WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President Donald Trump’s former Russia adviser Fiona Hill urged lawmakers in the House of Representatives impeachment inquiry on Thursday not to promote “politically driven falsehoods” that cast doubt on Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. election.
In her testimony to the House Intelligence Committee, 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 U.S. 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 European 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 marks the fifth and last scheduled day of the House Intelligence Committee’s public hearings in the impeachment inquiry.
The investigation is focused on the U.S. 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 U.S. presidential election, and his son Hunter Biden, who had served on the board of Ukrainian gas company Burisma. 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.
U.S. 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.
David Holmes, a staffer from the U.S. 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 U.S. 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, Rudy 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 naturalized U.S. 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 “analyzed 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 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 nonpartisan foreign policy expert who has served Republican and Democratic presidents.
Hill recalled a July 10 meeting between U.S. and Ukrainian officials that then-White House national security adviser John Bolton cut short after Gordon Sondland, U.S. 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.
Holmes told lawmakers on Thursday that he heard Trump’s voice on the July 26 phone call with Sondland at a Kiev 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. Few Republican senators have broken with Trump.
Trump has denied wrongdoing, publicly criticized witnesses and described the impeachment proceedings as a “witch hunt.” He also says he does not remember the call with Sondland.