WASHINGTON - House Democrats on Thursday concluded a 72-hour blitz of impeachment inquiry hearings with testimony from two witnesses who reinforced that President Donald Trump likely withheld military aid and a coveted White House meeting from Ukraine to sway that country to investigate his political rival.
The testimony from Fiona Hill, a former White House adviser on Russia, and David Holmes, a counselor in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, closed a dramatic week in which lawmakers summoned nine witnesses to describe what Democrats believe was a self-serving effort by Trump and his allies to coerce Ukraine into announcing an investigation into former vice president Joe Biden - to the detriment of U.S. national security interests.
Their testimony might be the last the House Intelligence Committee takes publicly as part of its impeachment inquiry. The committee has begun writing a report summarizing its findings, according to people familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Democrats' next moves. Once that has been completed, proceedings will move to the House Judiciary Committee, which will draft specific articles of impeachment. The Judiciary Committee could begin its work when lawmakers return from the Thanksgiving recess, the people said.
Hill and Holmes detailed tense behind-the-scenes deliberations among Trump administration officials, presenting fresh perspective on how the collective effect of efforts by the president and his allies ultimately benefited Russia, which backs Ukrainian separatists fighting the government in Kyiv.
In addition to pressing for investigations, the pair testified, those aligned with the president - particularly Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani - undercut Marie Yovanovitch, a respected U.S. diplomat who serverd as the ambassador to Ukraine, and spread unfounded allegations that Ukraine, rather than Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
"This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services," Hill said.
The two witnesses were the last who had been formally scheduled for public hearings - though others could be added, and the House Intelligence Committee is still expected to release the remaining transcripts of its private depositions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., declined to say Thursday whether she has heard enough to move the impeachment process forward, though she asserted that Democrats would not wait on the courts to compel the appearance of several other potential witnesses, including acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and former national security adviser John Bolton. Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., seemed to make Democrats' next step clear, saying Trump's actions were "beyond" even what President Richard M. Nixon did in the Watergate scandal that forced him to resign.
Meanwhile, roughly a half-dozen Republican senators and senior White House officials met in private Thursday to map out strategy on a potential impeachment trial of President Trump, including trying to limit proceedings to two weeks, according to officials familiar with the discussion who spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose GOP planning.
Despite some damaging testimony suggesting the president wanted a foreign power to investigate a U.S. citizen as part of a quid pro quo, Republicans, so far, have been unmoved.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., sent a letter to Pompeo on Thursday requesting documents on Biden, his son Hunter and other Obama administration officials - touching off what appears to be a conservative counter-investigation.
Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the highest ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, asserted that Democrats were making an "attempt to overthrow the president."
"The damage they have done to this country will be long-lasting," he said.
Trump retweeted some allies' assessments of the inquiry, including that of Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who wrote, "A notable theme in these hearings: some career officials seem to act as though their job is to decide America's foreign policy. It's the President who sets policy - not unelected bureaucrats."
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said Thursday's witnesses, "just like the rest, have no personal or direct knowledge regarding why U.S. aid was temporarily withheld."
"The Democrats' are clearly being motivated by a sick hatred for President Trump and their rabid desire to overturn the 2016 election," she said. "The American people deserve better."
Like other witnesses before them, Hill and Holmes said they grew increasingly dismayed, starting in the spring and summer, as their efforts to arrange a meeting between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky were stymied by Giuliani and others.
The officials said they would come to learn the White House was also withholding roughly $400 million of security assistance from Ukraine, and Holmes said it was his "clear impression" that was because Zelensky would not announce investigations as Trump and Giuliani wanted.
"While we had advised our Ukrainian counterparts to voice a commitment to following the rule of law and generally investigating credible corruption allegations, this was a demand that President Zelensky personally commit, on a cable news channel, to a specific investigation of President Trump's political rival," Holmes testified.
Hill and Holmes described how different officials in the U.S. government seemed to be working at different purposes - and with different instructions - in their dealings with Ukraine.
In one of the most notable exchanges of the day, Hill - under questioning from committee Republicans' lawyer - described growing angry with Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, who had told her that Trump tapped him personally to work on Ukraine issues.
In his testimony Wednesday, Sondland explicitly linked Trump, Vice President Pence and other senior officials to what he said he came to believe was a campaign to pressure a foreign government to investigate Biden in exchange for a White House meeting and military aid. Sondland also acknowledged his own role in the matter, though he said he did not realize in real time that what he was doing was improper.
Hill said that she confronted Sondland for not coordinating with her and that he responded he already was briefing Trump, Mulvaney, Pompeo and Bolton.
"Who else," Hill said Sondland asked her, "do I have to deal with?"
Hill said that watching Sondland's testimony, she came to understand he was "absolutely right."
"He wasn't coordinating with us because we weren't doing the same thing that he was doing," Hill said. "He was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy."
Hill said she told Sondland: "Gordon, I think this is all going to blow up."
"And here we are," Hill said.
Hill said that she had observed Sondland press Ukrainians to announce investigations and suggest they would not get a White House meeting unless they did so.
That occurred at a July 10 meeting involving Ukrainians and Bolton, Sondland, Energy Secretary Rick Perry and then-special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, Hill said. As the meeting was wrapping up, she said, a Ukrainian official inquired about a White House meeting, and Bolton tried to change the subject.
Sondland, Hill said, interjected to say "there will be a meeting, if specific investigations are put underway."
"That's when I saw Ambassador Bolton stiffen," Hill testified, adding that the national security adviser soon declared he had to leave.
Hill testified that Bolton told her later to report the matter to the National Security Council's top lawyer, John Eisenberg, and relay the message, "I am not part of this, whatever drug deal that Mulvaney and Sondland are cooking up." Sondland, she said, had claimed Mulvaney had agreed to schedule a meeting if Ukraine would agree to announce the investigations.
Robert Driscoll, an attorney for Mulvaney, said in a statement that Hill's testimony was "riddled with speculation and guesses about any role that Mr. Mulvaney played with anything related to Ukraine."
Bolton's lawyer has said he is willing to testify only if a federal judge rules that he can do so over a White House objection. His testimony could be particularly important because he had direct contact with Trump, and, according to other witnesses, was uncomfortable with some of what was happening in the White House.
Hill testified, for example, that Bolton referred to Giuliani as a "hand grenade" that was going to "blow everyone up."
"He was frequently on television, making quite incendiary remarks about everyone involved in this," Hill said of Giuliani. "He was clearly pushing forward issues and ideas that would probably come back to haunt us. And, in fact, I think that that's where we are today."
Holmes, too, described noteworthy administration dealings on Ukraine, in particular a conversation between Trump and Sondland on July 26 - a day after Trump had pressed Zelensky to investigate the Bidens in a phone call that was a trigger for the impeachment inquiry.
Lunching at an open-air cafe in Kyiv, Holmes testified, Sondland called the White House on his personal cellphone. Trump, he said, spoke so loudly that his voice was clear even though it wasn't on speakerphone.
Holmes said he heard Trump ask, "So, he's gonna do the investigation?" and Sondland reply, "He's gonna do it" - alluding to Zelensky.
"I've never seen anything like this in my Foreign Service career," Holmes testified.
After the call ended, Holmes testified, he asked Sondland what Trump thought of Ukraine. He said the ambassador, who had taken an informal role leading Ukraine policy, responded that Trump did not care at all about Ukraine and cared only about the "big stuff" that affected him personally - namely "the Biden investigation."
Holmes' public testimony on Thursday matched information he provided to the committee behind closed doors. Sondland on Wednesday testified that he did not think he had specifically referred to Biden while speaking to Holmes after the phone call.
For his part, Trump tweeted, "I have been watching people making phone calls my entire life. My hearing is, and has been, great. 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!"
Hill and Holmes both described how the efforts of Giuliani and others upended U.S. foreign policy - leaving Ukraine vulnerable.
Though the U.S. ultimately turned over the money to Ukraine in September after lawmakers began raising questions, Holmes noted that Trump still had not agreed to a coveted White House meeting for Zelensky.
"They still need us now, going forward," Holmes said. "This doesn't end with the lifting of the security assistance hold."
Focusing on the notion that Russia interfered in the 2016 election, Hill offered a blunt warning about the 2020 campaign, saying the Kremlin has "geared up to repeat their" attacks and "we are running out of time to stop them."
She said she raised such issues because Russia's goal was to put the U.S. president - no matter who it might be - "under a cloud."
"This," she said, "is exactly what the Russian government was hoping for."
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The Washington Post's Rachael Bade, Aaron Davis, Josh Dawsey, John Hudson, Colby Itkowitz, Paul Kane, Seung Min Kim, Greg Miller, John Wagner and Felicia Sonmez contributed to this report.
This article was written by ____, a reporter for The Washington Post.