State staffer who described Trump-Sondland phone call to testify publicly this week

David Holmes is slated to testify in a public impeachment hearing on Thursday, during which the career foreign service officer is expected to describe overhearing President Trump ask a top U.S. diplomat for details about Kyiv launching investigations.

Holmes, a State Department official based in Ukraine, told House investigators during a private deposition last week that Trump asked Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, during a July 26 phone conversation for an update on “the investigation.” 

And Sondland responded that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would give Trump what he wanted.

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“So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” Trump asked, according to Holmes’s opening statement, which was obtained by The Hill.

“He’s gonna do it,” Sondland replied, adding that the foreign leader will do “anything you ask him to.” 

“He loves your ass,” continued Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and GOP mega-donor who was appointed by Trump.

Holmes is seen as a key witness by Democrats who believe he can link Trump to the shadowy foreign policy towards Ukraine led by other officials like Sondland and Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer.

In particular, Democrats have alleged that Trump withheld nearly $400 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine as leverage to secure a public commitment from Zelensky to open investigations into alleged interference in the 2016 election as well as Burisma, the energy company that employed the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, one of Trump’s top 2020 political rivals.

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Holmes, who first worked under ousted U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and then her replacement, Bill Taylor, testified that he believed a show of U.S. support was “critical” to Zelensky.

“[Zelensky] needed to demonstrate U.S. support at the highest levels both to advance his ambitious anti-corruption agenda at home, and to encourage Russian President [Vladimir] Putin to take seriously President Zelensky’s peace efforts,” Holmes testified.

But Trump’s suspicious perception of Zelensky, including claims by Giuliani that the foreign leader was “surrounded by enemies of the [U.S. President],” impacted the president’s treatment of Ukraine.

“Beginning in March 2019, the situation at the Embassy and in Ukraine changed dramatically. Specifically, our diplomatic policy that had been focused on supporting Ukrainian democratic reform and resistance to Russian aggression became overshadowed by a political agenda being promoted by Rudy Giuliani and a cadre of officials operating with a direct channel to the White House,” Holmes testified, according to his opening statement.

Revelations that a foreign service officer had overheard a call between Trump and Sondland first arose during Taylor’s public impeachment hearing last week.

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Holmes said he had been following the progress of the impeachment inquiry through press reports and the released testimonies of Taylor and Yovanovitch. After reviewing reports that described “the lack of first-hand evidence in the investigation,” Holmes told Taylor realized he had “first hand knowledge regarding certain events on July 26 that had not otherwise been reported, and that those events potentially bore on the question of whether the President did, in fact, have knowledge that those officials were using the levers of our diplomatic power to induce the new Ukrainian President to announce the opening of a particular criminal investigation.”

The phone call, according to Holmes, took place when he was at a lunch with Sondland and two of his colleagues, who he believes also overheard the conversation.

Sondland had invited Holmes to lunch after he pushed to be briefed on a private meeting the diplomat had with a top Zelensky aide, without a representative from the Kyiv embassy or a customary note-taker present.

And while the lunch started off socially, he saw Sondland’s demeanor change after receiving a call from the White House, which connected him to Trump.

While the phone call was not on speakerphone, he “could hear the President’s voice through the earpiece of the phone … presumably because of the loud volume,” according to his testimony. 

“Even though I did not take notes of these statements, I have a clear recollection that these statements were made. I believe that my colleagues who were sitting at the table also knew that Ambassador Sondland was speaking with the President,” Holmes testified.

Holmes said after the call concluded, he pressed Sondland for his “candid impression of the President’s views on Ukraine,” to which the ambassador replied: Trump did not “give a shit about Ukraine.” 

When pressed why not, Sondland said Trump only cares about “big stuff,” which he described as stuff that benefits the president, like the “Biden investigation” that Giuliani was pushing. 

Holmes is slated to testify on the same day as Fiona Hill, a former top White House Russia expert. Their testimonies come on a jam-packed week with nine total witnesses slated to testify over the course of three days.

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Written by Alan Smith

Alan Smith

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