WASHINGTON — Fiona Hill, who was until recently President Donald Trump’s top aide on Russia and Europe, plans to tell Congress that Rudy Giuliani and E.U. ambassador Gordon Sondland circumvented the National Security Council and the normal White House process to pursue a shadow policy on Ukraine, a person familiar with her expected testimony told NBC News.
Hill’s appearance next week before Congress has stoked fear among people close to the president, said a former senior White House official, given her central role overseeing Russia and Ukraine policy throughout most of the Trump administration.
Her plans to testify also pose a key test for whether congressional committees pursuing an impeachment inquiry can obtain testimony from other former officials who have left the administration, given the possibility that the White House may try to assert executive privilege to stop them from testifying.
Hill plans to say that Giuliani and Sondland side-stepped the proper process for accessing Trump on Ukraine issues, the person familiar with her expected testimony said, including circumventing John Bolton, who was Trump’s national security adviser until September.
Text messages recently released by Congress showed Sondland, Giuliani and former U.S. envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker working to facilitate Trump’s goal of getting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to commit to investigate the president’s political opponents — and making a White House visit for Zelenskiy contingent on such a commitment. Official notes from Trump’s call with Zelenskiy released by the White House showed Trump asking the Ukrainians to work directly with Giuliani, and NBC News has reported that Sondland was also in direct contact with Trump about Ukraine. Sondland’s attorney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Giuliani and Sondland’s attorney didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Hill, through her attorney Lee Wolosky, declined to comment.
A Russia hawk and one of the U.S. government’s foremost experts on Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hill had wound down her role overseeing Russia and Europe policy at the National Security Council in July shortly before Trump’s call with Zelenskiy. So it’s unclear how much she would know about that call, although she would have had deep knowledge of events leading up to the call.
At the White House, Hill was not viewed as a Trump loyalist, leading those close to Trump to worry that she can’t be controlled or pressured not to reveal potentially damaging information about the president, the former senior White House official said.
Congressional committees this week requested that Hill testify on Oct. 14, according to a letter obtained by NBC News, and she agreed. She has not been subpoenaed by Congress.
So far, the White House has not contacted her to assert privilege and try to prevent her from testifying, the person familiar said. But given the prospect that may occur, it’s possible that Hill may ultimately testify under subpoena from Congress, which would compel her to testify and serve as a powerful argument for her to comply with the request from Congress even if the White House does try to stop her.
The White House has told House Speaker Nancy Pelosi that it won’t cooperate with the impeachment inquiry as it currently stands. But while the White House can assert executive privilege— the right of the president to withhold some deliberative information from other branches of government— over current officials, the law is far murkier when it comes to private citizens who no longer work for the government.
If Hill does testify as planned, it could strengthen House Democrats’ hand to pursue testimony from many other former White House officials who would have insight into activities central to the impeachment inquiry— including from former officials who may be disgruntled. That could include Bolton and his former aides at the National Security Council who also departed when Trump fired Bolton last month.
Current officials are employed by the executive branch, so an assertion of privilege is essentially an instruction that employees would be hard-pressed to ignore. Private citizens have no similar obligation and the assertion of privilege could run up against their First Amendment rights.
Earlier this year the White House tried to assert the privilege over former White House Counsel Don McGahn, and the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel issued a legal opinion arguing the privilege applies to former officials. But the argument has rarely been tested in court and remains an unsettled legal issue. In August, the House Judiciary Committee sued to try to compel McGahn to testify.
Pete Williams contributed.
AOC, Omar set to endorse Bernie Sanders for president
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is feeling the Bern.
The freshman congresswoman plans to endorse Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders for president at a rally in New York on Saturday, the Sanders campaign told NBC News.
The endorsement was first reported by The Washington Post.
Another member of “the squad,” Rep. Ilhan Omar, announced on Tuesday night that she is endorsing Sanders. The other two members are Reps. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts.
Sanders mentioned he’d have a “special guest” at his “Bernie’s Back” rally in Queens during Tuesday’s debate, and the campaign later acknowledged that guest is “Green New Deal” champion and democratic socialist Ocasio-Cortez.
The sought-after endorsement is a blow to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who’s teamed with Ocasio-Cortez on various causes over the past year.
Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders have some history. She was a volunteer organizer for Sanders’ 2016 campaign, and he hailed her long-shot win in the Democratic primary last year. “What she did is talk about the real issues,” he said then.
They also paired on legislation to cap credit card rates this year.
George Kent tells lawmakers he was told to ‘lay low’ after raising concerns about Giuliani
WASHINGTON — State Department official George Kent told lawmakers in a closed-door deposition Tuesday that acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney appointed three other Trump administration officials to spearhead the president’s efforts in Ukraine.
According to Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., who was present for the deposition, Kent testified that Mulvaney oversaw a meeting where he sidelined State Department officials and tapped three political appointees — Energy Secretary Rick Perry, European Ambassador Gordon Sondland and special envoy Kurt Volker — to oversee Ukraine policy for the United States.
Kent, a deputy assistant secretary of state who worked on Ukraine and five other countries, told congressional investigators that the trio called themselves “the three amigos” and elbowed all the other officials at State out of the way, according to Connolly.
This not the first time Mulvaney was mentioned in depositions as part of the impeachment inquiry. President Donald Trump’s former Russia adviser Fiona Hill testified that then-national security adviser John Bolton said he wanted nothing to do with Mulvaney and Giuliani’s objectives in Ukraine, which Bolton said amounted to a “drug deal.”
Just weeks before the May 23 meeting, Marie Yovanovich was told that she was being recalled as the ambassador to Ukraine despite being told that she had done nothing wrong, according to her congressional testimony last week.
According to Connolly, Kent also testified that after the May 23 meeting, he was told to “lay low” by a superior when he raised concerns about Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, who was working to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.
“The way I took it,” Connolly told NBC News, was that Kent “had just finished describing how he had told people that this is wrong, that Giuliani is out of control.”
Kent also said, according to Connolly, that the Trump allies who pushed for Ukraine to investigate corruption made it clear that “POTUS” wanted cooperation from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and the Ukrainian government.
Kent, who attended meetings and receptions with Zelenskiy and his advisers, said that Sondland and Volker floated the idea of a meeting with Trump, according to Connolly. Text messages between Volker and Sondland released this month also show that Zeleneskiy’s cooperation was expected in order to meet with Trump.
Volker testified behind closed doors last week that Trump wanted the Ukrainian government to investigate corruption in Ukraine but that there was “no quid pro quo” for military and security aid, which the administration had put on hold for nearly four months. Sondland is expected to testify under subpoena on Thursday.
During his nearly 10 hours of testimony, Kent also told members of Congress and their staff that Burisma, the energy company where Hunter Biden was a board member, was corrupt, according to a separate person who was present in the room. Kent said he told the Obama administration in 2016 that they should not hold an event with Burisma because of the company’s extensive corruption in Ukraine.
Kent was called in to testify because he raised the alarm about the disinformation campaign that Giuliani and his associates pushed regarding Ukraine, according to a emails included in the packet that the Intelligence Community’s Inspector General Michael Atkinson provided to Congress, obtained by NBC News. He sent a series of emails to colleagues alerting them of the “fake news driven smear out of Ukraine.”
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