But that’s the view of a layperson. For members of the media and, presumably, members of the House Intelligence Committee, the nuances should be much more familiar. While most Americans are likely unclear about who David Holmes is or what job he performed for the government, it is presumed that those conducting the hearings should be familiar not only with those details but also with his past statements, the ramifications of his Thursday testimony and how his representation of what happened overlaps with what’s already known.
During the committee’s public hearing on Thursday, though, a series of interlocutors from the Republican side demonstrated that they were not particularly familiar with the testimony that had already been given — or, at least, that they were willing to present that past testimony in a way that changed its significance.
Republican counsel Steve Castor
The pattern began with questioning from Steve Castor, a staffer for the minority who has been tasked with eliciting answers from witnesses during the first 45 minutes of Republican questioning in each hearing.
On Thursday, his questions included an effort to undermine the idea that Vice President Pence had been asked not to attend Zelensky’s inauguration as part of an effort to put pressure on the Ukrainians. To do so, he cited testimony from Jennifer Williams, an aide to the vice president.
“Ms. Williams’s testimony was that she just — she heard from the chief of staff’s assistant that the vice president was not able to go,” Castor said. “The leap [that] the reason for that was related to any of these investigations hasn’t been fully established.”
As committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) quickly noted, that wasn’t what Williams had said.
“I asked my colleague why we should stop trip planning and why the vice president would not be attending,” she testified, “and I was informed that the president had decided the vice president would not attend the inauguration.”
The difference is important. As Castor represents it, the decision not to go was a function of Pence’s schedule. What Williams said, though, was that Trump made the call — which is exactly what was alleged by the intelligence community whistleblower whose complaint kicked off the Ukraine probe.
Rep. Jim Jordan
After Castor’s introductory questioning and questions from a Democratic member of the committee, it was the turn of Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), who has earned something of a reputation for his style of questioning, generally merging volume, velocity and hectoring into sometimes-confusing riffs.
That was the approach he took with Holmes on Thursday. In his patter, he pressed Holmes to explain why, if a July 26 call between Trump and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland was so important, Holmes’s boss, acting Ukraine ambassador William B. Taylor Jr., hadn’t mentioned it in his testimony.
“Mr. Holmes, why didn’t your boss talk about it?” Jordan asked. “Why didn’t your boss bring up the call that you overheard? The reason you’re here today. I mean, you’re their closing witness. Yet their star witness, their first witness, Ambassador Taylor, didn’t even bring it up.”
Taylor did talk about it. It was in his opening statement when he testified before the committee last week. In fact, it was that testimony that brought Holmes to the committee’s attention, leading to his being deposed over the weekend and testifying on Thursday.
“Last Friday, a member of my staff told me of events that occurred on July 26,” Taylor told the committee on Nov. 13. “While Ambassador Volker and I visited the front, this member of my staff accompanied Ambassador Sondland. Ambassador Sondland met with Mr. Yermak. Following that meeting, in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv. The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone, asking Ambassador Sondland about ‘the investigations.’ Ambassador Sondland told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.”
Had Taylor not mentioned it, Holmes might well not have been there for Jordan to question.
Rep. John Ratcliffe
Following another Democratic question, up came Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Tex.). He similarly pressed Holmes on that phone call, apparently trying to raise questions about the accuracy of his recollection by demanding that Holmes describe parts of the call in specific detail. (In his testimony on Wednesday, Sondland indicated that Holmes’s representation of the call was accurate.)
At one point, his time running out, Ratcliffe pushed Holmes on how it was that Sondland could confirm to Trump that Zelensky planned to undertake the desired investigations.
Those investigations were “raised the day before on a call” — the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call — “and the next day Gordon Sondland said the answer to that was he’s going to do the investigations. So when did he ask about the investigation?” Ratcliffe asked.
“My assumption is he did it in the closed-door meeting with Yermak,” Holmes replied, referring to a meeting Sondland had with Zelensky aide Andriy Yermak shortly before Sondland’s call with Trump took place.
“Well, I don’t want to — I appreciate that,” Ratcliffe replied. “But I want to make sure the record is clear that yesterday Ambassador Sondland testified that the topic of [investigations] did not come up on that day.”
Sondland specifically indicated that he believed the investigations had been raised — during his meeting with Yermak.
This, too, was in Sondland’s opening statement, provided to the committee on Wednesday.
“After the Zelensky meeting, I also met with Mr. Zelensky’s senior aide, Andriy Yermak,” he said. “While I do not recall the specifics of our conversation, I believe the issue of investigations was probably a part of the agenda.”
Let the record be clear, indeed.
Rep. Mike Turner
Another Democrat, and then to Rep. Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), who returned to a favorite argument of Republican questioners, that all of the available evidence was hearsay. To make that point, he walked through a number of allegations, suggesting that in each case the hearsay was unfounded.
As he began, he focused on a chain of allegations that involved Taylor, former National Security Council staffer Tim Morrison and George Kent of the State Department.
“We have Kent and Ambassador Taylor who spoke of hearsay, their hearsay of these matters that they said that they had heard were all statements that they’d heard from others who have also testified in front of us,” Turner said. “So there’s no one that’s missing. There’s no one out there. Kent and Taylor basically said that they’d heard it from Morrison and Sondland, Morrison indicated he’d heard it from Sondland. Sondland testified yesterday that he’d heard it from no one on the planet.”
To some extent, that’s true. Turner asked Sondland how he came to assume that the placement of a hold on aid to Ukraine was linked to Trump’s desire for investigations.
“No one on this planet told you that President Trump was tying aid to investigations, yes or no?” Turner asked.
But Sondland nonetheless had told Yermak that the probes were a condition for the aid to move forward on Sept. 1. Sondland has testified repeatedly that this was an assumption to which he came, barring any official reason for the hold being communicated. (In his testimony, Holmes suggested that Ukraine probably came to the same conclusion.) That condition was then conveyed to Morrison, who told Taylor about it in a phone call. When Taylor broached the subject with Sondland later, Sondland asked Trump — but Sondland refused to testify that he believed Trump’s denial.
The point, though, is that Taylor’s and Morrison’s hearsay was correct. Sondland may not have been told that aid and the probes were linked, but he did tell Ukraine that they were, and Morrison and Taylor were justified in believing that they were as a result.
Turner’s is admittedly the least egregious error of the four. It is nonetheless remarkable that time after time after time, Republicans presented Thursday’s witnesses with questions that were rooted in subtly or obviously incorrect premises.
If those mistakes reflect a lack of familiarity with the source material from members of the central impeachment committee, Americans might be justified in wondering how informed House members at large will be in the event of a vote on articles of impeachment.