A State Department staffer told House lawmakers last week that he believed officials in Ukraine “gradually came to understand that they were being asked to do something” in order for a hold on security assistance from the U.S. to be lifted, according to a transcript released by House Democrats on Monday evening.
David Holmes, a career State Department official now based in Kyiv who is slated to testify publicly later this week, also told lawmakers that he had “never seen anything like” the phone call he overheard between President Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland in July.
“This was an extremely distinctive experience in my Foreign Service career. I’ve never seen anything like this, someone calling the President from a mobile phone at a restaurant, and then having a conversation of this level of candor, colorful language. There’s just so much about the call that was so remarkable that I remember it vividly,” Holmes told investigators, according to the transcript.
House Democrats on Monday night released transcripts of closed-door interviews with Holmes and David Hale, the under secretary of State for political affairs, as part of their fast-paced impeachment inquiry into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.
Holmes emerged as a key witness after an open hearing in the inquiry last week during which William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, revealed that a member of his staff — Holmes — had overheard a conversation on July 26 between Trump and Sondland in which the two discussed an investigation being sought by Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Holmes told House investigators during a private deposition on Friday that Sondland told Trump on the call that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would give Trump what he wanted after being asked about “the investigation,” according to Holmes’ account.
“So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” Trump asked, according to Holmes’s opening statement.
“He’s gonna do it,” Sondland replied, adding that the foreign leader will do “anything you ask him to.”
The alleged call appeared to be an effort by Trump to follow up on possible investigations into 2016 election interference and former Vice President Joe Biden that he had raised on a call with Zelensky a day earlier, according to a rough transcript since released by the White House.
Trump, however, has denied knowledge of the conversation that Holmes claims he overheard between the president and Sondland at a restaurant in Kyiv.
Holmes also told House lawmakers Friday that he was surprised that Sondland called Trump from the restaurant using a cellphone and that officials “assumed” generally that Russians were eavesdropping on such calls.
“I believe at least two of the three, if not all three of the mobile networks are owned by Russian companies, or have significant stakes in those. We generally assume that mobile communications in Ukraine are being monitored,” Holmes said.
Sondland is slated to testify publicly on Wednesday and Holmes on Thursday.
House Democrats are investigating whether Trump sought to use the White House meeting and $400 million in security assistance to Ukraine to pressure Kyiv to pursue investigations that could help him politically.
Trump has denied any quid pro quo in his interactions with Ukraine, insisted he did not pressure Ukraine, and characterized his efforts as aimed at fighting “corruption” and having nothing to do with politics.
Witnesses who have testified in connection with the impeachment inquiry, however, have described an effort by officials to tie the meeting and the security assistance to the push for Ukraine to make a public statement about investigations.
When asked whether he believed Ukraine felt pressure, Holmes answered, “I think the Ukrainians gradually came to understand that they were being asked to do something in exchange for the meeting and the security assistance hold being lifted.”
Holmes said he assumed, absent other explanation, that the hold on military assistance was either an effort by Trump to express dissatisfaction about the lack of commitment on the investigations or an effort to pressure Ukraine to pursue them.
Trump has confirmed he ordered the hold on aid but said he did so out of concern European countries were not contributing enough to Ukraine.
Holmes said, however, that he was never given an official reason why the temporary hold was placed on $400 million in military aid to Ukraine on July 18. The aid was eventually released under pressure from Congress, and Ukraine did not make a public statement about launching the investigations.
Hale, who is among the highest-ranking officials in the State Department, told lawmakers he first became aware of the hold on aid for Ukraine in late June. He said Trump had ordered an overall review of foreign assistance but that he never learned of a specific reason for the hold on Ukraine funding.
Hale testified that that the Office of Management and Budget in the White House “had guidance” from Trump and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to freeze the aid.
“It seemed to me that this was going to have to be resolved at the principals level. … And, therefore, it would have to be resolved, if he wished to have it resolved, directly with the President,” he said.
Much of Hale’s testimony otherwise focused on the campaign by Trump’s allies to oust U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. He told lawmakers that he and others had pushed for the State Department to put out a letter of support for the ambassador but that he believed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ultimately nixed the idea.
Giuliani was at the forefront of efforts to push allegations about Yovanovitch, which Hale said were not substantiated. Pompeo spoke to Giuliani on the phone on March 28 and March 29, Hale said, and the decision not to put out a statement supporting the ambassador stood following those conversations.
Holmes said that the Ukrainians viewed Giuliani as an “important conduit” to Trump. He also expressed his view that Giuliani was promoting a “political” agenda unrelated to U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine.
He said he and other embassy officials advised Ukraine to stay out of U.S. politics.
“I distinctly recall advising [Zelensky aide Andriy] Yermak to stay out of U.S. politics, and it was a consistent theme of our messaging” Holmes told investigators.