WASHINGTON — An official from the United States Embassy in Kiev confirmed to House impeachment investigators on Friday that he had overheard a call between President Trump and a top American diplomat in July in which the president asked whether Ukraine was going to move forward with an investigation he wanted.
The official, David Holmes, testified privately that he was at a restaurant in Kiev, Ukraine’s capital, when he overheard Mr. Trump on a cellphone call loudly asking Gordon D. Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union, if Ukraine’s president had agreed to conduct an investigation into one of his leading political rivals. Mr. Sondland, who had just come from a meeting with top Ukrainian officials and the country’s president, replied in the affirmative.
“So, he’s going to do the investigation?” Mr. Trump asked, according to a copy of Mr. Holmes’s opening statement posted by CNN and confirmed by The New York Times.
Mr. Sondland, a wealthy hotelier and political donor turned ambassador, told Mr. Trump that President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine “loves your ass,” and would conduct the investigation and do “anything you ask him to,” according to Mr. Holmes’s statement.
After the call ended, Mr. Holmes asked if it was true that the president did not care about Ukraine. Mr. Sondland, he testified, agreed. According to Mr. Holmes’s account, the ambassador said Mr. Trump cared only about the “big stuff.” Mr. Holmes noted Ukraine had “big stuff” going on, like a war with Russia.
But Mr. Sondland had something else in mind. He told Mr. Holmes he meant “‘big stuff’ that benefits the president,” like the “Biden investigation” that his lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani was pushing for, because it affected him personally.
The account could prove significant as Democrats continue to build an impeachment case against Mr. Trump. It illustrates how preoccupied he was with persuading Ukraine’s president to go along with his demand that the country commit publicly to investigating former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a leading political rival, and how he actively used his power and the instruments of American foreign policy to see that it happened.
It adds significant new detail to a conversation that was first revealed on Wednesday during public testimony by Mr. Holmes’s boss, William B. Taylor Jr., the top American envoy in Ukraine. Mr. Taylor said then that he had only recently learned of the episode from Mr. Holmes. And it raised the possibility that Mr. Holmes could be called to testify publicly in the impeachment inquiry and presented Democrats with new leads to track down even as they conduct a string of high-profile public hearings with other witnesses.
Mr. Holmes, a career Foreign Service officer who is the political counselor in the American Embassy in Kiev, said he had been following the impeachment inquiry from afar in recent weeks and came to understand only belatedly that he had pertinent information to share. He testified under subpoena by the House Intelligence Committee after the State Department directed him not to appear, according to an official working on the inquiry.
“I came to realize I had firsthand knowledge regarding certain events on July 26 that had not otherwise been reported, and that those events potentially bore on the question of whether the president did, in fact, have knowledge that those officials were using the levers of our diplomatic power to induce the new Ukrainian president to announce the opening of a particular criminal investigation,” he testified.
What Happened Today
Nov. 15, 2019
- Ms. Yovanovitch described how it felt to be bad-mouthed by Mr. Trump on the July 25 call: “shocked, appalled, devastated that the president of the United States would talk about any ambassador like that to a foreign head of state. And it was me. I mean, I couldn’t believe it.” A person who saw her reading the transcript told her that the color drained from her face, she said. Asked what the words “going to go through some things” sounded like to her, she said, “It sounded like a threat.”
- As Ms. Yovanovitch testified, Mr. Trump posted a tweet attacking her record as a diplomat in many troubled regions of the world, saying that “everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad.” Representative Adam Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the committee holding the hearings, read the tweet back to her in real time. “It’s very intimidating,” she said. “The effect is to be intimidating.” Our television critic wrote that it was a “remarkable fourth-wall-breaking moment” and a “real-time meta-confrontation.”
- Ms. Yovanovitch was unsparing in her criticism of the Trump administration. “Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old, corrupt rules sought to remove me,” she said. “What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them and, working together, they apparently succeeded in orchestrating the removal of a U.S. ambassador.” She went on: “How could our system fail like this? How is it that foreign corrupt interests could manipulate our government?”
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Mr. Holmes’s account of the relationship between the two countries in his opening statement was broader, though, and closely resembles that offered by other top officials who have offered public and private testimony to the House.
He described how Mr. Sondland and two other American officials — Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Kurt D. Volker, the United States special envoy to Ukraine — styled themselves as the “Three Amigos” and took charge of Ukraine policy within the administration. On the outside, Mr. Giuliani exercised significant influence over what they did.
“Beginning in March 2019, the situation in the embassy and in Ukraine changed dramatically,” Mr. Holmes said, according to his statement. “Specifically, our diplomatic policy that had been focused on supporting Ukrainian democratic reform and resistance to Russian aggression became overshadowed by a political agenda being promoted by Rudy Giuliani and a cadre of officials operating with a direct channel to the White House.”
The conversation between Mr. Trump and Mr. Sondland took place on July 26, one day after Mr. Trump personally pressed Mr. Zelensky in a now-famous phone call to investigate Mr. Biden and his son Hunter Biden, as well as unproven allegations that Ukraine conspired with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 election. Mr. Trump specifically wanted an investigation into unsubstantiated corruption allegations related to Hunter Biden’s work for a Ukrainian energy firm, Burisma Holdings.
Mr. Sondland did not mention the episode to investigators last month when he answered their questions in private. He will almost certainly be asked about it next week when he appears for public testimony before the House Intelligence Committee.
He has already revised his initial testimony once, admitting to the panel last week that he told a top Ukrainian official that the country would probably not receive a package of nearly $400 million in security assistance Mr. Trump froze in July unless it committed publicly to the investigations Mr. Trump sought. And Republicans have argued that he may be overstating his access to and influence with the president.
On Thursday, two people familiar with the matter said that a second embassy official, Suriya Jayanti, also overheard the call and could corroborate Mr. Holmes’s account. It is unclear if investigators will also call her to testify. On Friday, Mr. Holmes indicated there was a third person present who would have overheard it, as well.
Mr. Holmes told investigators that he did not take notes during the conversation, but said he immediately told other embassy officials about it.
The conversation took place not long after Mr. Sondland had met directly with Mr. Zelensky and other officials. Mr. Holmes’s account gave hints that Mr. Trump’s request may have been on Mr. Zelensky’s mind, but it does not indicate what, if anything, he or his aides may have communicated to Mr. Sondland. In the meeting, Mr. Holmes recalled, Mr. Zelensky said that Mr. Trump had raised “some very sensitive issues” “three times” on the call — issues the Ukrainian leader noted they would have to follow up on in person.
Mr. Holmes described sitting on the terrace of a Kiev restaurant a little while later during lunch with Mr. Sondland, sharing a bottle of wine, when Mr. Sondland called Mr. Trump. The president was speaking so loudly, he said, that Mr. Sondland held the phone away from his ear and Mr. Holmes and others could hear Mr. Trump’s voice.
In addition to discussing the investigations, Mr. Trump and Mr. Sondland discussed ASAP Rocky, an American rapper imprisoned in Sweden at the time on charges of assault. Mr. Sondland told the president the rapper “should have pled guilty,” according to Mr. Holmes’s written statement.
Mr. Sondland then advised Mr. Trump that he should “let him get sentenced, play the racism card, give him a ticker-tape when he comes home,” Mr. Holmes testified. The ambassador added that Sweden “should have released him on your word,” and added, referring to an American reality show celebrity family pressing for Mr. Trump’s help in the case, “you can tell the Kardashians you tried.”
Mr. Sondland noted after the call that the president was in a “bad mood.”
Mr. Holmes’s account included other potentially significant details new to investigators about Trump administration officials using a White House meeting and the frozen military assistance as leverage for what Mr. Trump wanted. He testified that Mr. Taylor told him at the time about a June 28 call with him, the “Three Amigos” and Mr. Zelensky in which “it was made clear that some action on a Burisma/Biden investigation was a precondition for an Oval Office meeting.”
Mr. Taylor described the same call in his testimony, saying that Mr. Sondland had said he “wanted to make sure no one was transcribing or monitoring” the call. But Mr. Taylor did not say that investigations or preconditions had been discussed.
“It is important to understand that a White House visit was critical to President Zelensky,” Mr. Holmes said. “He needed to demonstrate U.S. support at the highest levels both to advance his ambitious anti-corruption agenda at home and to encourage Russian President Putin to take seriously President Zelensky’s peace efforts.”
By late summer, Mr. Holmes testified, he had a “clear impression” that a hold on the military aid was also “likely intended by the president either to express dissatisfaction that the Ukrainians had not yet agreed to the Burisma/Biden investigations or as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so.”
Mr. Holmes also described frustrations among American officials.
At one point, he said, Mr. Sondland vented: “Dammit, Rudy. Every time Rudy gets involved he goes and f—s everything up.”
He said that John R. Bolton, the president’s former national security adviser, openly discussed strategies for marginalizing Mr. Giuliani on a trip to Kiev during the summer. Mr. Holmes testified that he also complained about Mr. Sondland’s “expansive interpretation of his mandate.” And he recalled Mr. Bolton saying that a hold on the security assistance would be lifted only if Mr. Zelensky could “favorably impress” during a face-to-face meeting scheduled for early September. The meeting never happened.
Other witnesses have described similar concerns by Mr. Bolton, and investigators would like to speak with him, but he has declined to appear given White House orders not to.