Two key impeachment witnesses testify

By Veronica Rocha and Meg Wagner, CNN

Updated 7:58 p.m. ET, November 21, 2019
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9:04 a.m. ET, November 21, 2019

Trump keeps saying "I want nothing." But that's not all the President has said.

From CNN's Marshall Cohen

“I want nothing” seems to be Trump’s new mantra — but the defense doesn't entirely stand up. Witnesses have testified that there were, in fact, conditions on official actions.

He said it repeatedly in a gaggle with reporters yesterday. He tweeted the phrase as well, and re-tweeted Republican lawmakers who used the quote. And Republicans on the House Intel Committee are displaying a large sign with the quote ahead of the evening hearing with State Department official David Hale and Pentagon official Laura Cooper. 

Where this phrase comes from: It's from Trump’s Sept. 9 phone call with Gordon Sondland, when Sondland asked him what he wanted from Ukraine in exchange for lifting the freeze on US military assistance. But that call happened after the White House had already been made aware of the whistleblower complaint at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

“It was a very short, abrupt conversation,” Sondland said. “He was not in a good mood. And he just said I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing.”

Despite the rhetoric, Trump’s "I want nothing" mantra doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Sondland himself testified that there were conditions on official actions, like a White House invitation for Ukraine’s new leader Volodymyr Zelensky. The conditions were that Zelensky publicly announce investigations into the Bidens and into conspiracies about the 2016 election. 

Other witnesses – like former White House aide Alexander Vindman and US diplomat Bill Taylor — testified that they understood that those public announcements needed to happen before the White House would release the military aid.

Also, the “I want nothing” defense falls flat when compared with comments last month from White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaeny, who brazenly admitted that the military aid was withheld until Ukraine helped with the investigation into 2016. 

It could be a strong talking point – it’s a simple phrase that Trump can inject into the conversation. But it’s not accurate. 

8:47 a.m. ET, November 21, 2019

David Holmes just arrived at the US Capitol

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Jacquelyn Martin/AP

David Holmes, counselor for political affairs at the US Embassy in Ukraine, just arrived at the US Capitol ahead of today's impeachment inquiry hearing.

He's expected to testify at 9 a.m. ET alongside Fiona Hill, the White House's former top Russia expert.

Holmes previously testified behind closed doors that he overheard a key conversation between Gordon Sondland and President Trump.

8:36 a.m. ET, November 21, 2019

Trump's been having weekly lunches with GOP senators during the impeachment inquiry

From CNN's Betsy Klein and Ted Barrett

President Trump has been having weekly lunches with small groups of GOP senators as the impeachment inquiry has been underway. 

There will be another lunch today in the Cabinet Room, according to a source familiar. 

Utah Sen. Mitt Romney is confirmed to attend today’s lunch, according to an aide. Maine Sen. Susan Collins will also be there, a source familiar with her plans said.

8:33 a.m. ET, November 21, 2019

Fiona Hill just arrived on Capitol Hill

CNN
CNN

Former top White House official Fiona Hill just arrived at the US Capitol ahead of today's impeachment inquiry hearing.

She's expected to testify at 9 a.m. ET. David Holmes, the counselor for political affairs at the US Embassy in Ukraine, is scheduled to appear alongside her.

8:15 a.m. ET, November 21, 2019

Trump: "I never in my wildest dreams thought" I'd be impeached

President Trump again tweeted that his July 25 call with Ukraine's president was “perfect," and he's continuing to rail against congressional Democrats.

In his latest tweet, he lamented that he “never in my wildest dreams thought my name would in any way be associated with the ugly word, Impeachment!”

Remember: Trump is the fourth US president to face an impeachment inquiry.

7:48 a.m. ET, November 21, 2019

One of today's witnesses will reject GOP claim that Ukraine meddled in US politics

From CNN's Manu Raju and Jeremy Herb

A former top White House official will today offer a full-throated rebuttal to the narrative pushed by President Trump and his GOP allies about Ukraine's role meddling in American politics, according to a source familiar with her testimony.

Fiona Hill, who served as Trump's top Russia adviser until she left the administration this summer, will also warn the House Intelligence Committee as part of the impeachment inquiry that the Kremlin is prepared to strike again in 2020 and remains a serious threat to American democracy that the United States must seek to combat, the source said.

In her brief opening statement, Hill will offer a strong pushback to the claims peddled by Trump, his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and some congressional Republicans that Ukraine may have interfered in the 2016 elections to help Hillary Clinton.

Hill is scheduled to testify at 9 a.m. ET.

6:35 a.m. ET, November 21, 2019

5 key takeaways from Gordon Sondland's bombshell testimony yesterday

From CNN's Marshall Cohen, Ellie Kaufman and Lauren Fox

US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland changed the course of the House impeachment inquiry on Wednesday.

Here are five takeaways from Sondland's testimony:

  • Sondland pressed Ukraine at Trump's direction: In his opening statement and throughout his testimony, Sondland said he was working with President Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the "express direction of the President of the United States." Sondland recounted several conversations between himself and Trump about Ukraine opening two investigations: one into Burisma, a company where former Vice President Joe Biden's son was on the board, and another into conspiracies about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 US election.
  • "Everyone knew" about the quid pro quo: In clear terms, Sondland confirmed for all to see that there was a quid pro quo with Ukraine, that Trump withheld a White House meeting until Ukraine launched investigations into the Bidens. "I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a quid pro quo?" Sondland said. "As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes."
  • Sondland implicated Pence, Pompeo and Mulvaney: Republicans have argued that Giuliani could have been running a shadow foreign policy without the involvement or knowledge of other senior White House and State Department officials, but Sondland contradicted that several times in his testimony. He said "everyone" in the State Department was aware. He also implicated key White House officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, who also directs the Office of Management and Budget.
  • Splitting hairs over Biden versus Burisma: Under aggressive questioning from Democrats, Sondland refused to say he realized that Trump was asking Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. He wouldn't go there. Instead, he said he knew only that Trump and Giuliani wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to probe Burisma. "With 20/20 hindsight, now that we have the transcript of the call, the Bidens were clearly mentioned on the call," Sondland said, referring to Trump's July 25 phone call with Zelensky, where he mentioned the Bidens by name. "But I wasn't making the connection with the Bidens."
  • The investigations were really about politics: During the hearing, Sondland undercut a key Trump defense and simultaneously confirmed a claim from the whistleblower complaint that triggered the impeachment inquiry. Zelensky "had to announce the investigations," Sondland said, referring to the probes into Biden's family and the 2016 election. "He didn't actually have to do them, as I understood it."

6:30 a.m. ET, November 21, 2019

These are the two impeachment witnesses testifying today

Fiona Hill, President Trump's former top Russia adviser, and David Holmes, the counselor for political affairs at the US Embassy in Ukraine, are testifying together publicly today before the House Intelligence Committee in the Democrat-led impeachment inquiry into Trump.

The hearing is scheduled to start at 9 a.m. ET.

Here's what we know about Hill and Holmes:

About Hill: A former national security official, Hill served in the Trump administration from April 2017 until July of this year. During her time with the National Security Council, she oversaw rocky Washington-Moscow ties, and her views sometimes seemed at odds with Trump's desire to improve relations with Russian President Vladimir Putin whom he has praised on multiple occasions.

In her previous deposition, Hill said US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland told Ukrainian officials in meetings on July 10 they would have to open an investigation to secure a meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

About Holmes: Holmes is a career foreign service officer who arrived in Ukraine in 2017, according to a source who knows him and describes him as a "sharp guy." He joined the foreign service in 2002, according to the American Foreign Service Association, and has previously served in Kabul, New Delhi, Kosovo, Bogota, Moscow and Kosovo.

He told lawmakers during a closed-door deposition that he overheard a conversation between President Trump and Ambassador Gordon Sondland the day after Trump spoke with the Ukrainian president by phone in July, CNN previously reported. Holmes heard Trump ask Sondland on the call if the Ukrainians were going to "do the investigation," and Sondland responded, "He's gonna do it."