GOP's closed-door conspiracy theory led to Hill's public rebuke

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON — Fiona Hill rebuked Republicans last week in an impeachment inquiry hearing for pushing a “false narrative” about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election, referencing remarks made during her prior closed-door testimony.

“I was very worried about the turn that some of the questions were taking,” Hill, who was President Trump’s top Russia adviser until July, told the House Intelligence Committee during the public hearing.

Republicans on the committee, taken aback by Hill’s remarkable broadside, were at pains to say that they were not denying Russia had interfered in the 2016 elections.

“We agree that Russia has done this since the Soviet Union, and they’ve actually gotten better at it. That’s a problem,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Texas. “But at the same time, certain Ukrainians did work against candidate Trump, some with the [Democratic National Committee].”

But it was the very way that Wenstrup couched his assertion there — creating a false equivalence between Russia’s massive, systematic, government-driven campaign in 2016 and the actions of a few Ukrainian individuals — that created Hill’s concern in the first place, in her marathon, 10-hour, closed-door deposition on Oct. 14.

On that day, Republicans didn’t broach the topic of Ukrainian actions in 2016 until midafternoon, but it then dominated much of the rest of the day. The first mention of it came on page 167 of the 445-page transcript, when Republican committee lawyer Steve Castor asked Hill if she was aware of a January 2017 article in Politico “about Ukrainians’ efforts to affect the outcome of the election, the U.S. election?”

Fiona Hill, former top Russia adviser to the White House, testifies in the impeachment inquiry of President Trump on Nov. 21. (Photo: Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“I’m aware of the articles,” Hill said. “And I am very confident, based on all of the analysis that has been done and — again, I don’t want to start getting into intelligence matters — that the Ukrainian government did not interfere in our election in 2016.”

At one point, Hill even appeared to intimate that the Politico article was contradicted by classified information that she could not publicly discuss.

“This is why, you know, perhaps I’ve been a little harsher in my responses to the questions about the Politico piece and things about Ukraine because I have a lot of classified information that leads in other directions, and, obviously, I can’t share those,” she said.

Kenneth Vogel, who co-wrote the Politico story, stood by his reporting in recent comments to the Washington Post.

Hill dismissed the importance of a meeting between the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S. at the time — Valeriy Chaly — with Alexandra Chalupa, a Democratic operative who was in contract with the DNC, to discuss Paul Manafort, an American political operative who had worked for years for pro-Russian Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort was hired on March 29, 2016, as Trump’s campaign manager.

“Can I also say that in my past life at [the] Brookings [Institution], a think tank, I must have had about 25 different people from all kinds of different backgrounds coming to try to use me as a conduit to various campaigns, Republican and Democrat, given my experience and links, from Ukrainian, Belarusian, Georgian, Russian, all trying to make contact with the campaigns,” Hill said. “I could write a million articles like that, putting all kinds of people’s names out there, based on just the contacts of people that I had.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. (Photo: Michael Brochstein/Echoes Wire/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Republicans on the Intelligence Committee wanted to call Chalupa as a witness and complained that the committee’s chairman, Adam Schiff, D-Calif., would not do so.

Other than the meeting with Chalupa and debate over the “black ledger” — a handwritten document found in Ukraine showing payments by Yanukovych’s party to then-Trump campaign manager Manafort — the Republicans are largely basing their allegations of Ukrainian interference on critical comments of Trump by Ukrainian officials. As the New Yorker’s Susan Glasser put it, these were “Ukrainian expressions of dismay that Trump publicly backed the country with which they are at war [Russia] and employed as his campaign chair a man [Manafort] who had worked for their ousted, corrupt, Russian-backed leader.”

Republicans continued to push Hill in the deposition, however.

“You concluded Ukraine did not interfere in the U.S. election?” Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., asked her.

Hill was crystal clear. “The Ukrainian government did not interfere in the U.S. election. The Ukrainian government did not do that. The Ukrainian special services also did not interfere in our election,” she said.

Multiple reports produced by the highest levels of the U.S. government have concluded that, as the January 2017 report by the CIA, FBI and NSA stated, “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the U.S. presidential election.”

The report issued by special counsel Robert Mueller this past spring found that “the Russian government interfered in the 2016 presidential election in sweeping and systematic fashion.”

And yet President Trump continues to take the matter of Ukrainian actions in 2016 beyond even where any of the Republicans in the impeachment hearings were willing to go.

Last Friday, during a nearly hourlong phone interview on “Fox & Friends,” Trump continued to hint that it might not have been the Russians who hacked the DNC servers in 2016 and then laundered it into the American news cycle through WikiLeaks. He has continued to talk about CrowdStrike, a conspiracy theory that the Ukrainians may have had something to do with the hacking of the DNC.

Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images

“I still want to see that server. The FBI has never gotten that server. That’s a big part of this whole thing. Why did they give it to a Ukrainian company?” Trump said.

House Republicans did not mention CrowdStrike during the impeachment hearings. But it was clear from Hill’s comments that she viewed their false equivalence between the sweeping Russian interference and the actions of a few Ukrainians as giving cover to Trump’s conspiracy-theory promotion.

“As Republicans and Democrats have agreed for decades, Ukraine is a valued partner of the United States, and it plays an important role in our national security. And as I told this committee last month, I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016,” Hill said in the open hearing.

As she said in her deposition, “If we start down this path — not discounting what one individual or a couple of individuals might have done — ahead of our 2020 elections, we are setting ourselves up for the same kind of failures and intelligence failures that we had before.”

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