State Department official gives 'firsthand' account of Trump pushing for investigating Biden

A U.S. diplomat told Congress on Thursday that he overheard President Trump discussing the need for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden in July, and that he came forward to testify because of complaints about the lack of firsthand accounts.

David Holmes, the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, said he had read criticisms of the impeachment inquiry “noting the lack of ‘firsthand’ evidence in the investigation and suggesting that the only evidence being elicited at the hearings was ‘hearsay.’”

That is a complaint that Republicans have lodged against many witnesses in the inquiry.

“I came to realize I had firsthand knowledge regarding certain events on July 26 that had not otherwise been reported,” Holmes told the House Intelligence Committee. Holmes said his knowledge “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 induce the new Ukrainian president to announce the opening of a criminal investigation against President Trump’s political opponent [Joe Biden].”

Holmes testified in a closed-door deposition last Saturday on the details of a phone conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. But this was the first time the public could see and hear Holmes relate the conversation, and the details took on new resonance in that setting.

Holmes described eating lunch with Sondland on July 26 in Kyiv after meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other top officials there. He said he observed Sondland call the White House and then heard Trump’s voice through Sondland’s phone.

Related: Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the EU

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FILE - In this Oct. 17, 2019, file photo U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, center, arrives for a interview with the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and House Committee on Oversight and Reform on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

As the impeachment hearings enter their second week - one of the most highly anticipated testimonies will be Wednesday’s appearance from Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU.

Unlike the other witnesses in the inquiry, Sondland is not a career diplomat versed in the protocols of the State Department or a foreign policy expert. He’s a Seattle businessman who gave a million dollars to Trump’s inauguration and later became Trump's pick for envoy to the European Union. But Sondland’s direct interactions with Trump, and testimony from other witnesses about his dealing with Ukraine, have put him front and center in the controversy, over whether Trump made aid to Ukraine contingent on opening an investigation into his political rival, Joe Biden.

Sondland was one of three officials - along with Kurt Volker, the former representative for Ukraine, and Energy secretary Rick Perry - to take the lead on American policy toward Ukraine after Trump abruptly removed the U.S. ambassador in Kiev, Marie Yovanovitch.

Alexander Vindman, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel and Ukraine expert on the NSC, said he heard Sondland explicitly press Ukrainian officials to investigate Joe Biden and his son, according to a transcript of his private testimony.

And On Friday David Holmes, a U.S. embassy official in Kiev, told lawmakers in closed-door testimony, that he overheard a phone call between Trump and Sondland, in which the ambassador told the president his Ukrainian counterpart was ready to carry out the investigations. The phone call occurred on July 26, one day after the phone conversation between Trump and Zelenskiy.

The top US diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor discussed that call in his public hearing.

(SOUNDBITE) (ENGLISH) DIPLOMAT WILLIAM TAYLOR, SAYING:

“The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations.’ Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward. Following the call with President Trump, the member of my staff asked Ambassador Sondland what President Trump thought about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland responded that President Trump cares more about the investigations of [Joe] Biden, which Giuliani was pressing for.”

Sondland appeared in released texts saying there was no quid pro quo in withholding aid. But after testifying behind closed doors, he then had to revise his testimony to say that by September he had come to view a suspension of U.S. security aid as being held up as leverage to get Ukraine to commit.

Up until now – among the GOP's main defenses of Trump are that there was no quid pro quo, and that no witnesses has spoken directly to Trump about the withheld aid. Democrats hope Sondland could undercut those arguments..

Gordon Sondland headshot, as US Ambassador to the European Union, arriving to testify before congressional lawmakers as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Trump, graphic element on gray
US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland walks to a secure area of the Capitol to testify as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, Monday, Oct. 28, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
ARCHIVO - En esta foto del 10 de julio del 2018, el presidente estadounidense Donald Trump es acompañado por Gordon Sondland, embajador ante la Unión Europea, al llegar a la Base Aérea Melsbroek, en Bruselas, Bélgica (AP Foto/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, left, and European Union Vice President Maros Sefcovic speak with reporters about trade as they travel with President Donald Trump, Tuesday, May 14, 2019, aboard Air Force One. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
Senior Advisor to the President of the United States Jared Kushner, center, and US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, right, meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at EU headquarters in Brussels, Tuesday, June 4, 2019. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, left, listens as European Union Vice President Maros Sefcovic speaks with reporters about trade as he travels with President Donald Trump, Tuesday, May 14, 2019, aboard Air Force One. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
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“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,” Holmes said.

Sondland told the president that Zelensky “loves your ass,” Holmes recounted.

“So he’s going to do the investigation?” Trump reportedly asked.

“He’s gonna do it,” replied Sondland, according to Holmes.

Sondland on that trip had conducted a private one-on-one meeting with top Zelensky adviser Andriy Yermak after the larger meetings at Ukraine’s presidential administration building. Zelensky, Sondland reportedly told Trump, would do “anything you ask him to.”

This phone call took place on July 26, one day after Trump’s phone call with Zelensky, in which the U.S. president asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate, among other things, Biden.

After Sondland finished his call with Trump, Holmes said he asked him “if it was true that the president did not ‘give a s*** about Ukraine.’” 

“Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not ‘give a s*** about Ukraine.’ I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated that the president only cares about ‘big stuff,’” Holmes said. “Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant ‘big stuff’ that benefits the president, like the Biden investigation that [Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy] Giuliani was pushing.”

Trump tweeted during the hearing, expressing skepticism that Holmes could have accurately heard what he said through Sondland’s phone.

“I have been watching people making phone calls my entire life. My hearing is, and has been, great. Never have I been watching a person making a call, which was not on speakerphone, and been able to hear or understand a conversation. I’ve even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!” the president wrote on Twitter.

But Sondland testified to the Intelligence Committee on Wednesday and verified that he had this phone call with Trump on July 26, and disputed only one detail, saying he did not remember mentioning Biden.

As for the remark to Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass,” Sondland joked: “Sounds like something I would say. That’s how President Trump and I communicate: a lot of four-letter words. Well, in this case, a three-letter word.”

Sondland testified as well that Trump directed him and others to engage Ukraine in a “quid pro quo” demanding that the Ukrainians announce “investigations” in exchange for obtaining a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump.

Other witnesses have testified that the quid pro quo also included nearly $400 million in military and diplomatic assistance that Trump ordered held back from Ukraine in July.

“While we had advised our Ukrainian counterparts to voice a commitment to following the rule of law and generally investigating credible corruption allegations, this was a demand that President Zelensky personally commit, on a cable news channel, to a specific investigation of President Trump’s political rival,” Holmes said.

Holmes gave a detailed opening statement explaining why Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, had run afoul of powerful Ukrainians for pushing hard to institute anti-corruption reforms there, and why it is important for the U.S. to support Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.

He testified next to Fiona Hill, who until this past summer was the deputy assistant to the president and senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council.

Hill gave exceptionally strong testimony rebuking Republicans on the committee for pushing a “fictional narrative” that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, an idea Trump himself has talked about.

“The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. This is the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies, confirmed in bipartisan congressional reports. It is beyond dispute, even if some of the underlying details must remain classified,” Hill said.

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the top Republican on the committee, referenced a 2018 report that Republicans on the committee released, and said it was possible two countries could interfere in an election.

Hill responded by saying that she did not mean her criticisms in a partisan way. The Russians, she said, wanted to weaken and delegitimize whoever won the 2016 election, without regard to which party it was.

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