WASHINGTON – Ukrainian officials viewed a White House meeting with President Donald Trump as “critical” in their efforts to show Russia that the United States was firmly behind its East European ally, State Department aide David Holmes told lawmakers Thursday.
In turn, Trump aides viewed the potential meeting as leverage to pressure Kyiv to go after the president’s political rivals, including former Vice President Joe Biden, Holmes said.
Holmes, a career diplomat stationed in Kyiv, laid out the competing priorities in Ukraine during the fifth day of public hearings held as part of the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment inquiry.
Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official, also testified in the inquiry.
Trump meeting with Zelensky ‘critical’
Critics allege that the White House meeting with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky, which never happened, was part of a pressure campaign on Ukraine led by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney.
Aides to Trump said Ukraine would have to announce an investigation into the president’s rivals before he would agree to meet with Zelensky, according to several officials, including Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union whose portfolio included Ukraine.
“A White House visit was critical to President Zelensky (because he) needed to show U.S. support at the highest levels in order to demonstrate to Russian President (Vladimir) Putin that he had U.S. backing, as well as to advance his ambitious anti-corruption reforms at home,” Holmes said. “We at the embassy also believed that a meeting was critical … and we worked hard to get it arranged.”
It didn’t take long to realize that the White House “was not prepared to show the level of support for the Zelensky administration that we had originally anticipated,” Holmes told lawmakers Thursday.
Complicating matters, he said, was Trump’s decision to meet with Putin on June 28 at the G20 Summit in Japan, “sending a further signal of lack of support for Ukraine.”
For the next month, the White House meeting became “a focus of our activities,” Holmes said. “To that end, we were working with the Ukrainians to deliver things we thought President Trump might care about, such as commercial deals benefiting the United States, which might convince President Trump to agree to a meeting with President Zelensky.”
Trump soured on helping Ukraine, in part because Giuliani portrayed Zelensky as someone “surrounded by enemies” of Trump, Holmes testified.
Ukraine meddling ‘fictional narrative’
Hill admonished lawmakers for promoting a “fictional narrative” that it was Ukraine – not Russia – that interfered in the 2016 presidential election.
“In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” she said.
Republicans on the panel, including ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., have argued that Ukraine colluded with the Democrats to hurt Trump in the election.
“It is entirely possible for two separate nations to engage in election meddling at the same time, and Republicans believe we should take meddling seriously by all foreign countries, regardless of which campaign is the target,” he said at Thursday’s hearing in response to Hill.
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The intelligence community and U.S. allies concluded that Russia interfered to boost Trump’s chances over Hillary Clinton.
“Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country – and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Hill said without calling out specific lawmakers. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
Hill’s comments were the harshest of any witness regarding the Ukrainian interference theory. She warned the muddying was a distraction with severe consequences.
“Right now, Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election,” she said. “We are running out of time to stop them.”
Giuliani overshadowed U.S. diplomacy
Holmes described how Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, began taking over U.S. policy toward Ukraine around March.
Holmes said Giuliani worked to smear Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was recalled to Washington. He recounted how the former mayor pushed Ukraine to investigate interference in the 2016 U.S. election and issues related to Ukraine gas company Burisma, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who sat on Burisma’s board.
In early May, shortly after Zelensky won the election, Giuliani publicly alleged the incoming president was “surrounded by enemies” of Trump. Within days, Vice President Mike Pence canceled plans to attend Zelensky’s inauguration.
“Over the following months, it became apparent that Mr. Giuliani was having a direct influence on the foreign policy agenda … in Ukraine,” Holmes said, adding that it seemed to frustrate Trump aides such as national security adviser John Bolton and Sondland.
Hurd: No evidence of bribery, extortion
Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, said he disagreed with “this sort of bumbling foreign policy” executed by the Trump administration in Ukraine.
The events described by witnesses, Hurd said, “undermined our national security and undercut Ukraine.”
Hurd said Trump’s mentioning of the Bidens and Burisma on a phone call July 25 with Zelensky was “inappropriate” and “misguided.” In the call, Trump asks for “a favor” while discussing investigations of the Bidens and Burisma.
But Hurd said he had “not heard evidence proving the president committed bribery or extortion.”
What comes next?
Hill and Holmes cap off the dozen witnesses called to testify publicly in House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
Democrats do not plan to hold any hearings during the week of Thanksgiving, though they could add closed-door interviews or hearings to the calendar. Congress does not return to Washington until the week of Dec. 2.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was noncommittal when asked during her weekly news conference Thursday whether there might be a vote soon on impeachment.
“We haven’t made any decision yet,” she said.
The House Intelligence Committee will draft a report of its findings that will be presented to the House Judiciary Committee, which is tasked with drafting and deliberating on articles of impeachment.
If the House votes to impeach, the Senate will hold a trial to determine whether to remove Trump from office. It would take 67 of the 100 senators to convict the president.