Trump impeachment: Witness attacks president’s ‘fictional narrative propagated by Russians’

Fiona Hill, a former top White House adviser on Russia, has issued a full throated attack on what she has has described as the “fictional narrative” Donald Trump and his Republicans have pushed about Ukraine’s role influencing the 2016 US election, during her opening remarks to the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment probe.

Ms Hill, who left the Trump administration this summer, told the House that Russia’s entire goal in 2016 was to cast a political cloud over American democracy, implying that Mr Trump’s push to investigate Ukrainian influence during that election was a product of a message “propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

“Based on questions and statements I have heard, some of you on this committee appear to believe that Russia and its security services did not conduct a campaign against our country—and that perhaps, somehow, for some reason, Ukraine did,” Ms Hill — who specialises in Soviet, Russian and European affairs —told the committee, apparently referencing Republican efforts to cast doubt on the extent of Russian meddling in the last presidential election. “This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”

She continued: “The unfortunate truth is that Russia was the foreign power that systematically attacked our democratic institutions in 2016. This is the public conclusion of our intelligence agencies, confirmed in bipartisan Congressional reports. It is beyond dispute, even if some of the underlying details must remain classified.”

During her testimony, Ms Hill said that the impact of that meddling is not just theoretical, and told the committee that there are continued devastating impacts on the country from those efforts.

Among those are Mr Trump’s demanding Ukrainian president to launch an investigation into Ukraine’s role in 2016 election meddling, and the fragmentation of American understanding of truth and fiction amid repeated disinformation peddling.

“The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today,” she said. “Our nation is being torn apart, truth is questioned, our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined.”

The testimony came as a part of the ongoing impeachment hearings, in which witnesses have largely confirmed key elements of the whistle blower complaint that first sparked the impeachment investigation. That includes allegations that Mr Trump asked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to publicly announce an investigation into Burisma, the Biden family, and Ukraine connections to the 2016 election.

Beyond that, witnesses have described a coordinated effort to circumvent regular diplomatic channels to push for that announcement, including a smear campaign that led to the recall of former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, and a general understanding that the release of Congressionally allocated security assistance to Ukraine and a White House meeting was contingent upon the investigation.

Sitting alongside Ms Hill on Thursday was David Holmes, a Ukraine diplomat, who was presented as a key witness who said he was in the restaurant with EU ambassador Gordon Sondland the day after the infamous 25 July phone call, and overheard Mr Trump asking about the investigations. After the call, Mr Holmes testified that Mr Sondland declared that the president only cared about the investigation into 2016 and a political rival, and does not care about Ukraine.

“While ambassador Sondland’s phone was not on speaker phone, I could hear the president’s voice through th earpiece of the phone,” Mr Holmes said. “The president’s voice was very loud and very recognisable, and ambassador Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume.” He also said that it was his “clear impression” that Mr Trump was connecting US aid to the investigations.

Mr Trump, for his part, had tweeted a defence against that phone call, claiming that he had never been able to overhear a conversation from someone else on a phone that was not on speaker phone — an assertion that gleaned considerable ridicule, and prompted a CNN anchor to disprove the general argument on live TV.

“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 speaker phone, and been able to hear or understand a conversation,” Mr Trump tweeted before the hearing Thursday. “I’ve even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!”

During her regular press briefing on Thursday, speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said that she believes the evidence is clear and shows Mr Trump used the American government as leverage for his own personal gain. She also indicated that they would not allow court holdups on subpoenas for testimony from top officials like chief of staff Mick Mulvaney or John Bolton, and would likely move forward with articles of impeachment before the end of the year.

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