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6 things we learned from Fiona Hill and David Holmes’ impeachment testimony

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Fiona Hill, President Donald Trump’s former top adviser on Russia and Europe, and David Holmes, a counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, testified before the House Intelligence Committee for more than five hours on Thursday — capping the week’s long list of public hearings in the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry.

Hill, a career Russia expert, focused much of her testimony on using her considerable knowledge of Moscow to shed light on various issues at the center of the inquiry, while Holmes laid out additional details about the critical July 26 call he overheard between Trump and Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

Here is what we learned from today’s public hearing.

1. A colorful account of Rudy Giuliani’s role

Holmes described in great detail how Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, directed a shadow Ukraine diplomacy team that included Sondland, Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry — a trio known as the “three amigos.”

His account that it was “apparent” Giuliani had a “direct influence on the foreign policy agenda that the three amigos were executing on the ground in Ukraine” tracks with what other witnesses have testified.

But Holmes, in his testimony Thursday, offered a comical observation about how outrageous many — even Sondland — found the arrangement to be. He recalled a time when Sondland, frustrated with how “active in the media” Giuliani had been “with respect to Ukraine,” exclaimed, “Dammit, Rudy. Every time Rudy gets involved he goes and f—- everything up.”

2. ‘Fictions’: Hill rejects 2016 election conspiracy

Hill, whose previous closed-door testimony focused on her alarm about the efforts she’d witnessed to pressure Ukraine to launch politically motivated probes, centered much of her testimony Thursday obliterating the already debunked conspiracy that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election in a way that favored Hillary Clinton and harmed Trump — a theory promoted by Trump and one that contributed to his negative view toward Ukraine, according to other witness accounts.

“Some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country — and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did. This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves,” she said. “In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”

She added, “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternate narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016,” saying that “these fictions are harmful even if they are deployed for purely domestic political purposes.”

At the center of the alleged quid pro quo that Trump sought was a desire for the Ukrainian government to investigate alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, has repeatedly referred to the theory in his remarks this week.

3. Quid pro quo corroboration

Holmes testified Thursday that throughout the first several weeks of June, it had become apparent that the “anti-corruption efforts” in Ukraine “on which we were making progress” were “not making a dent in terms of persuading the White House to schedule a meeting between” Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

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Holmes said it was at this time, on June 27 specifically, that Sondland told Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine that Zelenskiy “needed to make clear” to Trump that he was not standing in the way “investigations” — which Holmes said he understood to mean an investigation into Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company that Hunter Biden joined as a board member in 2014. Taylor told Holmes about this phone call, Holmes testified.

Holmes also said that Taylor briefed him on another phone call that occurredbetween Zelenskiy, Taylor, and the so-called three amigos made the next day on June 28, in which it “was made clear that some action on a Burisma/Biden investigation was a precondition for an Oval Office meeting,” Holmes testified.

This explicitly corroborates Sondland’s testimony a day earlier that Trump had attempted to engage in a quid pro quo under which a White House meeting for Zelenskiy was conditioned on Zelenskiy making a public statement announcing investigations into Burisma.

4. Aid freeze corroboration and timeline

Holmes outlined, as other witnesses have, that he became aware of a freeze to the military aid to Ukraine on a July 18 conference call during which a White House Office of Management and Budget staff member announced the hold on Ukraine security assistance.

“The official said the order had come from the president and had been conveyed to OMB by Mr. Mulvaney with no further explanation,” he said.

Holmes went on to explain what happened in the following days, which included the call between Trump and Sondland he overheard on July 26, in which Trump asked Sondland about “the investigations.”

He explained being left out of a meeting that day between Sondland and Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Zelenskiy, because Yermak’s assistant told him that Yermak and Sondland wanted “the meeting to be one-on-one, with no note-taker.”

It was after that meeting that Holmes joined Sondland and others for the lunch in Kyiv. Sondland dialed up on his cellphone at the table, Holmes testified.

Holmes testified Thursday that he “heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?’” and that “Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it,’ adding that President Zelenskiy will do ‘anything you ask him to.'”

5. Holmes alleges second quid pro quo

Holmes went on to testify about an Aug. 27 visit to Ukraine by John Bolton, then the national security adviser, during which Bolton told the Ukrainians that Trump wanted to meet Zelenskiy on Sept. 1 in Warsaw.

Holmes, who said he took notes of the meeting between Bolton and the Ukrainians, testified that Bolton told Zelenskiy and Zelenskiy’s chief of staff that the military aid would remain frozen “prior to the Warsaw meeting,” and that its release would actually “hang on whether President Zelenskiy was able to ‘favorably impress’ President Trump” at the Warsaw meeting. Trump didn’t end up making the Warsaw trip, and the hold continued.

Holmes testified that “by this point, however, my clear impression was that the security assistance hold was likely intended by the president either as an expression of dissatisfaction that the Ukrainians had not yet agreed to the Burisma/Biden investigation or as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so.”

6. CNN interview was closer to happening that previously known

While Taylor had previously testified that he felt the “stalemate” over the release of the military aid to Ukraine ended when Zelenskiy agreed to make a public statement about investigating Burisma on CNN, Holmes’ account of the saga offers far more details.

The hold on the aid was released on Sept. 11, but Holmes testified Thursday that “we were still concerned that President Zelenskiy had committed, in exchange for the lifting, to give the requested CNN interview.”

Holmes said he received several indications that the CNN interview would occur.

“September 13, an Embassy colleague received a phone call from a colleague who worked for Ambassador Sondland,” Holmes testified. “My Embassy colleague texted me regarding the call that, ‘Sondland said the [Zelenskiy] interview is supposed to be today or Monday [Sept 16] and they plan to announce that a certain investigation that was ‘on hold’ will progress.”

That aide to Sondland, Holmes testified he was told, “did not know if this was decided or if [Sondland] is advocating this. Apparently he’s been discussing this with Yermak.”

That same day, Holmes testified, he and Taylor ran into Yermak and “stressed” to him “the importance of staying out of U.S. politics” and that Taylor “said he hoped no interview was planned.”

“Yermak did not answer, but shrugged in resignation as if to indicate they had no choice. In short, everyone thought there was going to be an interview, and that the Ukrainians believed they had to do it,” Holmes testified.

The interview ultimately did not occur.

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Trump talks impeachment with two Senate Republicans who may not be with him

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President Donald Trump lunched at the White House on Thursday with Sens. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, and Susan Collins, R-Maine, among others — breaking bread with a pair of Republicans who could go against him in a Senate impeachment trial.

“He had made some initial comments that related to the impeachment process, but it’s nothing that I haven’t heard on TV from him,” Romney told reporters after the lunch. Prior to the meeting Romney had said he did not plan to “be speaking about the impeachment at all.”

Romney also said that his recent back-and-forth with Trump did not come up. When reminded by a reporter that the president recently tweeted “he is a pompous ‘ass’ who has been fighting me from the beginning,” Romney responded, “That’s as accurate as it is irrelevant.”

“It was a good meeting,” Collins told reporters. Asked if she felt Trump was trying to butter her up prior to a potential Senate trial, Collins said, “I didn’t get that sense.”

Romney and Collins are two of only three Senate Republicans who declined to sign on as co-sponsors to a GOP resolution denouncing the House Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, raising questions about how they would vote in a Senate trial to convict and remove Trump from office. The other Republican not to sign on is Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, another moderate vote who could break from the party.

Collins has said that it would be “inappropriate” for her “to reach conclusions about evidence or to comment on the proceedings in the House” because she will be expected to be essentially a juror once the Senate trial begins.

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Romney has been more critical of Trump, tweeting earlier this month: “By all appearances, the President’s brazen and unprecedented appeal to China and to Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden is wrong and appalling.”

A spokesperson for Murkowski said she would not be attending the lunch “as she is scheduled to be traveling back to Alaska.”

Trump has invited a handful of Senate Republicans to the White House for weekly lunches this fall to address a series of policy issues, including impeachment.

In a lunch meeting last week with roughly a half dozen GOP senators, the president passed around a transcript from the first phone call he had with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy before it had been released to the public.

“We batted around how long a trial would be and who should testify, but it was all just casual conversation really,” Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said after last week’s lunch meeting.

Republican Sens. James Lankford of Oklahoma, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, John Hoeven of North Dakota, and Rand Paul of Kentucky were also expected to attend the lunch. A source familiar with the meeting told NBC News that no pre-set agenda was shared with invitees.

Thursday’s lunch comes while the House Intelligence Committee hears testimony from Fiona Hill, a former White House official, and diplomat David Holmes, in the final scheduled day of public testimony.

Impeachment inquiry: Full coverage

The Senate is unlikely to vote to remove Trump from office, even if a few Republicans such as Collins and Romney defect. The Senate requires a two-thirds majority to convict, or 67 votes. The GOP holds a 53-47 advantage, which would require 20 Republicans to break from the president, assuming that every Democrat votes to convict.

Trump’s recent lunch meetings show the White House’s desire to highlight how they believe they’re working toward legislative priorities; the president also frequently mentions the importance of party unity, especially as he heads into an election year.

Kelly O’Donnell contributed.



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Labour magic money tree: How much will all Labour’s promises cost the taxpayer?

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LABOUR leader Jeremy Corbyn and Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson were taken aback on Tuesday when asked where the “magic money tree” each plans to use for the increased expenditure planned for the next Parliament.

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