There came a clear point during Thursday’s public testimony in the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump when Republicans on the House Intelligence Committee realized that Fiona Hill, the former National Security Council official who was one of the two closing witnesses in this phase of inquiry, was not someone they wanted to hear from.
The switch occurred after ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes and minority counsel Steve Castor had the misfortune of using part of their 45 minutes of opening questioning to actually address a series of questions to Hill. The Russia expert responded with thoughtful, thorough, and irrefutable explanations of why she had been so troubled by the early phases of the Ukraine scandal while watching it unfold. As Hill explained, she was an eyewitness to an effort on July 10 by Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland to inform the Ukrainians that if they wanted a face-to-face meeting in the Oval Office between Trump and newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, they needed to investigate Trump’s political rivals. Hill further articulated that the investigation request was not in anybody’s national security interest, but rather “a domestic political errand.” She went on to explain how she had sought to warn Sondland—and administration attorneys, at the instruction of her former boss, ex–national security adviser John Bolton—that the plot was “all going to blow up.”
Nunes countered this testimony by attempting to depict Hill as an out-of-control bureaucrat who sought to override the duly elected president of the United States in his totally legitimate foreign policy decision to ask an ally to lawfully investigate a Ukrainian energy company—where his chief political rival’s son just happens to have held a position on the board—and to look into a conspiracy theory about the 2016 election that would seem to negate Russia’s role in helping to get him elected.
“At the end of the day, [the] commander of chief, concerned about 2016 election meddling by Ukraine … I understand the people at the NSC, people at the State Department, had issues with that, but at the end of the day, isn’t it the commander in chief that makes those decisions?” Nunes queried.
“My point, Mr. Nunes,” Hill responded, “is that we at the National Security Council were not told either by the president directly or through Ambassador Bolton that we were to be focused on these issues as a matter of U.S. foreign policy towards Ukraine. So when you’re talking about Ukraine in 2016, I never personally heard the president say anything specific about 2016 and Ukraine. I’ve heard him say plenty of things publicly, but I was not given a directive.”
Apparently realizing where this was going, Nunes attempted to cut Hill off, saying “Thank you.” But Hill continued: “In fact, I was given a directive on July 10 very clearly to stay out of domestic politics.”
That was a reference to her testimony that Bolton had tried to cut off a July 10 White House meeting with Ukrainians when Sondland raised the matter of the investigations, that Bolton had subsequently described what Sondland and White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney were doing on the issue as a “drug deal,” and that Bolton had instructed Hill to tell National Security Council lawyers what was going on.
Castor then made the mistake of continuing to question Hill about her account, rather than pivoting to the day’s other witness, U.S. Embassy in Ukraine official David Holmes, or hiding under the dais. That led Hill to spend several minutes explaining to them that she had had good reason to know, before she left the NSC on July 19, that something nefarious was happening, and offering a full defense of NSC official Alexander Vindman, who may have helped expose the plot.
While Hill’s NSC replacement, Timothy Morrison, had earlier testified that Hill had warned him about Vindman’s judgment, Hill told the committee that her concerns had been about whether Vindman, as a foreign affairs expert, was suited to handle what she recognized as a domestic political affair. “[On] July 10, Lt. Col. Vindman was justifiably alarmed when he realized that there was this highly political aspect of the meeting that we were looking for eventually with President Zelensky,” she testified.
At around this point Nunes sighed, and Republicans seemed to realize that this was not going to be a helpful witness for his side to question. From there on out, Republicans on the committee did what they could to avoid directly asking her anything of substance.
Rep. Mike Turner, during his turn, complained at length about Hill’s opening statement, in which she had coldly dismantled Republican claims that it was actually the Ukrainians who meddled in the 2016 election. If Hill had just read the committee’s report that acknowledged Russian interference in the 2016 election, Turner said, “you would have known that what you just said was not true.” He went on to say that Hill had relied on hearsay evidence and spread other mistruths, then pivoted to questioning Holmes without giving Hill a chance to respond. A Democratic committee member wondered aloud, “Was there a question for Dr. Hill?” There was not.
“I thought that was some epic mansplaining that you were forced to endure by Mr. Turner,” Rep. Sean Maloney later told Hill. “Some of us think that was unfortunate.”
After the very next Republican committee member to question the witnesses following Turner, Rep. Brad Wenstrup, also spent his question period accusing Hill of offering “false” testimony designed to push Chairman Adam Schiff’s “narrative,” Hill finally cut in. “Could I actually say something?” she said.
“I was going to ask you if you’d like to respond?” Schiff said.
At that, Wenstrup appeared furious, attempting to shout over Schiff and Hill, “I didn’t ask her a question!”
Hill was allowed to respond. “I think that what Dr. Wenstrup said was very powerful about the importance of overcoming hatred and certainly partisan division,” Hill testified. “I think all of us who came here under a legal obligation also felt we had a moral obligation to do so. We came as fact witnesses.”
Hill clarified that when she challenged the GOP narrative that Ukrainians were responsible for interfering in the 2016 election—a narrative, Hill testified, that had been pushed by Russian President Vladimir Putin and was clearly in Russia’s interests—it was not to take partisan sides.
“We need to be together again in 2020 so that the American people can make a choice about the future and … make their vote in a presidential election without any fear that this is being interfered in from any quarter whatsoever,” she testified.
Having failed to stop her testimony, Wenstrup thanked her for it.
After the hearing, Rep. Jim Jordan used Hill’s eloquent description of why an effort to have a foreign government interfere in our election again would be disastrous to argue that impeachment was “tearing our country apart, as Dr. Hill just said in her testimony.”
“I thought Dr. Hill’s statement where she said we got to quit this kind of stuff that is tearing our country apart, that is so true,” Jordan told reporters. “That is, what is happening is not good for our culture, not good for our nature. Yet the Democrats do not care. They are bound and determined to do whatever it takes to get after this president.”
That wasn’t what Hill had said at all, but it is possible Jordan just hadn’t heard her testimony. The committee Republicans had certainly tried their hardest not to listen.