Hill Calls Investigations A "Domestic Political Errand"; Holmes Details Trump Call In what may be the final day of public hearings, members of Congress heard from a former White House policy insider and a foreign service officer who said he overheard a call with President Trump. In this episode: political correspondent Scott Detrow, Congressional correspondent Susan Davis, and justice correspondent Ryan Lucas.

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Hill Calls Investigations A "Domestic Political Errand"; Holmes Details Trump Call

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Hill Calls Investigations A "Domestic Political Errand"; Holmes Details Trump Call

Hill Calls Investigations A "Domestic Political Errand"; Holmes Details Trump Call

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AVA: This is Ava (ph)...

LEA: Lea (ph).

CALEB: And Caleb (ph).

LEA: And currently, we're in line at the last impeachment hearing.

AVA: We're going to hear the testimony of Fiona Hill and David Holmes.

CALEB: This podcast was recorded at...


2:40 Eastern on Thursday, November 21.

CALEB: Things may have changed by the time you hear this. But one thing's for certain - our feet are probably still going to be sore from waiting in line for literally hours.


SUSAN DAVIS, BYLINE: Now they know what it's like to be a reporter on stakeout...

DETROW: (Laughter).

DAVIS: ...Standing in these hallways for hours on end. I feel you guys.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: The knees hurt. I hope they got in.

DAVIS: I hope they did, too. It's very limited attendance and a lot of demand.

DETROW: Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the campaign.

LUCAS: I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.


ADAM SCHIFF: The committee will come to order.

DETROW: So this could be and probably will be - but we don't know for sure - the final day of impeachment testimony.


SCHIFF: If you would please rise, raise your right hand, I will begin by swearing you in.

DETROW: We heard from David Holmes, a State Department staffer in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine...


DAVID HOLMES: While it is an honor to appear before you today, I want to make clear that I did not seek this opportunity to testify today.

DETROW: ...And from former top National Security Council director for Europe and Russia, Fiona Hill.


FIONA HILL: Mr. Chairman, ranking member Nunes and members of the committee, thank you for inviting me to testify before you today. I have a short opening statement.

DETROW: So let's start with this. These are not people we've spent a ton of time talking about on the podcast, unlike a Mr. Ambassador Gordon Sondland. What were lawmakers hoping to hear from Holmes and Hill today? Why were they called up?

DAVIS: Well, Holmes was sort of a late entry to this narrative of impeachment. We didn't even know about him or who he was until Bill Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, testified last week.

David Holmes is a staffer in the embassy who worked for former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and then also reported to Bill Taylor, in which he recounted to Taylor, which he first made the public aware of in his testimony, that the day after the July 25 phone call between President Trump and Ukrainian President Zelenskiy, David Holmes went to lunch with another familiar character in the story, EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland. And Holmes overheard a conversation between Sondland and President Trump in which the president - he hears the president ask directly about the status of those investigations that he was seeking.


HOLMES: Yeah. He clarified whether he was in Ukraine or not. And he said, yes, I'm here in Ukraine. And then Ambassador Sondland said, he loves your a**. He'll do anything you want. He said, is he going to do the investigation?

LUCAS: He was also asked at a certain point, you know, why do you remember this so clearly? And he explains it, lays it all out.


HOLMES: This was a very distinctive experience. In my - I've never seen anything like this in my foreign service career - someone at a lunch in a restaurant making a call on a cellphone to the president of the United States, being able to hear his voice, his very distinctive personality, as we've all seen him on television. Very colorful language was used. They were directly addressing something that I had been wondering about working on for weeks and even months.

DETROW: And the other thing that was interesting to me about Holmes is that he seemed to first be called to testify to talk about this specific instance. But then he sits down, and he has a lot to say - a lot to say - like, a very long opening statement about the broader picture here and what he saw going on at the president's orders or from what he thought were the president's orders.


HOLMES: The three priorities of security, economy and justice and our support for Ukrainian democratic resistance to Russian aggression became overshadowed by a political agenda promoted by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and a cadre of officials operating with a direct channel to the White House.

DAVIS: I mean, again, he is one more witness who has testified - Gordon Sondland is another one, Kurt Volker is another one, Bill Taylor is another one - who all testified as seeing Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, as a troublesome, meddlesome or worrisome figure in the course of trying to enact U.S.-Ukraine policy as they understood it as official U.S. policy.

DETROW: So those are the main headlines from Holmes. But I think the person who got more attention today is Fiona Hill. And before we dig into what she said about Ukraine and the pressure campaign, I thought it was interesting that this is yet another immigrant or son or daughter of immigrants who has been front and center in testimony this week. This has just been a really interesting broader theme.

DAVIS: That's right. She's British-born. She has I think what to Americans might sound like a very fancy British accent. But, as she made clear in her testimony, she is apparently from a place in Britain where it's sort of seen as, like, a lower-class accent. I do not speak varying degrees of British accents...

DETROW: (Laughter).

DAVIS: ...But it was interesting.

LUCAS: It's a northeastern English accent.

DAVIS: Yeah. But I guess it's more of, like, a working-class accent. Apparently, that's a thing.

DETROW: Not an accent featured prominently in Season 3 of "The Crown."


HILL: Years later, I can say with confidence that this country has offered me opportunities I never would have had in England. I grew up poor, with a very distinctive working-class accent.

DAVIS: And Hill joins people like Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman and former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch as foreign-born people who became naturalized citizens and have essentially spent their lives serving the country - their second country, their adopted country.

DETROW: So Hill filled in a lot of details about what happened over the course of the summer and really describes this gradual collision between the National Security Council staffers' foreign policy advisers and people like Sondland, who were more focused on trying to pressure Ukraine into announcing this investigation into Biden in 2016. She used a lot of colorful language, mostly by quoting former Ambassador John Bolton, the national security adviser at the time, talking about Rudy Giuliani throwing a hand grenade into everything.


HILL: And he then, in the course of that discussion, said that Rudy Giuliani was a hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up.

DANIEL GOLDMAN: Did you understand what he meant by that?

HILL: I did, actually.

GOLDMAN: What did he mean?

HILL: Well, I think he meant that obviously what Mr. Giuliani was saying was pretty explosive in any case. He was frequently on television making quite incendiary remarks about everyone involved in this, and that he was clearly pushing forward issues and ideas that would, you know, probably come back to haunt us. And, in fact, I think that that's where we are today.

DETROW: So did we learn anything new from Hill?

DAVIS: One thing that she did talk about that I thought was one of the moments in the testimony that I think people will probably see replaying on their televisions too is that she talked about Gordon Sondland because they had these kind of contradictory testimonies about who was the irregular channel, who was the official channel. And she offered this rather lengthy statement today in which - I don't want to say - she didn't apologize to Gordon Sondland, but she essentially said, after understanding what he said and what he was working on, it was further clear to her that he was working at the behest of the president. She just wasn't aware of that. And then it became very clear to her that there were these two channels. But she couldn't get mad at him because she thought he was trying to subvert her...


HILL: Because he was being involved in a domestic political errand, and we were being involved in national security foreign policy, and those two things had just diverged. So he was correct, and I had not put my finger on that at that - at the moment. But I was irritated with him and angry with him that he wasn't fully coordinating.

DAVIS: You can hear why Democrats wanted Fiona Hill to be potentially their closing witness. David Holmes was added late to the schedule. Originally, they had planned just to have her solo. As - you know, as of right now, we have no more further depositions or public witnesses to go. There could be more announced. But as of right now, she could be the final word on this.

And I think her speaking to the broader national security concerns are a point that Democrats want to land on politically because the question of impeachment is going to go to this sort of big idea of, was the president, you know, hurting national security for his own political interests?

LUCAS: Yes. This was definitely the most succint summation that we have had from one of the witnesses about the problem with this alternative channel and the fact that you heard her say that Gordon Sondland - what he was doing was all signed off on by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, by the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney. Those people were keyed in on it.

But it was a domestic political errand, whereas the national security folks and National Security Council, State Department, the other people that we have heard from testifying about the problem with this irregular channel - they were working on national security. Those are two very different things, and that's a question that Republicans are going to struggle to push back against.

DETROW: OK. We're going to take a quick break. When we come back, we'll talk about how Republicans responded to Hill. And we're also going to talk about what comes next after all these public hearings.


DETROW: OK, we're back. One of the big themes of the hearings this week has been Republicans and Democrats, like, getting two alternate universes of facts out of these hearings. And I feel like Gordon Sondland's testimony yesterday was the most extreme example. How did Republicans respond to what Hill had to say today?

DAVIS: Well, you saw the ranking member, Devin Nunes, on the committee engage in this exchange with her, which goes to the core of the Republican defense. You know, Republicans aren't really disputing that the events at hand happened. We're all in kind of agreement on the basic timeline and the basic facts.

Their argument, broadly, has been, sure, the president did these things. Sure, the president has taken actions that upset these career officials in the national security community. But he's the president. The commander in chief sets the foreign policy. And these are his prerogatives. They're not essentially impeachable offenses.

And Devin Nunes essentially said that to her. Isn't this just the right of the president to decide policy as he sees fit? And she had this response where she said, sure. Look. That is the prerogative of the president. But if that was the prerogative in the foreign policy direction of the United States, he didn't tell any of the people who are charged with enacting that very foreign policy.

DETROW: And then we also heard more of what we've been hearing all week - this argument that there was no quid pro quo here because, of course, the aid was released, and there was no investigation. Therefore, how can it be pressure? Jim Jordan, who has been leading the attacks all week for Republicans, made that point today.


JIM JORDAN: To get the call, to get the meeting and to get the money, there had to be an announcement. They got the call. They got the meeting. They got the money. And there was no announcement. That's as clear as it gets, and the American people see that.

DAVIS: I think that is going to be the key defense going forward. If this is the end of the public phase, I think you're going to hear that over and over and over. The things that they wanted didn't happen, ergo not impeachable offense.

LUCAS: Now, he's leaving out a bit of context, to be...

DAVIS: Just a little bit.

LUCAS: (Laughter).

DAVIS: Just a little bit.

LUCAS: So, yes, the Ukrainians did indeed get a call with the White House on July 25. That did happen. They did get the money on September 11, after a 55-day hold for which the White House has yet to provide a reason behind the hold to anyone involved in the government or in the public. And they released the hold on September 11 only after Congress began investigating Rudy Giuliani and the president's efforts to get Ukraine to launch investigations into the Bidens. When there was growing political pressure on the administration on this very question is when that aid was released. That is important context.

There's also an important aspect to this that Jordan didn't get into in that clip there but that has been a frequent point that we have heard from Republicans, which is, Zelenskiy hasn't complained about pressure. The Ukrainians say that everything's fine. There's been no problem here. What Holmes said is that, you know, yes, they may have said that, but Ukraine still needs the United States. Ukraine still needs a good relationship with the Trump administration because they need American support in the conflict with Russia. They need American political and military support in that conflict.

And they're not really in a position where they can just slap the Trump administration in the face and say full-throatedly that there is something wrong with this relationship - which isn't to say that there is something wrong. But you can't take Ukrainian statements necessarily at face value on this issue.

DETROW: So let's shift to two of Sue's favorite things to talk about, timelines...

DAVIS: Oh, yeah.

DETROW: ...And politics. And let's add holidays and congressional schedules. And, you know, I don't know what else we can...

DAVIS: It's my wheelhouse.


DETROW: So they're leaving for a week. We've got Thanksgiving coming up. I'm excited about Thanksgiving, but that's not the point of this. What happens next? Are we done with public hearings - at least, in the intelligence committee?

DAVIS: So I talked to Joaquin Castro - he's a Democrat on the intelligence committee - about this today. The short answer is, no one really knows. But what he said was, is - and he's on the committee - that they have no more plans for depositions or public hearings. He essentially said, everyone we know we can hear from, we've heard from. There's a lot of people the committee would like to hear from that haven't come forward - people like acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney or former national security adviser John Bolton. So there's a lot of big questions still about next steps and how this is going to play out.

DETROW: All right. So a lot happened this week. We were on live radio for a good chunk of this week. There is a lot to process and talk about in a big-picture way. Luckily, we have a weekly roundup for that, and that is exactly what we will do tomorrow. We'll be back in your feed with that.

We also have two live shows coming up, one in Chicago on January 10, another one at Drew University in Madison, N.J. That is on January 22. You can get a ticket at nprpresents.org.

I'm Scott Detrow. I cover the campaign.

LUCAS: I'm Ryan Lucas. I cover the Justice Department.

DAVIS: And I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.

DETROW: Thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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