Adam Schiff finally has some direct testimony on the record in his public impeachment hearing, but it’s not exactly a gamebreaker or even a surprise. Almost alone among all of the other witnesses that have appeared before the House Intelligence Committee, Ukraine embassy counselor David Holmes testified to his direct knowledge of something Donald Trump said in Ukraine-Gate. It’s the same testimony that Holmes provided in his earlier deposition, however, and it’s not at all conclusive of any sort of quid pro quo:
— CBS News (@CBSNews) November 21, 2019
In his opening statement, Holmes repeated his recollection of overhearing a July 26 phone call between Mr. Trump and Sondland, where Sondland told Mr. Trump that Zelensky “loves your ass.”
“I then heard President Trump ask, ‘So, he’s gonna do the investigation?’ Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s gonna do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will do ‘anything you ask him to,'” Holmes said. He said the conversation then turned to A$AP Rocky, a rapper detained in Sweden, which Sondland corroborated in his testimony on Wednesday.
That’s certainly interesting, but it’s also largely innocuous. We already know that Trump was interested in the investigation(s) into the Bidens, Burisma, and Crowdstrike; so was the Obama administration more generally regarding corruption, for that matter, and we have the issues raised in the Trump-Zelensky transcript too. The issue is whether there was a demand for the investigation in return for releasing military aid approved by Congress without any such preconditions, the ostensible quid pro quo on which this impeachment issue is based. This exchange sheds no light at all on that matter.
Trump offered a pre-buttal of sorts on Twitter just before this testimony took place:
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!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 21, 2019
As anyone who’s been unfortunate enough to be stuck in a public place with someone on a cellphone call already knows, that’s not a terribly convincing argument. Holmes offered an explanation that makes the point more plain:
After being barred from a July 25 meeting between Sondland and Yermak, Holmes could hear the ambassador on the phone to Trump, 'Sondland held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume.' Live updates: https://t.co/HNWWM5kfHT pic.twitter.com/8s9qYxJPg3
— Reuters (@Reuters) November 21, 2019
Holmes also provided some other direct testimony on the point about the “investigation,” although it turned out to be rather vague. He met with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky the day after the July 25th call with Trump, and Zelensky spoke about “some very sensitive issues” that needed resolution before getting a meeting with Trump. At the time, Holmes testified, he didn’t know what that meant:
“During the meeting, President Zelensky stated that during the July 25 call, President Trump had ‘three times’ raised ‘some very sensitive issues,’ and that he would have to follow up on those issues when he and President Trump met ‘in person,'” Holmes testified. “Not having received a readout of the July 25 call, I did not know what those sensitive issues were.”
Again, this is direct evidence, but not of linkage between the aid and the investigation. This much more strongly suggests that Zelensky understood there to be some linkage between the probes and an invitation to the Oval Office, which is precisely what Sondland testified yesterday. While that’s certainly open to criticism, presidents have used White House access for decades if not centuries to get personal political benefit. Remember when Bill Clinton rented out the Lincoln Bedroom to generate campaign contributions? No one suggested an impeachment over that episode, even though that was much more transactional and connected directly to electoral benefits.
That kind of trade for access may very well be unseemly, but it has nothing to do with Congress or abuse of authority regarding the Constitution. It’s a worthy subject matter for oversight of the executive branch (as is the A$AP Rocky intervention), but it’s absurd as the basis for an impeachment.
By the way, Holmes apparently doesn’t think highly of Sondland either:
“While Ambassador Sondland’s mandate as Ambassador accredited to the European Union did not cover individual member states, let alone non-member countries like Ukraine, he made clear that he had direct and frequent access to President Trump” and Mulvaney, Holmes said
— Manu Raju (@mkraju) November 21, 2019