From Wednesday Nov. 13 to Thursday Nov. 21, Americans were glued to their televisions, computers and streaming devices, as the House Intelligence Committee held a series of long public hearings as part of a broader Democratic-led impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.
Here are all the things we learned from two jam-packed weeks of public testimony.
A new Trump phone call
Bill Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, kicked off the stretch of hearings with a revelation that one of his staffers overheard a phone call between Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, and Trump on July 26 — the day after the call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that prompted the impeachment inquiry. The staffer, later identified as David Holmes, a counselor for political affairs at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, heard Trump ask Sondland about “the investigations,” Taylor said, referring to probes into the Biden family and a conspiracy theory about the 2016 election.
Holmes provides more details
Holmes said he was left out of a July 26 meeting in Kyiv between Sondland and Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Zelenskiy, but it was after that meeting that Holmes joined Sondland and others for a fateful lunch in Kyiv. Sondland dialed up Trump on his cellphone at the table, Holmes testified. He said he overheard “President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?'” and that “Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it,’ and that Zelenskiy will do ‘anything you ask him to.'”
Volker becomes a quid pro quo believer
Kurt Volker, the former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine, also amended his testimony from his closed-door deposition, saying he now sees that others in the Trump administration sought an investigation into the Biden family and that they told Ukraine’s government that millions in military aid depended on it.
“We followed the president’s orders”
Sondland, in his testimony, directly pointed his finger at Trump, saying the president ordered that he, Volker, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry work with his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, on Ukraine policy, even though they were uncomfortable with Giuliani’s role and associations.
“Secretary Perry, Ambassador Volker and I worked with Mr. Rudy Giuliani on Ukraine matters at the express direction of the president of the United States,” he said.
A direct line to Trump
Sondland also confirmed he’d held the July 26 phone call that Taylor had revealed. Sondland, who already corrected his prior closed-door testimony once before, had not previously revealed the existence of the call. His confirmation of it revealed he had a direct line to Trump, as others testified.
“Everyone was in the loop”
In an explosive part of his opening statement, Sondland implicated Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, former national security adviser John Bolton and several other top officials in those two agencies.
Sondland said he’d made Pompeo and Bolton fully aware, at every turn, of what he, Volker and Perry were doing with regard to Ukraine policy at the direction of Giuliani. And, he brought the emails — including direct responses from Pompeo — to prove it.
Mulvaney a part of “irregular” channel
Taylor testified that White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney was part of the “irregular” shadow communications channel between Washington and Kyiv that had sought a quid pro quo with Ukraine. That channel had already been known to include Giuliani, Sondland, Volker and Perry.
Just moments after Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified that she felt “threatened” after learning that Trump told Zelenskiy during their July 25 call that she was “bad news” and that she was going to “to go through some things,” Trump tweeted more attacks on her, including, “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad.”
Asked in real-time during the hearing about the president’s tweets, Yovanovitch called them “very intimidating.”
Sondland testifies about the deal
Sondland was unambiguous in saying that Trump, through Giuliani, attempted a quid pro quo under which a White House meeting for Zelenskiy was conditioned on Zelenskiy making a public statement announcing investigations into Burisma and a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election.
“I know that members of this committee have frequently framed these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a ‘quid pro quo?’ As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and White House meeting, the answer is yes,” Sondland said.
Holmes cited “pre-condition” for meeting
Holmes testified 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 Zelenskiy.
Holmes said it was at this time, on June 27, that Sondland told Taylor that Zelenskiy “needed to make clear” to Trump that he was not standing in the way of the investigations and that it “was made clear that some action on a Burisma/Biden investigation was a precondition for an Oval Office meeting.”
Holmes alleges second quid pro quo
Holmes testified that by the time an Aug. 27 meeting in Ukraine by Bolton and the Ukrainians rolled around, “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.”
State Department in “crisis”
When it came to the broader effects she felt her ouster would have on her fellow State Department colleagues, Yovanovitch spoke passionately, saying that attacks on diplomats like her have led “to a crisis in the State Department as the policy process is visibly unraveling, leadership vacancies go unfilled, and senior and mid-level officers ponder an uncertain future and head for the doors.”
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“The State Department is being hollowed out from within at a competitive and complex time on the world stage,” she said.
GOP talking points
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the committee, often repeated arguments and lines of questioning.
More than a few times, he compared the Democrats’ closed-door depositions to something a “cult” would do, and he repeatedly brought up unusual and debunked conspiracy theories, including the disproved notion that the Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 election and the false allegation that Democrats sought nude pictures of Trump.
How Russia benefited
Yovanovitch and others — with the aid of some of the Democrats questioning her — expounded on the view that Russia stood to be the biggest beneficiary of the Trump administration’s dealings with Ukraine.
The potential benefit to Moscow is two-fold, Yovanovitch explained. Withholding security assistance, she said, painted a picture to Moscow that the U.S. may not be the staunch ally of Russia’s vulnerable neighbor it has signaled it would be. And at the same time, she said, allowing corruption to fester in Ukraine.
Focus on Giuliani’s role
Many witnesses testified that Giuliani seized on Ukrainian disinformation that Yovanovitch had been badmouthing the president and was blocking corruption investigations to orchestrate a broad smear campaign against the veteran diplomat that culminated with her ouster.
“What I can say is that Mr. Giuliani should have known those claims were suspect, coming as they reportedly did from individuals with questionable motives and with reason to believe that their political and financial ambitions would be stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine,” she said.
Volker’s “aha!” moment
Volker said that in hindsight he now understands the investigation desired by the White House into Burisma was, in fact, intended as an investigation into the Bidens.
“In retrospect, I should have seen that connection differently, and had I done so, I would have raised my own objections” to a Trump administration push to investigate the Bidens.
The call was “unusual,” “improper”
Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council, and Jennifer Williams, a special adviser on Europe and Russia to Vice President Mike Pence, who had both listened in on the Trump-Zelenskiy July 25 call, offered stark and critical assessments of it.
Vindman said he was “concerned” with what he’d heard and that he felt it was “improper for the president of the United States to demand a foreign government investigate a U.S. citizen and political opponent.” Williams said she “found the July 25 phone call unusual because, in contrast to other presidential calls I had observed, it involved discussion of what appeared to be a domestic political matter.”
Efforts to unmask — and protect — the whistleblower
House Intelligence Republicans repeatedly used their question time, including of Vindman, to press witnesses on whether they’d had contact with the still-unnamed intelligence community whistleblower whose complaint touched off the inquiry.
Schiff repeatedly cut in when this happened to instruct everyone present that the committee “will not be used to out” the whistleblower.
A personal side of the witnesses
A poignant, poised and at times visibly nervous Vindman — who was born in Kyiv, then part of the USSR, and who fled with his family to the U.S. as a child — used a large part of his opening statement to deliver a moving personal message about how his family had come to America for a better life and how escaping an authoritarian regime instilled in him and his brothers a sense of duty to serve in the U.S. military.
Addressing his deceased father, Vindman concluded his statement by saying that “you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union.”
“Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth,” he added.
Republicans question Vindman’s loyalty to country
Vindman, an Army lieutenant colonel who received a Purple Heart after he was wounded by an improvised explosive device in Iraq in 2004, faced repeated character attacks from Republicans.
In one case, the counsel for committee Republicans asked if Vindman had at one point been offered the post of Ukrainian defense minister by a Ukrainian politician, hinting at a dual loyalty. The attacks seemed to be part of a clear effort by Republican to discredit the allegiance of Vindman.
The secret server
The September release of the whistleblower complaint revealed the existence of a secret electronic filing system that White House officials used, perhaps improperly, to “lock down” the transcript of the July 25 call.The whistleblower claimed in the complaint that the server was designed to house sensitive national security information, not politically sensitive information, and that its use for the latter constituted an “abuse.”
Vindman testified that the summary of the July 25 call was transferred to a more secure server “to avoid leaks” and to help “preserve the integrity of the transcript.” He added that he didn’t see that as “nefarious.”
Trump’s concerns about corruption
Vindman testified that he’d prepared talking points for Trump for his April phone call with Zelenskiy in which the president congratulated his counterpart on his election win, and that the points included Trump addressing corruption in Ukraine.
Trump, however, did not talk about corruption on the call, according to a record of the call released by the White House last week — even though a readout of the call released this year by the White House stated that Trump had expressed his commitment to working with Ukraine “to implement reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity and root out corruption.”
That Trump didn’t bring up corruption, despite the wishes of his advisers, contradicts the White House’s claims that the president’s desire to see an investigation into Burisma was merely part and parcel of a broader concern within the administration over widespread corruption in the country.
Pence knew, Sondland says
Sondland said he directly told Pence of his concerns about a possible link between the release of military aid to Ukraine and the announcement of the investigations, putting the vice president squarely in the middle of the saga.
Pence, though his chief of staff Marc Short, denied having had this conversation with Sondland.
Ukrainians knew, too
Laura Cooper, the top Pentagon official overseeing U.S. policy regarding Ukraine, testified that, in the weeks following her closed-door deposition and the release of the transcript of that deposition, her staff informed her of two emails her office had received on July 25 that strongly indicated the Ukrainians knew about the hold on military aid, or were at least asking questions about it.
Those emails — sent just hours after the call between Trump and Zelenskiy at the center of the impeachment inquiry — suggest that Zelenskiy may have known that the aid was held up, or that something was at least amiss, when he spoke with Trump on that same day.
This could contradict the argument by Republicans, including Trump, that a quid pro quo could have never been possible because the Ukrainians hadn’t known at the time of the call that the aid was being held.
Hill rejects 2016 election conspiracy
Fiona Hill, Trump’s former top adviser on Russia and Europe, obliterated the already debunked conspiracy (promoted by Trump) that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election in a way that favored Hillary Clinton and harmed Trump.
“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.”