That has certainly been the case over the past two weeks as the House Intelligence Committee held 30 hours of public hearings in which it interviewed 12 witnesses as part of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s interactions with Ukraine. A number of new developments helped flesh out our understanding of what Trump asked of Ukraine, how he and his team applied pressure to get Ukraine to comply, and when all this unfolded. In case some of those developments got buried in the blizzard of news, here are the most significant things we learned since the beginning of the public impeachment hearings.
The public hearings began with testimony from acting Ukraine ambassador William B. Taylor Jr. and George Kent, a senior State Department official. Taylor offered the most important new insights, including the revelation that he had been reminded by a subordinate about a July 26 call between Trump and Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.
That call occurred the day after Trump spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and asked him to open two investigations. One focused on former vice president Joe Biden, his son Hunter and Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma Holdings. The other centered on the idea that Ukraine had somehow helped unfairly suggest that Russia had been responsible for the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee. (Neither of these proposed investigations has a substantive factual basis.)
In the July 26 call, Sondland and Trump discussed the investigations and Trump’s relationship with Zelensky. The staffer who overheard the call, David Holmes, testified on Thursday. We’ll outline what he revealed below.
As the inquiry proceeded, Republican members of the House committee tried to reframe Trump’s requested 2016 investigation as being broadly about concern that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election, which is neither what Trump asked nor itself has any significant demonstrable foundation.
Kent himself rejected that claim, the first of several witnesses to do so.
“To my knowledge, there is no factual basis, no,” he testified. “I think it’s amply clear that Russian interference was at the heart of the interference.”
Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified by herself. Her testimony focused on her unexpected ouster from her position earlier this year, an effort led by Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Perhaps the most revealing part of her testimony, though, was Trump’s real-time reaction to it. As she testified, Trump attacked her on Twitter, implying that her foreign service had degraded the nations where she had served.
Democrats seized on Trump’s attacks as evidence that he hoped to silence those with evidence against him.
The same day, the White House released a transcript of an earlier call between Trump and Zelensky that took place when Zelensky won the presidential election in April. In that call, Zelensky pressed Trump to send someone senior to his inauguration. Trump, for his part, didn’t mention corruption — though a contemporaneous White House readout of the call said he did.
Four witnesses testified over the course of about nine hours on Tuesday. They were Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, a member of the National Security Council; Tim Morrison, who resigned from his position on that body last month; Jennifer Williams, a State Department staffer assigned to Vice President Pence; and Kurt Volker, former Ukraine special envoy.
Both Vindman and Morrison suggested that one detail from the August whistleblower complaint that brought Trump’s interactions with Ukraine into the spotlight was overblown. After Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, Vindman raised concerns about Trump’s comments to an NSC attorney. The rough transcript of the call was then moved to a secure server to prevent it from leaking. Both Vindman and Morrison said they didn’t view this as necessarily nefarious. Vindman also said he didn’t see the inaccurate April readout as necessarily questionable.
Vindman stated in his testimony that he had informed someone in the intelligence community about the July 25 call, spurring questions from Republicans about whether that person was the whistleblower whose complaint first prompted the House investigation. That issue was heightened when the committee’s chairman, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.), blocked additional inquiry about the contact explicitly because he wanted to shield the whistleblower’s identity.
Vindman also revealed that he had been offered a position with the Ukrainian government, something he said he found laughable and which was characterized as a joke by the person who supposedly made the offer. This spurred renewed charges from Trump allies that Vindman, a native of the Soviet Union who moved to the United States as a child and who was wounded in combat, was somehow disloyal to this country.
Williams reiterated her prior testimony that she was informed by Pence’s chief of staff that Trump had decided Pence shouldn’t attend Zelensky’s inauguration, one of the allegations included in the whistleblower’s report.
One of the significant moments in the effort to get Ukraine to launch the investigations Trump desired was a July 10 meeting at the White House between a number of U.S. officials — including Volker and Vindman — and senior officials from Ukraine. Volker’s testimony on Tuesday included a significant change from what he had said in earlier testimony: He now testified that he, like Vindman and former NSC official Fiona Hill, remembered Sondland explicitly tying the Ukrainian desire for a meeting between Trump and Zelensky at the White House to the requirement that Ukraine launch the new investigations.
Three more witnesses testified on Wednesday, the most significant of whom was Sondland.
His testimony was a blockbuster, beginning with an opening statement in which he updated his prior testimony with a number of new claims. Those included:
- His explicitly identifying the exchange of a White House meeting for the new probes as a quid pro quo.
- His charge that multiple senior officials were aware of his efforts to get Ukraine to launch the investigations, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.
- His agreement that he had spoken with Trump on July 26 as observed by Holmes (and revealed by Taylor).
- His acknowledgment that, in a meeting on July 26 with a senior aide to Zelensky named Andriy Yermak, he had again raised the subject of the investigations.
Sondland also turned over several new emails, generally focused on detailing how other administration officials had been kept in the loop on his efforts. During his testimony, Sondland revealed a number of other important details.
At one point, he was asked by Schiff about the meeting-for-probes quid pro quo: Did Zelensky have to launch the investigations to get a White House invite?
“Correct,” Sondland replied. “He had to announce the investigations. He didn’t actually have to do them, as I understood it.”
While he later modified this, saying that an announcement was important so that Ukraine wouldn’t back out, it raised significant questions about Trump’s goal: uncover new evidence through a probe or just get the political boost of an announced investigation?
Shortly before the July 25 call, Volker texted Yermak to specifically articulate the quid pro quo: agree to investigations and get an invitation. Volker had received a message from Sondland right before sending the text, which Sondland had previously suggested might not be related. On Wednesday, though, he acknowledged that it was — and that the explicit link was “likely” something that he “would have received ... from President Trump” when Sondland and Trump spoke earlier that day.
It was another call with Trump that generated the most interest among Trump’s defenders, though. Sondland was asked about a conversation he’d had with Trump before informing Taylor over text message that a halt in aid to Ukraine was not part of a quid pro quo to get new investigations. That denial, he said on Wednesday, came from Trump himself, who in a call on Sept. 9 told Sondland that he wanted “nothing” and that there was “no quid pro quo.”
Trump jumped on this testimony, even though it was a denial of quid pro quo that had originated with Trump himself. (What’s more, it was one that came after the delay in aid was publicly known and after questions had emerged about a quid pro quo.) That Trump’s own words had been cited in Sondland’s under-oath testimony, though, became a central point of Trump’s defense. It also inspired some memes.
Later that same day, Laura Cooper of the Defense Department and David Hale of the State Department testified. Neither was expected to offer surprising new details, but Cooper in particular did.
Specifically, Cooper told the committee that staff working for her had identified several emails that shifted the understood timeline of when aid to Ukraine was stopped and when Ukraine learned about the halt. That latter question is significant, of course, since if aid was used as leverage to get investigations, it was necessary that Ukraine know the aid had been stopped.
While most administration officials learned the aid was halted during a conference call on July 18, Cooper testified that her staff first received notice on July 3, testimony that matched that of Vindman and Williams. More importantly, she revealed that two emails sent on July 25, after the Trump-Zelensky call, indicated that Ukraine might already be aware that aid had stopped. This was significantly earlier than other testimony, which put Ukraine’s awareness somewhere in early to mid-August.
Hale’s testimony also included new information about the timeline of aid — moving in the other direction. He had told investigators during his closed-door testimony that he learned aid had been stopped on June 21, but this week indicated that was a mistake. He had meant July 21.
On Thursday, the last two public witnesses testified: Hill, the former NSC staffer, and Holmes, the embassy employee who overheard Trump’s call with Sondland.
Hill’s testimony was significant in large part because it included a denunciation of the attempt to cast Trump’s desired investigation of 2016 election interference as unfounded and “harmful.” She also offered a useful distinction between the work Sondland was doing in his quid pro quo efforts and the work that was being done by the NSC and the diplomatic staff.
She had confronted Sondland for not keeping her in the loop on his outreach, which he’d objected to.
“It struck me when yesterday, when you put up on the screen Ambassador Sondland’s emails, and who was on these emails and he said ‘These that these people need to know,’ that he was absolutely right,” she said. “Because he was being involved in a domestic political errand. And we were being involved in national security foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged. So he was correct."
She added one important additional point on Sondland: that it was “not credible” that, as he advocated for an investigation into Burisma, he didn’t know it was targeting Biden.
As important as Hill’s framing was, Holmes’s testimony added more significant details.
Both on Thursday and in his closed-door deposition over the weekend, he explained the Trump-Sondland call on July 26, which occurred at an outdoor table at a restaurant in Kyiv. During the call, Sondland assured Trump that Zelensky loved him and would do anything Trump asked. Trump asked if Zelensky was going to do the investigations; Sondland said he would. (The two then talked about the detention of rapper A$AP Rocky in Sweden, with Sondland telling Trump that, even if Rocky weren’t freed, he could tell “the Kardashians” he had tried.)
Sondland’s suggestion to Trump that the investigations would move forward closed the loop on the quid pro quo encapsulated in the July 25 call. Trump and Sondland spoke that morning, and Sondland reached out to Volker. Volker texted Yermak — and then texted Sondland back to say he had passed along the message. On the call, Zelensky thanked Trump for inviting him to Washington, then immediately assured him about the investigations. After the call, Yermak texted Volker back to say the call went well — and then to ask for dates. The next day, Yermak and Sondland talked about the probes, and then Trump and Sondland spoke, with Holmes overhearing.
Holmes also undercut Trump’s assertion that the United States gave disproportionately to Ukraine by noting how much more the E.U. had given. But the testimony that was most damaging to Trump’s narrative in the abstract was probably when Holmes addressed why he believed Ukraine didn’t need to be told directly (as Sondland did on Sept. 1) that the aid was being held until the investigations were announced.
“Zelensky had received a letter, a congratulatory letter from the president saying he would be pleased to meet him following his inauguration in May,” Holmes said. “We hadn’t to able to get that meeting — and then the security hold came up with no explanation. And I’d be surprised if any of the Ukrainians — you said earlier, we discussed earlier, you know, sophisticated people — when they received no explanation for why that hold was in place, they would have drawn that conclusion.”
Even after the hold on aid was lifted on Sept. 11 — following public attention on the issue and the announcement of a congressional investigation — Holmes was worried that Ukraine still felt pressure to accede to Trump’s demands.
“Although the hold on the security assistance may have been lifted, there were still things they wanted that they weren’t getting, including a meeting with the president in the Oval Office,” Holmes said. “Whether the hold, the security assistance hold, continued or not, Ukrainians understood that that’s something the president wanted and they still wanted important things from the president."
“I think that continues to this day,” he added. “I think they’re being very careful. They still need us now going forward.”
Aaron Blake contributed to this report.