Politics

Impeachment witness David Holmes explains how he overheard Sondland call with Trump about Ukraine

Key Points
  • U.S. diplomat David Holmes explains how he was able to overhear President Trump ask U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland in a call about getting Ukraine to launch an investigation.
  • Trump's voice was "quite loud" and "quite distinctive," Holmes tells the House impeachment panel.
  • When Trump came on the line, Sondland "sort of winced" and "held the phone away from his ear like this," Holmes testifies, gesturing with his hand and tilting his head back.
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David Holmes: Sondland 'winced' when he answered Trump's call about Ukraine

U.S. diplomat David Holmes said Thursday he was able to overhear President Donald Trump ask U.S. Ambassador Gordon Sondland in a call about getting Ukraine to launch an investigation because the president's voice was so loud that it made Sondland hold the phone away from his ear.

The unsecured cellphone Sondland used on the July 26 call with Trump was not on speakerphone, but Trump's voice was "quite loud" and "quite distinctive," Holmes told the House Intelligence Committee conducting an impeachment inquiry into Trump.

When Trump came on the line, Sondland "sort of winced" and "held the phone away from his ear like this," Holmes testified, gesturing with his hand and tilting his head back.

Sondland "did that for the first couple exchanges," Holmes testified, enabling him to hear what was being said on both sides of the conversation.

That call came a day after Trump's infamous July 25 phone conversation in which he asked Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to "look into" former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter and the Ukrainian gas company Burisma, where Hunter had been a board member. A whistleblower's complaint about that call led to the impeachment probe.

Holmes was asked to testify after another witness revealed that Holmes heard Trump and Sondland talk on the phone about whether Zelenskiy would commit to an investigation of the Bidens.

On July 26, U.S. officials including Holmes and Sondland had a meeting with Zelenskiy himself, who said that Trump had "three times" raised "some very sensitive issues," and that he would have to follow up on those issues when he and Trump met "in person," according to Holmes' testimony.

After the meetings, Sondland and Holmes went to lunch in Kyiv with two other staffers, where the call with Trump took place.

Sondland told Trump that Zelenskiy "loves your ass," Holmes recalled. "I then heard President Trump ask, 'So, he's going to do the investigation?' Ambassador Sondland replied that 'he's going to do it,' adding that President Zelenskiy will do 'anything you ask him to.'"

"Even though I did not take notes of these statements, I have a clear recollection that these statements were made," Holmes said in his opening statement.

After that call ended, Holmes said he asked Sondland about Trump's views on Ukraine. Sondland said Trump cared only about "big stuff" that benefits him, like the Biden probe being pushed by Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani, Holmes testified.

In a tweet Thursday, Trump tried to cast doubt on Holmes' testimony.

"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," Trump tweeted. "I've even tried, but to no avail. Try it live!"

Sondland testified Wednesday that Trump was pushing a "quid pro quo" through Giuliani to get Ukraine to announce the political investigations in exchange for scheduling a White House meeting between Trump and Zelenskiy.

As Giuliani was pushing for Ukrainian probes of the Bidens and the discredited theory about Ukrainian meddling in the 2016 election for Hillary Clinton, hundreds of millions of dollars in congressionally allocated military aid to Ukraine were being withheld without clear explanation. Multiple witnesses have testified that it was Trump who ordered the delay of the aid package, which Kiyv needed in its battle against Russian military intervention in parts of Ukraine.  

Sondland says he presumed that the military aid was also contingent upon the probes Trump sought. Republicans noted repeatedly that Trump never personally told Sondland what the terms of the quid pro quo needed to be.

White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in a statement that Holmes and former National Security Council Russia advisor Fiona Hill, who was also testifying Thursday, "have no personal or direct knowledge regarding why U.S. aid was temporarily withheld."

"The Democrats' [sic] are clearly being motivated by a sick hatred for President Trump and their rabid desire to overturn the 2016 election," Grisham said.

Trump, denying that there was any quid pro quo involved in his Ukraine dealings, on Wednesday dramatically recited a September phone call he had with Sondland, in which he told the ambassador, "I want nothing. I want no quid pro quo. Tell [Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskiy] to do the right thing."

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Watch David Holmes' opening statement at the impeachment hearing