The phone call State Department official David Holmes overheard between President Donald Trump and Ambassador Gordon Sondland lasted just two minutes. But it won’t be easily forgotten.
“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Holmes told Trump impeachment investigators, “someone calling the President from a mobile phone at a restaurant, and then having a conversation of this level of candor, colorful language. There’s just so much about the call that was so remarkable that I remember it vividly.”
Holmes’ first-hand account of the conversation heard over lunch in Kyiv provides a key piece of the impeachment inquiry. He is among the only witnesses testifying so far to show Trump personally seeking investigations into Democrats and his potential 2020 rival Joe Biden that are central to the probe.
A transcript of Holmes’ closed-door testimony was released Monday. Holmes, a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, is scheduled to testify publicly Thursday.
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The conversation between the president and the ambassador came one day after the July 25 call when Trump asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for a favor with the investigations. At the time, the Trump administration was withholding $391 million in military aid to the ally in what Democrats say amounts to “bribery.” Trump says he did nothing wrong. A whistleblower’s complaint about it led the House to launch the impeachment inquiry.
Holmes joined Sondland and others during the lunch meeting and told investigators Trump was talking so loudly he could hear the president clearly on the ambassador’s phone.
"I then heard President Trump ask, quote, ‘So he’s going to do the investigation?’” Holmes testified. “Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘He’s going to do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will, quote, ‘do anything you ask him to.’"
Holmes said he didn't take notes of the conversation he overheard between Trump and Sondland but remembers it "vividly."
Pressed during the closed-session interview if anyone helped him recall the details, Holmes said, “that wouldn’t have been needed, sir, because, as I said, the event itself was so distinctive that I remember it very clearly.”
A transcript was also released late Monday from an interview with David Hale, the State Department’s No. 3 official.
Hale was questioned earlier this month about the abrupt removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who delivered chilling testimony last week about her ouster amid a “smear” campaign by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
As the undersecretary of State for political affairs, Hale said he repeatedly pushed for a State Department statement defending the ambassador, who spent a 33-year career in the foreign service. But that effort failed.
He said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo “most likely would have been the person” to make the decision not to publicly support Yovanovitch.
Hale provided new information with call records showing Pompeo and Giuliani had been in touch twice, on March 28 and March 29, around the time of her ouster. Hale is set to testify publicly Wednesday.
The impeachment inquiry is bringing to light the oversized role Giuliani is playing in Trump’s Ukraine policy, in what other diplomats have suggested amounts to a shadow diplomacy, outside of official channels.
Holmes said it became clear Giuliani was pursing the investigations Trump wanted.
“Mr. Giuliani was promoting the investigations issue,” Holmes testified. “I guess I would say that Giuliani was sort of meddling in Ukrainian affairs by asking them to open an investigation that would — could be perceived as meddling in U.S. politics.”
After meetings in Kyiv, Holmes joined Sondland and others for lunch at an outside restaurant.
It was surprising, he testified, when Sondland called Trump even though “we generally assume that mobile communications in Ukraine are being monitored.” He said at least two of the three — and maybe all three — mobile networks in Ukraine are owned by Russian companies.
“In my experience, generally, phone calls with the President are very sensitive and handled accordingly,” he testified.
He asked Sondland about Trump’s views on Ukraine. Sondland told him Trump does not "give a shit" about Ukraine, saying he only cares about "big stuff." Holmes noted Ukraine is, in fact, at war with Russia. But Sondland told Trump was more concerned with the "big stuff that matters to him, like this Biden investigation that Giuliani is pushing."
Holmes said, “I think the Ukrainians gradually came to understand that they were being asked to do something in exchange for the meeting and the security assistance hold being lifted.”