The White House tried to limit what Fiona Hill, who until August served as President Donald Trump’s top Russia analyst, could say to Congress in its impeachment inquiry, correspondence between her lawyers and a White House deputy counsel shows.
The letters, obtained by NBC News, illustrate that while the White House did not try to block Hill from testifying, it did tell Hill’s lawyers about four areas that could potentially fall under executive privilege.
Those areas involved direct communications with the president, diplomatic communications, meetings with other heads of state and staffing the president had on calls with foreign heads of state, the correspondence shows.
Hill testified under subpoena on Monday to the House. Previously, she agreed to testify at Congress’ written request.
Trump impeachment inquiry: Live updates and the latest news
The House has launched an impeachment inquiry over matters that include Trump’s communication with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that involved a request for an investigation by that country into former vice president Joe Biden and his son, Hunter.
There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden.
Hill’s lawyers wrote back to the White House on Sunday, presenting their argument for why executive privilege did not apply, based in part on the fact that some of the information has already come into the public sphere and thus is no longer confidential, the correspondence shows.
Hill’s lawyers also made a legal argument that executive privilege disappears when there’s reason to believe there was government misconduct. Hill’s lawyers asked the White House to weigh in further, according to the correspondence.
Monday morning, via an emailed letter from White House Deputy Counsel Michael Purpura to Hill’s attorney Lee Wolosky, the White House wrote back and generally dismissed most of the arguments by Hill’s lawyers.
“As the White House Counsel has explained, there is no valid impeachment inquiry underway,” Purpura wrote in the letter.
The White House did not tell Hill not to testify, but reminded her in the emailed letter Monday morning that “it is incumbent on Dr. Hill and you, as her counsel, to guard against unauthorized disclosure. To be clear, Dr. Hill is not authorized to reveal or release any classified information or any information subject to executive privilege.”
In her closed-door testimony, Hill planned to tell Congress that Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland circumvented the administration to pursue a shadow foreign policy on Ukraine, a person familiar with her expected testimony told NBC News last week.
A source familiar with Hill’s closed-door testimony Monday says it followed along the lines of NBC News’ previous reporting of her planned testimony. Hill, the source said, raised concerns about Giuliani’s efforts in Ukraine and also spoke in support of ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
A former senior White House official had told NBC News that Hill’s appearance has caused concern among those close to Trump because she played a central role in the administration’s Russian and Ukrainian policy.
Hill’s testimony comes after Yovanovitch told House investigators last week that Trump pressured the State Department to remove her. Pushing for Yovanovitch’s ouster was central to an effort from two Soviet-born business associates of Giuliani who now face federal charges over campaign-finance violations.
Sondland is scheduled to testify Thursday. He is expected to testify that he did not know why Congress- approved military aid to Ukraine was withheld, a person with knowledge of his testimony told NBC News.
Sondland is set to say he “relied” on Trump’s pledge that there was no quid pro quo with regard to Ukraine investigating the Biden family and a conspiracy theory involving the 2016 presidential election when Sondland texted the current top diplomat in Ukraine last month saying no quid pro quo was taking place.
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Former Trump adviser who testified to Ukraine pressure campaign said she was victim of harassment
Fiona Hill, President Donald Trump’s former top adviser on Russia and Europe, told House investigators that her time in the Trump administration was marked by death threats, “hateful calls” and “conspiracy theories,” a harassment campaign she said was revived after it was learned she would cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, according to a transcript of her deposition released Friday.
“I received, I just have to tell you, death threats, calls at my home. My neighbors reported somebody coming and hammering on my door,” she told investigators in closed-door testimony of her time in the White House. “Now, I’m not easily intimidated, but that made me mad.”
Although it wasn’t clear who was responsible, she suggested that at least part of the harassment was tied to her agreeing to appear before Congress.
The transcript confirmed NBC News’ reporting that Hill told Congress that Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. Ambassador to the European Union, sidestepped the National Security Council and typical White House process to advocate for a shadow policy on Ukraine, while revealing new details about how Giuliani’s work undercut and derailed the diplomats charged with overseeing Ukrainian-U.S. relations.
Hill, who transitioned out of her role in July before officially leaving her job in early September, testified that the ousting of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was a turning point for her. Yovanovitch, she said, was subject to a similar campaign of harassment and “defamation,” which she credited to Giuliani.
Hill said she discussed Yovanovitch with then-national security adviser John Bolton, whose “reaction was pained.”
“And he basically said, in fact he directly said: Rudy Giuliani is a hand grenade that is going to blow everyone up,” she told congressional investigators. “He made it clear that he didn’t feel that there was anything that he could personally do about this.”
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The transcript of her deposition was made public Friday alongside the transcript of testimony from Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, the latest in a series of disclosures House Democrats have made as the impeachment inquiry into Trump enters a new phase.
The testimony of key figures released publicly this week has largely established a narrative that suggests Trump directed officials to tie nearly $400 million in military and security aid to Ukraine, as well as a White House meeting, to demands that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy announce probes that could benefit Trump.
Text messages obtained as part of the impeachment inquiry and released by Congress showed Sondland, Giuliani and former U.S. envoy for Ukraine Kurt Volker working to facilitate Trump’s goal of getting Zelenskiy to commit to investigate the president’s political opponents including former Vice President Joe Biden — and making a White House visit for Zelenskiy contingent on such a commitment. Official notes from Trump’s July 25 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.
Hill left her role before that July call in which Trump pressed for investigations into the Bidens as well as the 2016 U.S. election. However, she told impeachment investigators last month that reading the White House memo detailing the call, along with the text messages Volker provided to Congress, were her “worst fears and nightmares” realized.
“There seemed to be an awful lot of people involved in, you know, basically turning a White House meeting into some kind of asset,” she said. “Something that was being, you know, dangled out to the Ukrainian Government. They wanted the White house meeting very much.”
Sondland openly spoke about a White House meeting being conditioned on Ukrainians going forward with investigations, and resisted her attempts to ensure that presidential meetings were set up through diplomatic channels, she testified.
Sondland, who features heavily in Hill’s testimony as well as Vindman’s, had no diplomatic experience before Trump nominated him in 2017 to become ambassador to the E.U., a club of nations that does not include Ukraine. He was a wealthy hotelier who donated about $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee and referred to himself in his own deposition as a “lifelong Republican.”
Hill described him as a diplomat who cloaked himself in presidential authority and violated norms of diplomatic relations in his work.
Sondland told Hill multiple times that he would be overseeing Ukraine relations, she testified.
“And I asked, on whose authority? And he said, the president,” Hill said, according to the transcript, later adding that “it was very unusual because we were given no instructions. There wasn’t a directive. Ambassador Bolton didn’t know about this. Nobody at the State Department seemed to know about this either.”
He routinely gave out her personal phone number — something she sought to get intelligence officials to explain to Sondland was a counterintelligence risk — and sent officials to her for meetings without alerting her. She became worried he would become a “target for foreign powers” when he offered up White House access repeatedly.
“He was often meeting with people he had no information about. It’s like basically driving along with no guardrails and no GPS on unfamiliar territory,” she said, noting she’d raised her concerns to Sondland directly.
The White House sought to limit how much Hill could tell Congress, according to letters between the White House and her attorney obtained by NBC News last month. The White House did not tell her not to testify, but said she was responsible for guarding against unauthorized disclosures and outlined areas where her testimony might run up against executive privilege, like direct communications with the president or meetings with other heads of state.
Hill’s lawyers argued that executive privilege did not apply, in part because some of the information has already come into the public sphere and thus was no longer confidential. They also argued that executive privilege disappears when there’s reason to believe there was government misconduct.
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