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Russia expert warns GOP: 'Fictions' on Ukraine help Moscow

Russia expert warns GOP: 'Fictions' on Ukraine help Moscow

Second impeachment witness believed aid was tied to investigations
Russia expert warns GOP: 'Fictions' on Ukraine help Moscow
Fiona Hill and David Holmes are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on the impeachment inquiry Thursday.
Photographer: Doug Mills/The New York Times

Fiona Hill, the former top Russia expert on the National Security Council, criticized Republicans on Thursday for propagating what she called a “fictional narrative” that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 elections, denouncing a theory embraced by President Donald Trump.

She argued that the story was planted by Russia and dangerously played into Moscow’s hands, by sowing political divisions in the United States that adversaries are eager to exploit.

“These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes,” said Hill, the co-author of a 500-page book analyzing the psyche of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.

“President Putin and the Russian security services operate like a super PAC,” Hill explained. “They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize 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.

The impeachment inquiry centers on the accusation that Trump withheld a White House visit for Ukraine’s president and security aid for the country as leverage to push the government to announce investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden, and the claim that Ukraine conspired to help Democrats in the 2016 election.

Hill called the claim about Ukraine’s interference a fake story invented by Russian intelligence services to destabilize the United States and deflect attention from their own culpability.

“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. “These fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes.”

Without naming Trump, Hill made an implicit rebuke of his conduct.

“If the president, or anyone else, impedes or subverts the national security of the United States in order to further domestic political or personal interests, that is more than worthy of your attention,” Hill said. “But we must not let domestic politics stop us from defending ourselves against the foreign powers who truly wish us harm.”

Holmes testified that it was his ‘clear impression’ that Trump withheld security aid to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden.

David Holmes, a top aide in the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, told lawmakers on Thursday that he became convinced by the end of August that Trump had frozen security aid for Ukraine because he was seeking to pressure the country to commit to an investigation into Biden.

Holmes said his assessment came after he drafted and sent a cable to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on behalf of William B. Taylor, the top American diplomat in Ukraine, attempting to explain the importance of the security assistance to Ukraine.

“By this point,” Holmes said, “my clear impression was that the security assistance hold was likely intended by the president either as an expression of dissatisfaction with the Ukrainians who had not yet agreed to the Burisma/Biden investigation or as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so.”

Burisma is a Ukrainian energy company that employed Hunter Biden, the former vice president’s son, on its board.

Holmes told lawmakers that it remains critical for the United States to support Ukraine in its efforts to confront Russian aggression, saying: “Now is not the time to retreat from our relationship with Ukraine, but rather to double down on it.”

Trump lashed out on Twitter, casting doubt on Holmes’ account of an overheard phone call.

As Holmes began testifying, Trump took aim at his credibility, suggesting there was no way he could have heard what he claims to have picked up in a loud cellphone conversation between Trump and Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union.

In his testimony on Thursday, Holmes was repeating an account he has given impeachment investigators privately of a call he overheard in which the president was asking Sondland whether Ukraine was going to do the investigations he wanted, and Sondland said they were.

The call is an important piece of evidence because it demonstrates that Trump himself was directing members of his administration to push the Ukrainians for the investigations, but the president on Thursday sought to cast doubt on its authenticity.

Even before the day’s hearing began, the president posted a string of angry tweets about Democrats and the impeachment investigation.

The Democrats leading the impeachment investigation are “human scum,” he said.

The public hearings over the last week are “the most unfair hearings in American History.” And, “never in my wildest dreams” did he think his name would be linked to the “ugly word, Impeachment!”

Trump also revived his complaints about the special counsel investigation into whether his campaign or aides were involved in Russia’s election interference.

An embassy official who overheard a Trump-Sondland phone call is testifying about a memorable conversation.

Holmes is testifying a week after William B. Taylor Jr., the top American diplomat in Ukraine, told lawmakers last week that he had recently become aware of a July cellphone call between Trump and Sondland that was overheard by one of his aides.

Holmes told lawmakers that he overheard Trump, who was speaking loudly, asking Sondland whether Zelenskiy was “going to do the investigation.” Sondland told Trump that Zelenskiy “loves your ass,” and would conduct the investigation and do “anything you ask him to,” Holmes said.

In Holmes’ account, Sondland later told him that Trump cared only about “big stuff that benefits the president” like the “Biden investigation” into Biden’s son. Sondland did not dispute that account when he testified on Wednesday, but said he did not recall specifically mentioning Biden.

Democrats believe the conversation helps establish that the president was preoccupied with persuading Ukraine to publicly commit to investigations that benefited him politically.

Hill can detail how Bolton saw Giuliani as a ‘hand grenade’ meddling in Ukraine policy.

In previous closed-door testimony, Hill described in detail a July 10 White House meeting during which Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, told Bolton that he was working with Giuliani to press Ukraine to investigate Democrats in exchange for a White House meeting for the country’s new president.

Bolton was so disturbed that he abruptly ended the meeting and instructed Hill to tell the National Security Council’s top lawyer about what Sondland, Giuliani and Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, were up to, Hill has testified. Bolton told Hill that he was not “part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up.”

Later, Hill said that Bolton told her that “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.”

Hill left the White House before the July 25 call between Trump and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine. But Democrats believe her account could be crucial in helping to establish that top White House officials like Bolton felt the pressure campaign was inappropriate, and that Mulvaney was deeply involved in it.

Sondland said in Wednesday’s hearing that Hill’s account of the July 10 meeting did not “square with my own.”

Hill has said that Sondland bragged that Trump put him in charge of Ukraine policy.

Democrats are looking to Hill to corroborate Wednesday’s testimony by Sondland that he pressured Ukraine to announce investigations at Trump’s direction.

“We followed the president’s orders,” Sondland told lawmakers, testifying that it was well understood at the White House and throughout the Trump administration that a White House meeting for Zelenskiy was contingent on whether he agreed to announce investigations into Trump’s political rivals.

Sondland also said he came to conclude that a package of military aid for Ukraine was linked to the investigations. But Republicans seized on Sondland’s assertion that he was never explicitly told that by Trump or anyone else.

Hill told lawmakers in her previous testimony that when she confronted Sondland, whose official portfolio did not include Ukraine, about his authority over issues related to the country, he told her that his power came directly from Trump.

She said she asked Sondland “who has said you’re in charge of Ukraine, Gordon?” according to the transcript of her testimony released by the House Intelligence Committee. “And he said, the president. Well, that shut me up, because you can’t really argue with that.”

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