David Holmes, the counsellor for political affairs at the US embassy in Ukraine. Picture: REUTERS/YARA NARDI
David Holmes, the counsellor for political affairs at the US embassy in Ukraine. Picture: REUTERS/YARA NARDI

Washington — An aide at the US embassy in Ukraine told congressional investigators that he “had never seen anything like” the mobile phone conversation between President Donald Trump and a top diplomat.

Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU had called Trump from an open-air restaurant in Kyiv in July. The embassy aide, David Holmes, said he overheard the conversation and that the two men seemed to refer to Trump’s wish that Ukraine open an investigation of former vice-president Joe Biden, a Democratic rival.

“I’ve never seen anything like this, someone calling the president from a mobile phone at a restaurant, and then having a conversation of this level of candour, colourful language,” Holmes said in a transcript of his closed-door testimony to the House impeachment inquiry. “There’s just so much about the call that was so remarkable that I remember it vividly.”

Transcripts of the testimony by Holmes and undersecretary of state for political affairs David Hale were released on Monday night, as the intelligence committee’s public hearings were about to resume.

Holmes’s testimony more closely ties Trump to events being examined in the impeachment investigation and indicate that Sondland believed Trump did not care about Ukrainian corruption — as the president has claimed was the source of his delay of security aid to the country — but instead cared about an investigation against Biden.

He said that Trump spoke so loudly that Sondland held the phone away from his ear at first.

According to Holmes, Sondland said he was calling from Kyiv, and Trump asked him to confirm he was calling from Ukraine. Holmes said that Sondland told Trump that Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky “loves your ass”.

“I then heard President Trump ask, ‘so he’s going to do the investigation?’” Holmes testified. “Ambassador Sondland replied that, ‘he’s going to do it,’ adding that President Zelensky will “do anything you ask him to’.”

Under questioning from Adam Schiff, the chair of the intelligence committee, Holmes was asked if he believed there was a danger of Russians listening in on the phone call.

“I believe at least two of the three, if not all three of the mobile networks are owned by Russian companies, or have significant stakes in those,” Holmes replied. “We generally assume that mobile communications in Ukraine are being monitored, he added.

After returning to the embassy, Holmes said he told his direct supervisor, Kristina Kvien, of the Trump-Sondland conversation.

“I believe I told her the whole thing. I said, You’re not going to believe what I just heard and I just went through — every element of this was extraordinary,” Holmes said of the call.

“You know, on the one hand, she was shocked, as I was, that that just happened. It was pretty exceptional. She thought parts of it were funny,” he said. Also, “parts of it confirmed some of the things we thought were the case, as I said, because for months, we’d been hearing about things like the Biden investigation and having trouble trying to get traction on the meetings we were seeking.”

“So it had a ring of truth to it.”

Previously, the only parts of Holmes’s closed-door Friday testimony released to the public had been his opening statement. His account undercuts two main thrusts of the Republican defence in the impeachment inquiry: That witnesses thus far did not have first-hand knowledge of events, and that Trump was not directly implicated.

The Trump-Sondland call was first made public last Wednesday by William Taylor, now the top US diplomat in Ukraine, during the first public impeachment hearing of the intelligence committee. Taylor said one of his staff members overheard the call, though Taylor was not aware of that when he gave his private deposition last month.

Hale told impeachment investigators at a separate closed-door session that Marie Yovanovitch, the US ambassador to Ukraine who was ousted by Trump, did not have the support of the state department when she came under attack by the president’s allies.

He said that he pushed for a department statement in support of Yovanovitch, but “the impression we had was that if would only fuel negative reaction”.

“So, I think the judgment was that it would be better for everyone, including the ambassador, to try to just move past this,” Hale said, adding that, “I mean, one point of view was that it might even provoke a public reaction from the president himself about the ambassador.”

Trump has since posted disparaging remarks about Yovanovitch on Twitter, including during her public testimony last week.

Hale and Sondland are scheduled to appear at a public hearing before the House intelligence committee on Wednesday, Holmes on Thursday.

Bloomberg