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WASHINGTON — A former top national security adviser to President Trump told Republicans in the House impeachment inquiry Thursday morning to stop advancing a “fictional narrative” that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. elections rather than Russia.
“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. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” said Fiona Hill, who until July was the deputy assistant to the president and senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council.
“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 continued.
Hill, who testified alongside State Department counselor David Holmes, told the House Intelligence Committee that the Russians have succeeded in what they set out to do in 2016, and are going to do it again in the 2020 election.
“Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined,” Hill said. “President Putin and the Russian security services operate like a super-PAC. They deploy millions of dollars to weaponize our own political opposition research and false narratives. When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each other, degrade our institutions and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.”
Hill further called herself a “nonpartisan foreign policy expert” and did not mention the Republican or Democratic parties when discussing the “false narrative,” but Republicans have pushed hard on this angle and Democrats have not.
Republicans have pointed to the supposed Ukrainian interference to explain Trump’s motive in withholding military assistance to Ukraine as well as a White House meeting from the newly elected Ukrainian president.
“In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests,” Hill told the committee.
Republicans rely largely on a handful of articles when discussing the role of Ukrainian officials in the 2016 election, starting with a Politico article in January 2017 and also including interviews with Ukrainian officials this past spring by John Solomon in The Hill.
But even the 2017 Politico article — which reported that the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. and some embassy staff had passed on incriminating information about Trump adviser Paul Manafort to a Democratic operative — noted that this was “far less concerted or centrally directed than Russia’s alleged hacking and dissemination of Democratic email” in 2016.
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.
As the hearing went on, Republicans appeared wary of engaging with Hill, whose foreign policy expertise and command of facts were on full display.
But in the latter half of the hearing, a trio of Republican committee members attempted to push back against her criticism of their focus on Ukraine, but did not want to let her respond.
Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, used most of his entire five-minute period to talk at Hill, taking issue with her critique, but did not ask any questions.
“Is there a question for Dr. Hill?” Hill’s lawyer asked Turner, who did not respond.
Soon after that, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, described his own decision to volunteer for the Army Reserve and his deployment to Iraq as a medic. He talked about his decision to accept President Bill Clinton, a Democrat whom he did not vote for, as his commander in chief.
And then he took Hill on directly.
“Dr. Hill, I’m sorry you’ve said based on statements you’ve heard that some on this committee believe that Russia did not conduct a campaign against our country,” Wenstrup said. “[That] is false.”
“We did a whole report on it. We agree that Russia has done this since the Soviet Union, and they’ve actually gotten better at it. That’s a problem. But at the same time certain Ukrainians did work against candidate Trump, some with the DNC,” he added.
Wenstrup, like Turner, did not ask Hill a question. But she asked to respond.
“Could I actually say something?” Hill asked Schiff.
When Schiff offered her a chance to speak, Wenstrup protested, throwing up his arms. “I didn’t ask a question! I yielded back! I didn’t ask a question,” Wenstrup said.
Hill, however, did not fire back at Wenstrup. She surprised him by praising him.
“I think that what Dr. Wenstrup said was very powerful about the importance of overcoming hatred and certainly partisan division,” Hill said.
She also agreed that “individuals” in Ukraine had been “taking definite positions in our elections.” And she added: “I don’t believe there should be any interference of any kind in elections. I think it was unfair for people to already call the election and to make attacks also on candidate Trump and President Trump.”
She again came back to praising Wenstrup: “I do again want to underscore what you said here, Dr. Wenstrup: It was very eloquent and very moving about your service, and trying to bring us all together again as Americans,” Hill said. “We need to be together again in 2020.”
Other witnesses before the impeachment hearings have emphasized the difference between Russia’s organized actions and those of a few Ukrainian officials, which included writing a critical op-ed, in even more stark terms.
“Those elements ... don’t seem to me to be the Ukrainian plan or a plot by the Ukrainian government to work against President Trump,” Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, said last Friday. “They’re isolated incidents.”
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a National Security Council staffer, told the committee on Tuesday that the Ukraine story is “a Russian narrative that President Putin has promoted.”
And Kurt Volker, former special envoy to Ukraine, dismissed the Ukraine interference narrative — as well as allegations that former Vice President Joe Biden acted improperly in pressuring Ukraine to fire a corrupt prosecutor — as “conspiracy theories.”
“The allegations against the [former] vice president are self-serving and not credible,” Volker said Tuesday. “Raising 2016 elections, or Vice President Biden, or these things I consider to be conspiracy theories circulated by the Ukrainians … they’re not things we should be pursuing.”
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