WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump specifically inquired about a political investigation by Ukraine into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son during a July phone call with a top United States diplomat, a State Department aide said Friday in closed-door testimony that could significantly advance the House’s impeachment inquiry.
David Holmes, an embassy staffer in Kyiv, testified that he overheard a July 26 phone call between Trump and U.S. ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland in which the President asked if Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky would “do the investigation,” according to two people familiar with the testimony.
“Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘He’s going to do it.’ adding that President Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to,’” Holmes said, according to the people, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the closed-door proceedings.
Holmes’ testimony, which confirmed an account relayed Wednesday by acting ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, directly implicates Trump in a scheme at the heart of the impeachment probe, which Democrats have pursued in an attempt to prove that the President leveraged military assistance and an Oval Office meeting in exchange for investigations into Biden. It came just hours after Taylor’s predecessor told Congress that Trump recalled her after a smear campaign aimed at advancing corrupt interests in Ukraine.
Holmes testified that he overheard parts of Trump’s phone call with Sondland during a lunch in Kyiv, because the President was speaking so loudly that his voice was audible through the phone to others sitting nearby, according to people familiar with the testimony.
Holmes’ testimony increases pressure on Republicans, who have dismissed other witnesses as relaying hearsay and speculation about Trump’s motives in withholding almost $400 million in aid from Ukraine. It also raises the stakes for next week’s testimony by Sondland, who will be pressed to answer questions about the call. Sondland didn’t mention the call during closed-door testimony before lawmakers last month in which he claimed little knowledge of any link between Biden and the investigations sought by Trump.
Holmes testified that when he asked Sondland about Trump’s views about Ukraine after the phone call, Sondland said Trump didn’t care about the country and was primarily interested in investigations it could provide into allegations of corruption by Biden being pushed by the President’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Holmes’ testimony came shortly after former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch told lawmakers Friday that she had felt threatened and intimidated by Trump’s attacks on her.
Yovanovitch said that when she first read how President Trump had talked about her to his Ukrainian counterpart in a July phone call — saying ominously that “she’s going to go through some things” — the color drained from her face.
“It sounded like a threat,” she said.
Yovanovitch’s five-hour testimony, which began with a passionate defense of American diplomacy and ended to a crescendo of applause, took a dramatic turn when Trump took to Twitter to denigrate her again as she spoke.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” Trump wrote shortly after the diplomat’s opening statement.
Trump’s attack on a widely respected Foreign Service officer — while she calmly but forcefully denounced previous attempts to smear her — drew widespread criticism, with many Democratic lawmakers calling it witness intimidation and some Republicans distancing themselves from the President’s scorched-earth tactics.
As some GOP lawmakers denied the witness-intimidation charge, Yovanovitch provided her own view.
“It’s very intimidating,” she said after House Intelligence committee chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., read Trump’s tweets to her. “I can’t speak to what the President is trying to do. But I think the effect is to be intimidating.”
While the second day of the House public impeachment hearings ended with both parties still firmly entrenched behind their battle lines, Yovanovitch’s highly personal testimony put Republicans on the defensive, undercutting GOP talking points with a sober account of misconduct and corruption by Trump’s allies in Ukraine.
While her interactions with Trump were minimal, Yovanovitch described how actions by the President and his personal attorney, Giuliani, served to undermine American interests in Ukraine. A smear campaign led by Giuliani and supported by corrupt officials led to her abrupt ouster from her post in Kyiv, she said.
“Our Ukraine policy has been thrown into disarray, and shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want,” she said.
She also methodically dismissed several Republican attempts to advance conspiracy theories embraced by Trump, ranging from alleged Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election to the charge that Biden and his son had been involved in corruption in Ukraine.
Republicans attempted to downplay Yovanovitch as irrelevant to the impeachment inquiry, pointing out just how much she didn’t know, and questioning why the Intelligence Committee was interviewing her.
“I’m not exactly sure what the ambassador is doing here today,” panel ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., said, suggesting Yovanovitch’s predicament was little more than a personnel dispute that would be “more appropriate for the subcommittee on Human Resources on Foreign Affairs.”
Nunes and the GOP’s counsel, Steve Castor, asked Yovanovitch a series of questions to prove her irrelevance, asking if she was involved in preparing for the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, or if she had taken part in plans for a White House meeting between the two heads of state, or if she had ever spoken with Trump or his acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, among other queries. Yovanovitch answered no to all of them.
“The ambassador’s not a material fact witness to any of the accusations that are being hurled at the president in this impeachment inquiry,” Nunes said.
But Trump’s mid-hearing tweet could ultimately make Friday’s hearing a more central part of his own impeachment.
Schiff told reporters during a break in the hearing that the nation had just seen witness intimidation in real time by the president of the United States.” Other Democrats discussed drafting an article of impeachment related to obstruction of justice.
Some conservatives also criticized his tweet as misguided, and several Republican lawmakers contradicted Trump by praising rather than attacking Yovanovitch’s public service.
Former independent counsel Ken Starr, a frequent Trump defender, said on Fox News that the president “was not advised by counsel in deciding to do this tweet. Extraordinarily poor judgment.”
Earlier Friday, the White House released a rough transcript of Trump’s April 21 phone call with Zelensky, a largely congratulatory conversation after Zelensky’s election victory.
While Trump viewed the call as exculpatory, it quickly became a controversy of its own after discrepancies between the rough transcript and a previous White House readout of the call from April 21 were discovered.
The White House readout, which serves as the administration’s post-call description of the conversation, said the call underscored “the unwavering support of the United States for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.” The readout also said Trump spoke with Zelensky about “reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity and root out corruption.”
None of those topics are mentioned in the rough transcript released Friday.
The White House seemed to tacitly blame Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, who has delivered damaging testimony against the president, for the discrepancy in the official readout offered in April and the memorandum of the phone call.
“It is standard operating procedure for the National Security Council to provide readouts of the president’s phone calls with foreign leaders. This one was prepared by the NSC’s Ukraine expert,” spokesman Hogan Gidley said Friday.
Trump also spent part of the day lamenting over the felony conviction of his longtime confidant Roger Stone.
A federal jury convicted Stone of lying to Congress and tampering with a witness about his efforts to learn about the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks release of hacked Democratic emails in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“So they now convict Roger Stone of lying and want to jail him for many years to come,” Trump wrote on Twitter, before accusing a bevy of his own political opponents and law enforcement and intelligence officials who were involved in the investigation of his campaign of dishonesty. “A double standard like never seen before in the history of our Country?”
But Yovanovitch’s dramatic first-person narrative of her abrupt recall this spring from Kyiv, where she had served as ambassador since 2016, dominated much of the second day of televised impeachment hearings.
In addition to criticizing the “smear campaign” that forced her to book an unexpected flight to leave Ukraine on short notice, Yovanovitch also described in detail how it felt to read a rough transcript of Trump’s July phone call with Zelensky when it was published in September — and to learn that the two world leaders had traded insults about her.
“I was shocked, absolutely shocked, and devastated frankly,” she said.
On the call, Trump called Yovanovitch “bad news” and ominously predicted that she would “go through some things.”
Yovanovitch testified that when she first read those words, a friend who was with her at the time told her she looked stricken.
“The color drained from my face. I think I even had a physical reaction,” she said. “Even now, words kind of fail me.”
She said Trump’s statements sounded like “a vague threat, so I wondered what that meant.”
Even as she spoke, back at the White House, where aides said Trump did not plan to watch the proceedings, Trump was tweeting about the former ambassador.
“She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” Trump added, referring one of the numerous hardship postings the veteran diplomat held in her 33-year career.
“Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him,” Trump continued. “It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.”
Back in the hearing room, Schiff informed Yovanovitch the president had been tweeting about her, even as she spoke, and said he wished to give her an opportunity to respond.
She at first appeared taken aback. Schiff began to read aloud. A small smile crept onto Yovanovitch’s face, as she heard the president had blamed her for troubles in war-torn Somalia.
“I don’t think I have such powers,” she replied. “Not in Mogadishu, Somalia. Not in other places.”
She went on to say she believes she and other U.S. diplomats have made things “demonstrably better” in the nations where they have served, particularly in Ukraine, which she said has made strides in strengthening democratic institutions in recent years.
Asked to respond to allegations that he committed witness tampering by tweeting disparagingly about Yovanovitch during her testimony, Trump pivoted and said the real tampering was done by the Democrats for not allowing the White House lawyers to ask questions or the Republicans to call their own witnesses.
“I have the right to speak. I have freedom of speech, just as other people do,” Trump said, when pressed by reporters at the end of a White House event on lowering prescription drug prices.
The House impeachment inquiry is expected to intensify in the days ahead, something the White House decried Friday.
“It is difficult to imagine a greater waste of time than today’s hearing, and yet unfortunately we expect more of the same partisan political theater next week from House Democrats,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement.
On Saturday, a longtime career employee at the White House Office of Management and Budget is expected to break ranks and testify, potentially filling in important details on the holdup of military aid to Ukraine. Mark Sandy would be the first OMB employee to testify in the inquiry, after other top officials there defied congressional subpoenas.
Next week, Democrats expect to hold public hearings with Vindman, Sondland and Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine.
The Washington Post’s Karoun Demirjian, John Wagner, Colby Itkowitz and Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.