WASHINGTON • Lawmakers yesterday questioned Mr David Holmes, a top staff member from the US Embassy in Ukraine, in a bid to learn more about a phone call in which he said he overheard President Donald Trump ask about the status of an "investigation" into a political rival.
As a political counsellor to the US Embassy in Ukraine's capital, Mr Holmes was privy to high-level conversations between top American and Ukrainian officials, and was often expected to take detailed notes of their conversations.
One of these conversations in particular - a phone call between Mr Trump and the US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland - has been a focal point of the House impeachment hearings.
During the call, Mr Sondland assured Mr Trump that Ukraine's newly elected President, Mr Volodymyr Zelensky, would be willing to go along with his demand to investigate the business dealings of Mr Hunter Biden, the younger son of former vice-president Joe Biden, according to Mr Holmes.
"I've never seen anything like this," he said last Friday in a closed-door testimony to House impeachment investigators. "There's just so much about the call that was so remarkable that I remember it vividly."
As Mr Holmes repeated his account of the phone call yesterday, Mr Trump lashed out on Twitter, taking aim at the diplomat's credibility, and suggesting there was no way he could have heard what he claims to have picked up.
"I have been watching people making phone calls my entire life. My hearing is, and has been, great," said Mr Trump in a tweet. "Never have I been watching a person making a call, which was not on speakerphone, and been able to hear or understand a conversation. I've even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!"
Mr Holmes' account shed new details on how Trump administration officials leveraged political power, including a White House meeting and hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance, to bend Ukrainian officials to Mr Trump's will. Mr Trump has denied wrongdoing, verbally assailed witnesses and described the impeachment proceedings as a "witch hunt".
He also said he does not remember the call with Mr Sondland.
In his closed-door testimony, Mr Holmes said that after overhearing Mr Sondland's phone conversation with Mr Trump at an outdoor restaurant in Kiev, he asked the ambassador if it was true that the President did not care about Ukraine.
In Mr Holmes' telling, Mr Sondland said that it was, and added that Mr Trump cares only about "'big stuff' that benefits the President, like the 'Biden investigation' that Mr (Rudy) Giuliani was pushing".
Yesterday's hearing marked the last scheduled day of marathon sessions by the House Intelligence Committee focused on whether Mr Trump wrongfully pressured Mr Zelensky to investigate Mr Biden.
Mr Trump's former Russia adviser Fiona Hill also gave her testimony, warning lawmakers that Russia is gearing up to repeat its election interference activities next year.
"We are running out of time to stop them," she said in her advance testimony.
U.S. AMBASSADOR TO THE EUROPEAN UNION GORDON SONDLAND
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'.
On United States President Donald Trump seeking Ukraine's help to investigate political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter, using a Latin term meaning to exchange a favour for another favour.
Everyone was in the loop. It was no secret.
- On high-level participation, including from US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to pressure Ukraine to accede to Mr Trump's request.
U.S. PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP
It was a very short and abrupt conversation that he (Mr Sondland) had with me. Here's my response (to Mr Sondland's question on what Mr Trump wanted from Ukraine)... Ready? You have the cameras rolling? Here's my answer: 'I want nothing. I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell Zelensky to do the right thing'.
- On his exchange with Mr Sondland to prove that he did not pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
U.S. SECRETARY OF STATE MIKE POMPEO
I didn't see a single thing today. I was working. Sounds like you might not have been. I was in meetings all day and haven't had a chance to see any of that testimony.
- On a reporter's question about Mr Sondland's testimony that implicates him.