Key impeachment witnesses say it was clear that President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was pursuing political investigations of Democrats in Ukraine, and call Ukraine election interference theory "fictional narrative."

Fiona Hill, a former aide, and David Holmes(C), a US diplomat, are sworn-in before they testify during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on November 21, 2019.
Fiona Hill, a former aide, and David Holmes(C), a US diplomat, are sworn-in before they testify during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on November 21, 2019. (AFP)

Key impeachment witnesses said on Thursday it was clear that President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was pursuing political investigations of Democrats in Ukraine. 

State Department official David Holmes said he understood that Giuliani's push to investigate "Burisma," the Ukraine gas company where Democrat Joe Biden's son Hunter served on the board, was code for the former vice president and his family. Former White House adviser Fiona Hill warned that Giuliani had been making "explosive" and "incendiary" claims.

"He was clearly pushing forward issues and ideas that would, you know, probably come back to haunt us and in fact," Hill testified. "I think that's where we are today."

Their testimony undercuts the president's argument he only wanted to root out Ukrainian corruption.

Hill also urged lawmakers in the House of Representatives' impeachment inquiry on Thursday to quit pushing a "fictional" narrative that Ukraine, not Russia interfered in the 2016 election as they defend Trump in the impeachment inquiry.

In her testimony, Hill said some members of the panel based on their questions and statements appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against the United States during the 2016 presidential race and that perhaps Ukraine did.

Some Republican members of the Democratic-led committee, which is leading the impeachment inquiry, have advanced a discredited conspiracy theory, embraced by Trump and promoted by his political allies, that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the last US presidential election.

"This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves," said Hill, who until July served as the director for Europe and Russian affairs at the White House National Security Council.

"In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests," she said.

Thursday's hearing marked the fifth and last scheduled day of the House Intelligence Committee's public hearings in the impeachment inquiry.

Trump's alleged pressure on Ukraine

The investigation is focused on the US president's request in a July 25 phone call that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy conduct two investigations that could harm Trump's political adversaries.

The first involved Joe Biden, a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the November 2020 US presidential election, and his son Hunter Biden. The second involved the discredited notion of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election to harm Trump's candidacy.

The inquiry is also examining whether Trump's withholding of $391 million in security aid to Ukraine, approved by Congress to fight Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country, was meant to pressure Zelenskiy to undertake the investigations.

US intelligence agencies and former Special Counsel Robert Mueller have determined that Russia interfered in the 2016 election with a campaign of hacking and propaganda intended to sow discord in the United States, boost Trump's candidacy and harm his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton.

Mueller's team brought criminal charges against 12 Russian intelligence officers in the hacking effort, accusing them of covertly monitoring employee computers and planting malicious code, as well as stealing emails and other documents.

US diplomat Holmes testifies 

David Holmes, a staffer from the US  Embassy in Ukraine, also testified at Thursday's hearing, as lawmakers seek to learn more about a July 26 phone call in which Holmes said he overheard Trump ask a senior US diplomat about the status of the investigations.

Holmes testified that his work at the embassy started to become overshadowed in March by the actions of Trump's personal lawyer, Giuliani, who was pushing Ukraine to carry out the two probes.

"I became aware that Mr Giuliani, a private lawyer, was taking a direct role in Ukrainian diplomacy," Holmes said.

Holmes also said he was "shocked" on July 18 when an official from the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) announced that security assistance to Ukraine was being withheld.

"The official said the order had come from the president and had been conveyed to OMB by Mr Mulvaney with no further explanation," Holmes said, referring to acting White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.

Holmes added that embassy officials spent the next weeks trying to determine why the aid was being held up.

Running out of time

Hill, a naturalised US citizen from Britain, warned lawmakers that Russia is gearing up to repeat its election interference activities in 2020.

"We are running out of time to stop them," she said.

The committee's top Republican, Devin Nunes, took issue with Hill's testimony.

Nunes said Hill "claimed that some committee members deny that Russia meddled in the 2016 election" but said a report by Intelligence Committee Republicans "analysed the 2016 Russia meddling campaign."

"Needless to say, it's entirely possible for two separate nations to engage in election meddling at the same time and Republicans believe we should take the meddling seriously by all foreign countries, regardless of which campaign is the target," Nunes said.

Like a number of career government officials who have already testified, Hill said she prides herself as a non-partisan foreign policy expert who has served Republican and Democratic presidents.

Hill recalled a July 10 meeting between US and Ukrainian officials that then-White House national security adviser John Bolton cut short after Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the European Union, said there was an agreement for an Oval Office visit for Ukraine's president if his government started certain investigations.

She said Bolton told her to attend a follow-up meeting at which she heard Sondland say there was an agreement with Mulvaney for the meeting. She said she heard Sondland mention the Ukrainian energy company Burisma, which she considered inappropriate.

After reporting to Bolton what she heard, he told her to go to National Security Council lawyer John Eisenberg.

"You go and tell Eisenberg that I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this," Bolton said.

'Anything you ask him to'

Holmes told lawmakers on Thursday that he heard Trump's voice on the July 26 phone call with Sondland at a Kyiv restaurant in which Trump asked about Ukraine's willingness to carry out an investigation.

"So, he's gonna do the investigation?" Trump asked Sondland, referring to Zelenskiy, Holmes said.

"He's gonna do it," replied Sondland, he said.

Sondland added that the Ukrainian president would do "anything you ask him to," Holmes said.

Holmes said Sondland told him after the call that Trump was interested in "big stuff" in Ukraine, defining that as "like the Biden investigation that Giuliani is pushing."

Sondland on Wednesday testified he could not remember the precise details of the call Holmes overheard but took issue with his recollection that he had talked about the Bidens. "I do not recall mentioning the Bidens. That did not enter my mind. It was Burisma and 2016 elections," Sondland said.

The impeachment inquiry could lead the Democratic-led House to approve formal charges against Trump — called articles of impeachment — that would be sent to the Republican-controlled Senate for a trial on whether to remove him from office.

TRT World's Jon Brain reports. 

Few Republican senators have broken with Trump.

Trump has denied wrongdoing, publicly criticised witnesses and described the impeachment proceedings as a "witch hunt." He says he does not remember the call with Sondland.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies