Two key impeachment witnesses testify

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9:21 a.m. ET, November 21, 2019

Fiona Hill rejects Trump-backed conspiracy on Ukraine meddling

From CNN's Marshall Cohen and Olanma Mang

Pool
Pool

Former White House adviser Fiona Hill will forcefully reject Trump-backed conspiracies that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 election, throwing cold water on a theory promoted by President Trump and Republicans in Congress.

Hill joins a growing list of at least eight witnesses in the impeachment inquiry who testified that Ukraine did not interfere in the 2016 election, or said that they aren’t aware of any evidence to prove that conspiracy theory.

“Based on questions and statements I have heard, 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,” she will say, according to her opening statement. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.” 

She will continue: “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a US adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016.”

More on this: Many Republicans on the committee, led by GOP Rep. Devin Nunes, have embraced the debunked theory that Ukraine meddled in 2016 and colluded with the Democrats to defeat Trump. Nunes has mentioned some version of this theory at every hearing — in his opening statements, while questioning witnesses, and in his closing remarks.

The director Director of National Intelligence, FBI, Department of Justice, CIA, and National Security Agency concluded that it was Russia who interfered in the 2016 election. That was confirmed again by inquiries from two Congressional committees, including the GOP-led House Intelligence Committee in 2018. 

Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation also confirmed these conclusions. His 448-page report pinned the blame on the Russian government and never accused Ukraine of any interference. Many of Trump’s handpicked appointees to lead US intelligence agencies, including the CIA and FBI, also say it was Russia who meddled in 2016. 

9:07 a.m. ET, November 21, 2019

The hearing just started

Today's House Intelligence Committee hearing just started.

Fiona Hill, the White House's former Russia expert, and David Holmes, counselor for political affairs at the US Embassy in Ukraine, will testify.

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."