Republicans loyal to Donald Trump must stop pushing the “fictional narrative” that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 presidential election because it plays into Vladimir Putin’s hands, the White House’s former top expert on Russia has told the impeachment inquiry in dramatic testimony.
British-born Fiona Hill, appearing in Washington on Thursday, attacked a debunked conspiracy theory used by Republicans to defend the US president against allegations that he sought to bribe Ukraine for his own political gain.
It was another striking moment in the House of Representatives’ intelligence committee’s inquiry: a respected official on the biggest possible stage accusing elected Republican officials of boosting Russian propaganda efforts to undermine American democracy.
“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,” said Hill, who until July was the national security council’s director for European and Russian affairs.
“This is a fictional narrative that has been perpetrated and propagated by the Russian security services themselves.”
Some Republicans on the intelligence committee have pushed a discredited conspiracy theory, embraced by Trump and amplified by conservative media, that Ukraine, rather than Russia, meddled in the last election.
They contend that Ukraine was complicit in the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) and that computer records were fabricated to cast blame on Russia. A key talking point is CrowdStrike, a security firm hired by the DNC that detected the hack.
According to a rough transcript of his July phone call with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Trump said: “I would like to find out what happened with this whole situation with Ukraine, they say CrowdStrike. I guess you have one of your wealthy people. The server, they say Ukraine has it.”
It was this investigation, along with one into a gas company with ties to former Democratic vice-president Joe Biden’s son Hunter, that Trump and his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, pressed for, allegedly in exchange for the release of nearly $400m in military aid – a quid pro quo.
During the impeachment hearings, Republicans have made frequent references to alleged election meddling by Ukraine, without offering evidence. On the opening day, Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the committee, said “indications of Ukrainian election meddling” had troubled Trump.
But Hill, the co-author of the book Mr Putin: Operative in the Kremlin, warned in forensic and measured terms that such rumour-mongering only empowers the Russian president who, as intelligence agencies and Congress concluded, systematically attacked America’s democratic institutions in 2016 and is already plotting do so again next year.
“The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today,” she said, wearing black and speaking in an accent from north-east England. “Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional and expert career foreign service is being undermined. US support for Ukraine – which continues to face armed Russian aggression – has been politicised.”
She added: “Right now, Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”
Doubts over the legitimacy of a US election result, she said, are “exactly what the Russian government was hoping for. They would pit one side of our electorate against the others.”
The remarks echoed a public warning by the former special counsel Robert Mueller, whose investigation demonstrated concerted efforts by Russia in the 2016 election to hurt Democrat Hillary Clinton and help Trump. It also came one day after Putin himself told an event in Moscow: “Thank God, no one is accusing us of interfering in the US elections any more. Now they’re accusing Ukraine.”
When the text of Hill’s opening statement was released, it was rebuked by Nunes, who circulated a copy of a 2018 congressional report on Russian meddling. But he acknowledged that Democrats had dissented from the report’s findings. Democrat Adam Schiff, the committee chairman, welcomed Hill’s intervention and said he shared her concerns.
Daniel Goldman, the Democratic counsel, asked if Trump had ignored the advice of his experts on the Ukraine conspiracy theory and instead taken the word of Giuliani. Hill replied: “That appears to be the case, yes.”
Giuliani was put front and centre of the Ukraine scandal on Wednesday by Gordon Sondland, US ambassador to the EU. That remained the case on Thursday. Hill reiterated earlier evidence, given behind closed doors, that John Bolton, then national security adviser, had described Giuliani as a “hand grenade that was going to blow everyone up”.
Hill also repeated her claim that Bolton had said he did not want to be part of “a drug deal” that Sondland and the acting White House chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, were cooking up with regard to Ukraine. She was asked what he meant by “drug deal”. She said: “I took it to mean investigations for a meeting.”
Asked if she then spoke to lawyers, Hill said: “I certainly did.”
Hill, widely praised by observers for her composure and expertise, gave a pithy summary of Sondland’s role. “He was being involved in a domestic political errand,” she said. “And we were being involved in national security foreign policy and those two things had just diverged … I did say to him … I do think this is all going to blow up. And here we are.”
The day’s exchanges underlined how Bolton, who was fired by Trump in September, was a pivotal figure in the Ukraine affair, intensifying calls for him to come forward and give his version of events.
Hill went on to express alarm about the abrupt removal of Marie Yovanovitch, the US ambassador to Ukraine, who addressed the hearing last week, and the operation of a shadow diplomatic channel involving “three amigos” including Sondland.
“I was concerned about two things in particular – one was, again, the removal of our ambassador … On the second front, it was very clear at this point there was a different channel in operation: one that was domestic and political in nature.”
Hill was the third immigrant to testify at the impeachment hearings. In her opening statement, she described her childhood in Britain and how she was inspired by American values.
“I am an American by choice, having become a citizen in 2002,” she said. “I was born in the north-east of England, in the same region George Washington’s ancestors came from. Both the region and my family have deep ties to the United States.”
Her father, a coalminer, wanted to emigrate to the US but his dream was thwarted. “Years later, I can say with confidence that this country has offered for me opportunities I never would have had in England. I grew up poor with a very distinctive working-class accent. In England in the 1980s and 1990s, this would have impeded my professional advancement.”
The committee also heard from David Holmes, a staffer from the US embassy in Ukraine, who again expressed concerns about the role played by Giuliani in pressing for the investigations that Trump wanted.
“My clear impression was that the security assistance hold was likely intended by the president either as an expression of dissatisfaction that the Ukrainians had not yet agreed to the Burisma/Biden investigation or as an effort to increase the pressure on them to do so.”
Holmes testified that he overheard Sondland speak by phone to Trump about an investigation and assure him Zelenskiy would do anything he asked. “I sat directly across from Ambassador Sondland,” he said. “The president’s voice was loud and recognisable.”
Not for the first time during the inquiry, Trump responded in real time on Twitter: “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 speakerphone, and been able to hear or understand a conversation. I’ve even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!”
The White House again sought to play down the significance of the hearings. Stephanie Grisham, the press secretary, said: “As has been the case throughout the Democrats’ impeachment sham, today’s witnesses rely heavily on their own presumptions, assumptions and opinions.”
Thursday’s hearing marks the last scheduled day of hearings by the intelligence committee focused on whether Trump pressured Zelenskiy to investigate Biden, his potential challenger in next year’s election. Should Trump be impeached by the Democratic-controlled House, he will go on trial in the Republican-controlled Senate, with acquittal seeming the most likely outcome.
The hearings ended with little sign of political movement. Even Will Hurd, a Republican on the verge of retirement who has spoken out against Trump in the past, said he did not favour impeachment. Nunes condemned the process as a “show trial” and sought to take a page from Democrats’ playbook by invoking one of the founding fathers, James Madison, who warned against “the tyranny of the majority”.
Then Schiff delivered an impassioned final statement. “There is nothing more dangerous than an unethical president who believes they are above the law,” he said, wielding the gavel. “And I would just say to people watching at home and around the world … we are better than that.”