Fiona Hill’s impeachment testimony bolsters the whistleblower’s claims
President Donald Trump insists that his and his team’s actions toward Ukraine were nothing short of “perfect.” But Fiona Hill, who until July directed Russian and European affairs for the National Security Council (NSC), blew yet another hole in the White House’s shaky defense Monday.
Hill met for over nine hours with congressional staff as part of the House Democrat-led impeachment inquiry, kicked off by allegations last month from a whistleblower who said Trump linked held-up military aid Ukraine wanted to start an investigation into Joe Biden’s family.
What she described is startling: a top US diplomat close to Trump pressuring Ukrainians to investigate the Bidens; national security adviser John Bolton freaking out over the meeting and even once calling Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, a “hand grenade.”
Trump and his allies claim Joe used his power as vice president to get a Ukrainian prosecutor fired for investigating a Ukrainian company, Burisma, which his son Hunter Biden sat on the board of. That narrative has long been debunked, and even some top Republicans refute that story, noting many US leaders and European governments at the time wanted the prosecutor gone for failing to combat corruption in Ukraine.
As a leader inside the White House on Ukraine policy, Hill would definitely know if Trump or others in his orbit, especially Giuliani, acted inappropriately toward Ukraine. From what she told Congress, it looks like they definitely did.
What Hill told Congress about Trump and Ukraine
Hill, the first former White House official to testify in the impeachment inquiry, noted two episodes that will certainly intrigue House Democrats.
First, Hill recounted a July 10 meeting with senior Ukrainian officials that she, Bolton, and US ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland attended. Per her testimony, Sondland brought up the investigation, leaving those in the room with no doubt that he wanted the Ukrainians to look into the Bidens. Bolton afterward told Hill to speak with top NSC lawyer John Eisenberg about his discomfort with what Sondland said and the Ukraine plan he, Giuliani, and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were executing.
“I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Bolton told Hill, according to the New York Times on Monday night. Apparently, Bolton was already upset at Giuliani for his Ukraine work. “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up,” Hill recalled Bolton saying in a previous conversation.
This is a big deal. Not only did Hill outline a meeting in which investigating the Bidens came up, but also it so worried Bolton — the White House’s top national security aide — that he dispatched her to tell a lawyer. That’s not a normal thing that happens in the White House. Usually such sensitive meetings are carried out with strict, by-the-book talking points that in theory shouldn’t be overly controversial. The July 10 chat was clearly the opposite of that.
Second, Hill noted an undated conversation she had with Sondland in which the ambassador said he was leading Ukraine policy. When she asked under whose authority, he said the president’s.
Again, that’s striking. As the lead for European policy in the NSC, spearheading Trump’s Ukraine stance is actually Hill’s job (along with top diplomats at the State Department and the Pentagon who have that portfolio). Sondland is responsible for the European Union, which notably doesn’t feature Ukraine as a member. For Trump to personally give Sondland the authority to deal with Ukraine implies either the president’s great trust in the ambassador and/or a desire to keep a secretive plan out of expected channels.
It’s worth remembering that Sondland has long been a suspicious character in the Trump-Ukraine drama. As the House inquiry uncovered earlier this month, when the lead US diplomat for Ukraine Bill Taylor texted Sondland in September and asked if the military aid was “conditioned on investigations” and a presidential meeting, his simple response read “Call me.”
Put together, Hill’s testimony doesn’t just add to the file of Sondland’s sketchy actions, it also helps corroborate what the whistleblower alleged about the Trump administration.
Trump says the whistleblower is wrong, but the facts keep proving the whistleblower right
The whistleblower, who reportedly worked for the CIA and for a time the Trump White House, filed his complaint about Trump’s handling of Ukraine back in August. Partially redacted, House Democrats released it the public on September 26, and it lit a firestorm in Washington.
Trump repeatedly attacks the whistleblower by saying he got the Ukraine facts wrong. The problem for the president is that the main allegations the whistleblower made have so far proven true, in part thanks to Hill’s testimony: Trump’s Ukraine policy seems to be tied to his own personal gain, and that White House officials were freaked out by it. It should be noted, though, that Zelensky denies feeling pressured by Trump or the US.
(The whistleblower’s complaint included a third main allegation, that the previous ambassador to Ukraine was pressured out to make way for new demands on Ukraine, but Hill’s testimony didn’t touch on that allegation, as far as we know).
Here’s how her testimony adds to the corroboration we already have for two of the whistleblower’s allegations:
Allegation No. 1: Trump pressured Ukraine’s president to investigate the Bidens
The whistleblower notes early in the nine-page complaint that Trump used a July 25 phone call to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to have his administration look into the Bidens and speak with Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Bar about it.
We know this is true because the White House released a partial transcript of that call showing that Trump asked Zelensky for a “favor” after the latter mentioned wanting weaponry, and also that Zelensky should get in touch with his personal lawyer and the attorney general.
Allegation No. 2: White House officials were freaked out by Trump’s actions
The whistleblower notes in the complaint that starting around mid-May, there was a general concern in the administration that Giuliani and his allies were starting to circumvent official Ukraine policy and run one of their own.
Note that the whistleblower in the parentheses wrote that that the “general understanding” inside the administration was that Giuliani and others wanted Ukraine to look into the Bidens. In order to have a Trump-Ukraine call, Kyiv would have to agree to “play ball.”
Hill’s recollection of the July 10 meeting between her, Bolton, Sondland, and Ukrainians fits in this timeline. After all, if what Hill says is true, Sondland spoke specifically about the Biden probe — scaring Bolton enough to want Hill to chat with the NSC’s lawyer. Plus, Hill made clear that Sondland believed he had a right from the president to lead Ukraine policy.
That fits with that the whistleblower wrote: “I heard from multiple US officials that they were deeply concerned by what they viewed as Mr. Giuliani’s circumvention of national security decisionmaking processes to engage with Ukrainian officials and relay messages back and forth between Kyiv and the President.”
Put together, House Democrats are continually proving the whistleblower right — meaning that Trump will have to try a lot harder to plead his case.