House impeachment investigators on Friday heard from a new witness claiming first-hand knowledge of President Trump‘s effort to enlist Ukrainian leaders to dig up dirt on his domestic political opponents.
David Holmes, a State Department veteran now based in Kyiv, testified privately that he overheard a July phone conversation between Trump and Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, in which the president sought an update on “the investigation” — and Sondland delivered the news Trump had wanted, according to the opening remarks obtained by CNN.
“So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” Trump asked, according to Holmes’s testimony.
“He’s gonna do it,” Sondland replied.
The call, Holmes said, occurred at a restaurant in Kyiv on July 26, one day after Trump’s now-famous phone conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which Trump asked Zelensky for “a favor” in the form of investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and the 2016 elections.
Both of those probes could have helped Trump politically, and the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry is focused on whether Trump abused his office by recruiting a foreign leader for help in a U.S. election.
Trump’s Republican allies have criticized many of the witnesses who’ve testified in the investigation, saying their accounts lean too heavily on second- or third-hand information and are therefore unreliable. Holmes’s account was purportedly first-hand, and Democrats hailed his arrival in the Capitol.
“We always learn more when witnesses come in, and today we learned a lot more,” Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the Intelligence Committee, said Friday night as he left the closed-door deposition.
“The arrows continue to point in the direction of a shakedown scheme, led by the president of the United States [and] operated by agents like Rudy Giuliani, Gordon Sondland and Mick Mulvaney,” he continued.
On the July 26 call, Holmes testified, Sondland told Trump that Zelensky would do anything the president asked – including comply with the investigation requests – because the Ukrainian leader “loves your a–.”
Holmes also testified that he asked Sondland after the call if it was true that Trump “did not ‘give a shit about Ukraine.’”
Sondland responded that Trump only cares about “big stuff,” Holmes testified. Holmes said he noted plenty of big things happening in Ukraine, including a five-year-old war with Russia in the east.
“He meant ‘big stuff’ that benefits the President, like the Biden investigation that Mr. [Rudy] Giuliani was pushing,” Holmes said, paraphrasing Sondland.
Holmes said Sondland’s cell phone was not on speaker mode, but he could nonetheless hear Trump’s words because “the president’s voice was very loud and recognizable.”
The account was the latest twist in the fast-developing impeachment inquiry into Trump’s handling of foreign policy in Ukraine. Just days ago, the Trump-Sondland phone conversation was not widely known, but on Wednesday, William Taylor, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, testified publicly that Holmes relayed the story to him last week.
Holmes, the counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, is one of Taylor’s top staffers in Kyiv.
Holmes was the 16th witness to be interviewed behind closed doors in the Capitol basement since Democrats began the private depositions on Oct. 3.
His appearance came on the heels of the testimony of another witness, Marie Yovanovitch, who appeared in public before the Intelligence Committee for roughly five hours earlier in the day on Friday.
Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was deposed privately last month, but returned to Capitol Hill as the third witness to testify as part of the public hearing phase of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry.
The former ambassador, who was removed abruptly from Kyiv in May, painted a bleak picture of career diplomats fighting to salvage U.S.-Ukraine relations in the face of a shadow foreign policy, led by Giuliani, to secure business deals and political favors at all costs.
“How could our system fail like this?” she testified. “How is it that foreign corrupt interests could manipulate our government?”