Ambassador Sondland’s role seemed to grow larger.”

1:07 p.m.: Steven Castor, a GOP counsel, took over the questioning and asked Hill about what she knew about the plans for a July 25 call. She left the NSC on July 16. She testified that she, as well as Bolton, were opposed to Trump doing a Zelensky call. Bolton didn’t feel like the call was properly prepared.

1:03 p.m.: Nunes started the 45-minute question period with a mad-libs style list of individuals key to GOP conspiracy theories about 2016, asking the witnesses if they had met with them. Holmes had not. Hill said that she was at meetings with Bruce Ohr, a DOJ official, when she was in a previous role a long time ago. Nunes then pivoted to questions about Christopher Steele, whom Hill met with in 2016, according to her deposition. Steele authored the notorious Trump-Russia dossiers.

12:59 p.m.: With most of the members back on the dais, the witnesses re-entered the hearing room.

12:51 p.m.: The witnesses left the room. Almost no committee members were in the room when they entered, so maybe there was a miscommunication on when this was starting up again.

12:50 p.m.: After a nearly two-hour break, the witnesses returned to the hearing room.

11:07 a.m.: After the 45 minutes of staff counsel questioning wrapped up, Schiff called a recess, noting that there was a House floor vote scheduled soon.

11:04 a.m.: After that meeting, Sondland made a comment at a later juncture that day indicating that Mulvaney had OKed the agreement, according to Hill. Hill recounted the comment Bolton made to her after the episode, telling her that he did not want to be part of the “drug deal” Mulvaney and Sondland were cooking up. She said she took “drug deal” to mean the agreement of investigations for a meeting. Bolton told her to report the episode to John Eisenberg, a top White House lawyer, which she did.

11:00 a.m.: Hill testified on the July 10 visit by the Ukrainian officials to the White House. She suggested the discrepancy between Sondland and other witnesses’ testimony about whether the meeting was ended abruptly could be explained by the fact that they were already in the wrap-up phase when Bolton ended it. She said she saw Bolton “stiffen” when Sondland brought up the agreement for investigations.

10:53 a.m.: A little bit of an awkward moment. Goldman asked Hill about Kash Patel, a former aide to Nunes who is now working in the White House. Hill recalled hearing in passing that Trump wanted to speak to someone on the NSC because of some materials that related on Ukraine. The person that was referred to was “Kash,” even though Alex Vindman was the NSC director on Ukraine. Hill said that the only Kash she knew was Kash Patel. She confirmed that the episode indicated to her that Patel was passing on to Trump materials related to Ukraine.

10:45 a.m.: Hill answered carefully when asked whether — by pushing the theory that Ukraine meddled in 2016 — Trump was adopting Putin’s views over he his own advisers’. She said the view has also gained some “traction” in the United States, and the two things “fused together.”

10:37 a.m.: Hill wouldn’t answer when Daniel Goldman, the Democratic staff counsel, asked her if she had heard presidential calls like the July 25 one. She and her lawyer raised executive privilege and classification issues. She acknowledged the July 25 call was “surprising.”

10:34 a.m.: Holmes said he took notes after the meeting where Zelensky references the three times “sensitive” issues came up on his July 25 Trump call. Holmes said that after reading the transcript, he determined that it was a reference to the Burisma/Biden investigations.

10:32 a.m.: Holmes pointed out that even after aid was released, there were other things Ukraine needed from Trump, including a White House meeting, and that they continued to be “careful.”

10:25 a.m.: Answering a question from Schiff, Holmes testified that U.S. has been encouraging Ukraine to build longstanding, rule-of-law systems. “Focusing on particular cases, including particular cases where there’s an interest of the President’s, is just not part of what we’ve done.”

10:22 a.m.: Before he began asking questions, Schiff defended Hill’s move going after the GOP conspiracy theories in her opening statement. He pointed out that viewers might be confused by what Republicans have been pushing, and that they’re equating a systematic attack by the Russian government to a few op-eds by individual Ukrainians. His first question for Hill is about why this GOP narrative serves Russia.

“This is exactly what the Russian government is hoping for,” Hill said.

10:16 a.m.: Hill didn’t change her opening statement after Nunes’ griping: “In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”

10:15 a.m.: Hill and Holmes are testifying Thursday under subpoena, according to an official working on the impeachment.

10:14 a.m.: Hill reminded the committee that she was brought on to the NSC as part of former National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s team.

10:12 a.m.: Hill’s opening statement begins with a rundown of her background, including a reference to her English accent: ” I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent.”

10:03 a.m.: Holmes read a text that he said raised alarms that the announcement of investigations was going to happen even though the hold on aid had been lifted. The text was from an embassy colleague and was a readout of a call the colleague had with a member of Sondland’s staff: “Sondland said the [Zelenskyy] interview is supposed to be today or Monday [Sept 16] and they plan to announce that a certain investigation that was ‘on hold’ will progress. [Sondland’s aide] did not know if this was decided or if [Sondland] is advocating this. Apparently he’s been discussing this with Yermak.”

10:00 a.m.: Holmes on his frame of mind as he drafted an Aug.29 cable that would be sent on behalf of Bill Taylor, the head of the Kyiv embassy: “By this point, however, my clear impression was that the security assistance hold was likely intended by the President either as an expression of dissatisfaction that the Ukrainians had not yet agreed to the Burisma/Biden investigation or as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so”

9:52 a.m.: Holmes recounted a meeting with Zelensky the day after the July 25 call. Zelensky said that “three times” on the call Trump had raised “some very sensitive issues,” according to Holmes account. Holmes didn’t know what those sensitive issues were because — contra typical protocol — the Kyiv embassy did not received a readout of the substance of the Trump-Zelensky call.

9:47 a.m.: Unlike other witnesses, Holmes doesn’t claim that he didn’t make the connection between the Burisma investigation demand and the Bidens. His opening statement referred to the request as the “Burisma/Biden” investigation and said that Giuliani had been talking about the effort in the media since March.

9:44 a.m.: Holmes recounted Sondland saying this of Giuliani while on the May inauguration trip to Ukraine: “Dammit Rudy. Every time Rudy gets involved he goes and f—s everything up.”

9:41 a.m.: Holmes: “The barrage of allegations directed at Ambassador Yovanovitch, a career ambassador, is unlike anything I have seen in my professional career.”

9:37 a.m.: Holmes laid out the motivations that Yuriy Lutsenko — a Ukrainian prosecutor who worked with Giuliani on the smear campaign — had in going after Holmes’ former boss, then-Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. He recalled hearing through the grapevine of a complaint from Lutsenko that Yovanovitch “destroyed him” because she wouldn’t support him until he implemented anti-corruption reforms.

9:35 a.m.: Holmes’ opening statement noted that part of his job is to sit in on meetings with top Ukrainian officials and take notes. “I have been present in many meetings with President Zelensky and his administration, some of which may be germane to this inquiry,” he said.

9:27 a.m.: Nunes tackled Hill’s opening statement head on. He asked his staff to give the witnesses the GOP report on Russia meddling from the House Intel investigation. While the report acknowledged Russian meddling, it refused to back the finding of the Intelligence Community that the meddling campaign was aimed at boosting Trump. Nunes in his remarks didn’t let go of the claim that Ukraine also meddled. “It is entirely possible for two separate countries to engage in meddling at the same time,” he said.

9:25 a.m.: The leak of a Hill opening statement that dumped over Nunes’ 2016 conspiracy theories didn’t stop Nunes from regurgitating those theories yet again.

9:19 a.m.: Schiff closed his opening statement laying out a quick timeline for what comes next in the House impeachment inquiry: “In the coming days, Congress will determine what response is appropriate.”

9:10 a.m.: Like he’s done for previous impeachment hearings, House Intel Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA) used his opening statement to hit the highlights of the two witnesses’ private depositions.

9:04 a.m.: The witnesses entered the room.

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