Hill, Holmes impeachment hearing: Experts beat crackpots on Trump, Russia and Ukraine

Tom Nichols, Opinion columnist

The duel in the House Intelligence committee between the experts and the crackpots finally reached its natural conclusion with the testimony of Fiona Hill and David Holmes. It did not end well for the conspiracy theorists.

Hill, one of the world’s foremost authorities of her generation on Russia, stared down the House Republicans and told them, in no uncertain terms, that theories about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 were not only ridiculous, it's also a narrative perpetrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s security services. Holmes, a career diplomat, erased any obfuscation about what the president ordered, and why he ordered it.

Hill’s testimony makes it seem almost unthinkable that she once walked the halls of Donald Trump’s White House, and one can only marvel that she lasted on Trump’s National Security Council as long as she did. Obviously, Trump didn’t listen to her about anything regarding Russia, but like so many Russia experts, she knows what happened in the 2016 election, what’s happening right now in Ukraine and what is likely to happen again in 2020.

Conspiracies and gobbledygook

Hill issued a stark warning that to repeat the conspiracy theories about Ukraine was to be, in effect, Putin’s dupe. Unfortunately, the GOP long ago decided to sign on for that job, and Hill’s  challenge didn’t have much effect on ranking member Devin Nunes, who set the tone for the day by immediately repeating those same conspiracy theories. Once he had hummed a few bars, the rest of the GOP band joined in as they played the greatest hits, including the Steele dossier, Bruce and Nellie Ohr and Fusion GPS.

None of that stopped Hill and Holmes from politely blowing up the last of the Republican defenses. Trump’s sycophants on the House Intelligence Committee have tried to cover a simple story — that the president of the United States hijacked the machinery of government and derailed our national security policy for his own personal gain — in a blanket of gobbledygook comprehensible only to the faithful initiates at Fox News and other right-wing fever swamps.

Fiona Hill and David Holmes testify in Washington on Nov. 21, 2019.

Hill, in particular, made it clear once and for all that dedicated American public servants were trying to carry out what they believed to be the president’s foreign policy. What those appointees, military officers and government employees soon found, however, was that the president had two policies, which were in direct opposition to each other. One was meant to be busywork, a public waste of time; the other reflected what the president really wanted done.

In a remarkable moment, Hill was even mildly regretful for blowing up at Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union; she thought he was running loose but soon realized he was in fact working on the president’s instructions. Hill thought they were working on the same thing: U.S. security assistance to Ukraine. In fact, Sondland had been secretly tasked by the president with engaging in illegal and impeachable attempts to extort political favors from Ukraine in exchange for official U.S. acts, ranging from military aid to an Oval Office meeting.

Shaking down a friend at war

Holmes’ testimony was, in some ways, more disturbing. A career foreign service officer, Holmes was under the Trump radar in Ukraine and thus became an accidental witness to the criminal enterprise hatched in the Oval Office when Sondland decided to have a loud public phone conversation with the president in a public place in a foreign country.

Holmes did not tell us anything new. After all, we now have the testimony of Sondland himself, in which Sondland nailed everyone from Trump on down, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. (Sondland was like a more chipper version of Ray Liotta at the end of "Goodfellas," after he was asked to identify his fellow mobsters and he pointed across the courtroom at his former friends.)

Lead Iran deal negotiator: Sondland's impeachment testimony proves Trump foreign policy is run by corrupt clowns

Sondland has already told us that the whole plot to shake down the Ukrainians originated with the president and his lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, who has fallen from his days as “America’s Mayor” to a role as Trump’s faithful Renfield, skulking about as a toxic presence among far more serious and honorable people trying to conduct the business of the United States.

What was most disturbing was not the direct connection to the president overheard by Holmes, but the glib admission that Trump and his coterie do not care, to put it mildly, about Ukraine. A war is underway in Central Europe, with Russia attacking an American friend and partner within shooting distance of NATO. This is a situation so dangerous that Barack Obama’s administration was cautious — too timid, in my view — about confronting Moscow over a war of open aggression and conquest.

Ukraine could erupt into WW III

When Trump took over, he and the GOP theoretically enacted a better and more confrontational policy that included military aid to Ukraine. But that new policy was a sham; Hill and Holmes, with discipline and candor, made it clear that in fact Giuliani and Sondland, among others, were conducting a shadow operation designed to thwart the people who were trying to execute what, at the time, was stated U.S. government policy.

The Ukraine situation could erupt into World War III. The people and Congress of the United States enacted a law to help Ukraine defend itself. But all Donald Trump wanted out of it was an announcement on American television that Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden was under investigation by a foreign country.

Former U.S. attorney: Gordon Sondland’s impeachment testimony on Trump and Ukraine adds up to bribery

There is no denying any of this anymore, and the Republicans are no longer even bothering to pretend that the attempted extortion of a friend didn’t happen. They have instead dumped a mushy, rancid pile of conspiracy theories and a jumble of names most of them don’t understand onto a situation shot through with moral clarity.

Very few people in Washington know Russia and Ukraine as well as Hill and Holmes. They have told us that we are going down the road the Kremlin has gladly paved for us, while a war drags on in Europe and our elections face yet another attack from enemy intelligence services. But Donald Trump, his servile party and his resolutely cultish followers have never wanted to hear from honest experts, and they are unlikely to start now.

Tom Nichols, an expert on Russia and national security, is a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors and author of "The Death of Expertise." Follow him on Twitter: @RadioFreeTom

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump impeachment: Russia experts destroy Republican conspiracy theories