WASHINGTON — A former national security adviser tangled with Republican lawmakers during a contentious impeachment hearing Thursday where she accused an ambassador of carrying out “a domestic political errand” for President Donald Trump.
The testimony capped two weeks of public hearings that could lead to an impeachment vote in the House against President Donald Trump, although a vote to remove the president in the Senate is almost certain to fail. Either the House or Senate could proffer a resolution censuring the president, a lesser penalty that was proposed but rejected during the 1998-1999 impeachment of then-President Bill Clinton.
Throughout the hearings, Democrats have sought to use evidence and witnesses to prove Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine while simultaneously pressuring that nation’s president to launch an investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden, a political rival.
Republicans have used the hearings to accuse Democrats of conducting a vendetta against the president under cover of authority, seeking to undo the results of the 2016 election and remove a president they fear they cannot oust at the ballot box.
On Thursday, Fiona Hill, the former White House national security adviser, and David Holmes, a State Department employee stationed at the embassy in Kyiv, testified that the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, was doing Trump’s errands at the direction of his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
Giuliani, they said, wanted Ukraine to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
“He was clearly pushing forward issues and ideas that would, you know, probably come back to haunt us and in fact, I think that’s where we are today,” Hill told the House Intelligence Committee.
The inquiry was launched after a whistleblower alleged that Trump urged Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to investigate the Bidens during a July 25 telephone call.
The White House released a rough transcript of the call that includes the president asking Zelenskiy for “a favor” and seeking an investigation, but Trump has adamantly said there was no quid pro quo for conducting a probe into his potential political opponent.
Testimony over the past two weeks revealed that nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid, approved by Congress, was withheld from Ukraine during the time Giuliani was pressing that government to launch investigations into the Bidens. He also sought information about whether Ukraine meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, a theory that has been debunked by the U.S. intelligence community.
Sondland told the committee this week that, as he understood it, there was a quid pro quo — a White House visit for newly elected Zelenskiy. The ambassador also said he learned later that the military aid was being withheld and testified that it was clear it would remain withheld unless Zelenskiy announced an investigation into the Bidens.
Trump has repeatedly denied any quid pro quo, and seized on Sondland’s admission under questioning that Trump had once told the ambassador he wanted “nothing” from Ukraine and that Zelenskiy should “do the right thing.”
Sondland testified Wednesday that in a conversation with Trump, the president told him, “I want no quid pro quo.”
The White House has blocked many witnesses from testifying, but Democrats say the public appearances and testimony over the past two weeks is sufficient to draft articles of impeachment charging the president with abusing his office.
“There is nothing more dangerous than an unethical president who believes they are above the law,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif. “We are better than that.”
The president and White House have called the hearings a political witch hunt and a sham.
“The Democrats’ are clearly being motivated by a sick hatred for President Trump and their rabid desire to overturn the 2016 election,” White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham said.
Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., who has sat through the hearings in the audience section, said following Thursday’s testimony that Democrats have failed to make their case for impeachment, though he predicted they would follow through with a vote.
He said the witness’s claims of a quid pro quo were “all based on presumption and perception.”
Not one witness testified that they had heard the president seek anything for investigations, said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, a committee member.
“There was no quid pro quo,” Jordan said.
The ranking Republican on the panel, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., dismissed the entire proceeding.
“That is the Democrats’ pitiful legacy,” Nunes said in his opening remarks.
Republicans on the panel also tangled with Hill and Holmes during a fractious day of testimony.
Hill, who has had a long career in foreign service and was working at The Brookings Institution before joining the National Security Council in the Trump administration, dismissed claims by Trump and allies that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 election to help Democrat Hillary Clinton — a theory advanced by Giuliani while seeking investigations and one explored by GOP lawmakers during questioning Thursday.
Hill called it “fictional.”
She flatly told the committee: “I refuse to be part of an effort to legitimize an alternative narrative that the Ukrainian government is a U.S. adversary, and that Ukraine — not Russia — attacked us in 2016.”
And she warned GOP lawmakers to “please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
“This is exactly what the Russian government was hoping for,” she said about the political climate. “They would pit one side of our electorate against the others.”
Republicans also sought to redirect the spotlight of the inquiry to Hunter Biden, who sat on the board of directors of Burisma while his father was vice president and was paid $50,000 per month.
Several witnesses over the weeks said they questioned the Burisma arrangement and were concerned about the appearance of a possible conflict of interest.
But Ambassador Kurt Volker said there was no evidence of any wrongdoing involving either Biden in relations with Ukraine.
Lawmakers from both chambers and a White House representative huddled Thursday on Capitol Hill to discuss a potential timeline for a trial, which could start in January.
A previous version of this story contained an incomplete quote from former National Security Council official Fiona Hill, who told the House Intelligence Committee that U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland was carrying out “a domestic political errand” for President Trump.