A counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine told lawmakers last week that he was shocked to overhear a phone call in which a top diplomat assured President Trump that Ukrainian officials would pursue an investigation of interest to the U.S. commander in chief — a probe that the diplomat later suggested was of former vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s political rival.
The counselor, David Holmes, also testified that the Ukrainians “gradually came to understand that they were being asked to do something in exchange” for a White House meeting or military aid, which was held back as the president and his allies pressed for the Biden investigation, according to a transcript of his testimony released Monday.
Democrats released the transcript of Holmes’s testimony — along with that of another diplomatic official, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale — as they kicked off what will be perhaps the most intense week yet of their impeachment inquiry into whether Trump sought to engage the Ukrainians in a corrupt bargain to help him get reelected.
Nine witnesses are scheduled to testify publicly in the coming days, starting Tuesday with four current and former officials who are expected to reveal behind-the-scenes details of Trump’s and his allies’ activities, especially those of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Democrats on Monday added Holmes to their lineup for later in the week — hopeful that his colorful account will advance their case that Trump inappropriately pressed a foreign leader for a political benefit, perhaps holding up military aid or a White House meeting in the process.
Trump said Monday on Twitter that he would “strongly consider” testifying, perhaps in writing, in the probe — though the prospects of him doing so seem slim.
“Even though I did nothing wrong, and don’t like giving credibility to this No Due Process Hoax, I like the idea & will, in order to get Congress focused again, strongly consider it!” the president wrote.
Holmes is an important witness in part because he overheard a phone call between Trump and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, then chatted with Sondland afterward about Trump’s attitude toward Ukraine.
The encounter, Holmes testified, was so “extraordinary” that he immediately told his direct supervisor at the embassy, “You’re not going to believe what I just heard,” according to the transcript of his testimony.
Sondland, Holmes said, had assured Trump that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “loves your a--” and “will do anything you ask him to,” including conduct an investigation that Trump seemed to want. When the call was over, Holmes asserted, Sondland said that a probe of Biden was of greater interest to the president than other matters having to do with Ukraine.
Much of Holmes’s account already had been made public, after CNN and others obtained a copy of his opening statement. But the transcript of his testimony added noteworthy detail.
Holmes testified that he was surprised that Sondland would discuss such sensitive matters so bluntly on a call he took in Ukraine — where officials operate under the assumption that their calls are being monitored. Holmes said that when the call was over, he asked Sondland whether it was true that the president “doesn’t give a s--- about Ukraine” — because, Holmes said, “it had been very difficult for us to get the President interested in what we were trying to do in Ukraine.”
Sondland said “he only cares about big things,” Holmes testified, including “this Biden investigation that Giuliani is pushing” — but not Ukraine’s war with Russia.
In addition to raising potential issues for Trump, Holmes’s account raises questions for Sondland, who has insisted he was not aware in real time that Trump wanted an investigation of Biden in particular.
“This was an extremely distinctive experience in my Foreign Service career,” Holmes testified. “I’ve never seen anything like this, someone calling the President from a mobile phone at a restaurant, and then having a conversation of this level of candor, colorful language. There’s just so much about the call that was so remarkable that I remember it vividly.”
Hale, meanwhile, described a nebulous effort — advanced by Giuliani and conservative media outlets, and eventually endorsed by Trump himself — to smear and then remove Marie Yovanovitch from her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
Hale, the State Department’s top career official, said he thought that the effort was unfair and that Yovanovitch was doing an “exceptional” job.
He said he advocated for the department to issue a “robust” defense of her work — simultaneous with her issuing a statement of her own — but was ultimately overruled, “most likely” by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. He said he had reviewed records and determined that Pompeo and Giuliani twice had calls in the time frame when the statement was being considered, around March.
“The impression we had was that it would only fuel further negative reaction. And our plan at that point was to try to contain this and wait it out,” Hale said. He added, “One point of view was that it might even provoke a public reaction from the President himself about the Ambassador.”
Hale, though, testified that he and his fellow ambassadors at the most senior levels of the State Department had no knowledge of the effort to pressure the Ukrainians to open investigations that would be politically advantageous to the Trump administration.
Witnesses have testified throughout the inquiry that the normal channels were essentially subverted by Giuliani and others not assigned to handle diplomacy with Ukraine. Holmes said aides to Energy Secretary Rick Perry were “very aggressive in terms of promoting an agenda” in Ukraine, as well as in “excluding Embassy personnel from meetings without giving explanations.”
Holmes said he was “struck,” too, by how much the Ukrainians “seemed to not raise” the issue of investigations “with the Embassy personnel.”
“They confined that to a different track in which Mr. Yermak was very prominent,” Holmes said, referring to Andriy Yermak, a top Zelensky aide.
Trump’s Republican allies continued to attack the impeachment inquiry Monday, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asserting that he “can’t imagine a scenario” that would ultimately lead to Trump’s removal. If the House successfully impeached the president, at least two-thirds of members of the Republican-controlled Senate would have to vote for Trump’s ouster.
“I can’t imagine a scenario under which President Trump would be removed from office with 67 votes in the Senate,” McConnell said, according to a report by the Louisville Courier-Journal.
Any such vote, though, is probably still months away, as Democrats in the House have not yet even settled on what will be part of their impeachment case and what won’t. The House general counsel, for example, asserted Monday that among the topics Democrats are investigating is whether Trump lied during former special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation.
That remark came during a court hearing over lawmakers’ request to have secret grand jury evidence from the Mueller report released urgently for the impeachment inquiry.
Though Democrats have previously asserted that Trump might have lied to Mueller’s team, their allegation seemed to get renewed credence after the conviction of longtime Trump friend Roger Stone.
A high-ranking Trump campaign official testified at Stone’s trial that he overheard a conversation in which Stone and Trump seemed to discuss the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks releasing hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 campaign. That calls into question Trump’s assertion in written answers to Mueller that he remembered no such discussions with Stone.
Democratic lawmakers have privately debated whether articles of impeachment should include allegations that Trump obstructed justice in connection with Mueller’s investigation. So far, the private and public testimony they have gathered as part of the impeachment inquiry has focused on Ukraine.
On Tuesday morning, lawmakers are scheduled to question Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, European affairs director at the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, Vice President Pence’s special adviser on Europe and Russia.
Vindman was among those who listened in on Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, and he has described behind closed doors how he was so alarmed about what was said that he shared his concerns with the National Security Council’s top lawyer.
Williams also heard the call and has described what she knew about the Office of Management and Budget preventing the release of military aid to Ukraine — which Democrats believe was done so Trump would have a lever to press his counterpart in that country to investigate Biden, a potential opponent in the 2020 presidential election.
On Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers will hear from Kurt Volker, a former Trump administration envoy to Ukraine, and Tim Morrison, the former top Russia and Europe adviser on the National Security Council.
Volker has privately described how he worked with Giuliani and others to set up the phone call — and a potential White House visit for Zelensky — while pushing for the investigations the president sought. Morrison has talked of how Sondland, who is scheduled to testify Wednesday, was working at Trump’s behest in that effort.
Trump and his allies have signaled some willingness to attack those who testify, and those efforts are likely to intensify as witnesses describe on national television what they saw as possible wrongdoing in the White House. Two top officials recently enlisted by the White House to help with impeachment strategy — Pam Bondi and Tony Sayegh — urged Senate Republican aides on Monday to argue on the substance of the case against Trump, even as congressional allies continue to largely focus on perceived process fouls by Democrats.
Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) suggested in an extensive letter Monday outlining his own interactions with Trump on Ukraine that Vindman might be among a group of executive branch staffers who “have never accepted President Trump as legitimate and resent his unorthodox style and his intrusion onto their ‘turf.’ ”
“They react by leaking to the press and participating in the ongoing effort to sabotage his policies and, if possible, remove him from office,” Johnson said. “It is entirely possible that Vindman fits this profile.”