State Department official gives 'firsthand' account of Trump pushing for investigating Biden

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

A U.S. diplomat told Congress on Thursday that he overheard President Trump discussing the need for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden in July, and that he came forward to testify because of complaints about the lack of firsthand accounts.

David Holmes, the political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, said he had read criticisms of the impeachment inquiry “noting the lack of ‘firsthand’ evidence in the investigation and suggesting that the only evidence being elicited at the hearings was ‘hearsay.’”

That is a complaint that Republicans have lodged against many witnesses in the inquiry.

“I came to realize I had firsthand knowledge regarding certain events on July 26 that had not otherwise been reported,” Holmes told the House Intelligence Committee. Holmes said his knowledge “bore on the question of whether the president did, in fact, have knowledge that those senior officials were using the levers of our diplomatic power to induce the new Ukrainian president to announce the opening of a criminal investigation against President Trump’s political opponent [Joe Biden].”

Holmes testified in a closed-door deposition last Saturday on the details of a phone conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. But this was the first time the public could see and hear Holmes relate the conversation, and the details took on new resonance in that setting.

Holmes described eating lunch with Sondland on July 26 in Kyiv after meetings with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and other top officials there. He said he observed Sondland call the White House and then heard Trump’s voice through Sondland’s phone.

State Department official David Holmes testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. (Photo: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)

“The president’s voice was very loud and recognizable, and Ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume,” Holmes said.

Sondland told the president that Zelensky “loves your ass,” Holmes recounted.

“So he’s going to do the investigation?” Trump reportedly asked.

“He’s gonna do it,” replied Sondland, according to Holmes.

Sondland on that trip had conducted a private one-on-one meeting with top Zelensky adviser Andriy Yermak after the larger meetings at Ukraine’s presidential administration building. Zelensky, Sondland reportedly told Trump, would do “anything you ask him to.”

This phone call took place on July 26, one day after Trump’s phone call with Zelensky, in which the U.S. president asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate, among other things, Biden.

After Sondland finished his call with Trump, Holmes said he asked him “if it was true that the president did not ‘give a s*** about Ukraine.’” 

“Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not ‘give a s*** about Ukraine.’ I asked why not, and Ambassador Sondland stated that the president only cares about ‘big stuff,’” Holmes said. “Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant ‘big stuff’ that benefits the president, like the Biden investigation that [Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy] Giuliani was pushing.”

Trump tweeted during the hearing, expressing skepticism that Holmes could have accurately heard what he said through Sondland’s phone.

Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, returns from a break in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

“I have been watching people making phone calls my entire life. My hearing is, and has been, great. Never have I been watching a person making a call, which was not on speakerphone, and been able to hear or understand a conversation. I’ve even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!” the president wrote on Twitter.

But Sondland testified to the Intelligence Committee on Wednesday and verified that he had this phone call with Trump on July 26, and disputed only one detail, saying he did not remember mentioning Biden.

As for the remark to Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass,” Sondland joked: “Sounds like something I would say. That’s how President Trump and I communicate: a lot of four-letter words. Well, in this case, a three-letter word.”

Sondland testified as well that Trump directed him and others to engage Ukraine in a “quid pro quo” demanding that the Ukrainians announce “investigations” in exchange for obtaining a White House meeting between Zelensky and Trump.

Other witnesses have testified that the quid pro quo also included nearly $400 million in military and diplomatic assistance that Trump ordered held back from Ukraine in July.

“While we had advised our Ukrainian counterparts to voice a commitment to following the rule of law and generally investigating credible corruption allegations, this was a demand that President Zelensky personally commit, on a cable news channel, to a specific investigation of President Trump’s political rival,” Holmes said.

Holmes gave a detailed opening statement explaining why Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, had run afoul of powerful Ukrainians for pushing hard to institute anti-corruption reforms there, and why it is important for the U.S. to support Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression.

Former White House national security aide Fiona Hill and David Holmes, a U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, are sworn in to testify before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday. (Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP)

He testified next to Fiona Hill, who until this past summer was the deputy assistant to the president and senior director for Europe and Russia on the National Security Council.

Hill gave exceptionally strong testimony rebuking Republicans on the committee for pushing a “fictional narrative” that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election, an idea Trump himself has talked about.

“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 said.

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.

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