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Sondland's Public Testimony Sparks Questions About Legal Implications


OK. So that's the story of Fiona Hill, who at this hour has just begun her testimony on Capitol Hill. Seated right beside her is another witness, David Holmes, the diplomat at the embassy in Ukraine who overheard a July 26 phone call between U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and President Trump. Holmes could hear some of what Trump was saying to Sondland. The president was speaking very loudly. And minutes ago on Capitol Hill, Holmes described for lawmakers how, after Sondland got off the call, he asked Sondland some questions.


DAVID HOLMES: I asked Ambassador Sondland if it was true that the president did not give a expletive about Ukraine. Ambassador Sondland agreed that the president did not give an expletive about Ukraine. I asked, why not? Ambassador Sondland stated that the president only cares about big stuff. I noted there was big stuff going on in Ukraine, like a war with Russia. And Ambassador Sondland replied that he meant big stuff that benefits the president, like the Biden investigation that Mr. Giuliani was pushing. The conversation then moved on to other topics.

GREENE: All right. I want to bring in two constitutional and legal scholars and frequent guests on our program, Kim Wehle and Jonathan Turley, who are both on the line. Thank you both for joining us.

KIM WEHLE: Hi there.


GREENE: Jonathan, I want to start with you. Is the call that Holmes just described legally important somehow in this whole impeachment inquiry?

TURLEY: Well, it certainly is important because it's a direct reference to the Bidens, as opposed to the more general reference to the company that Hunter Biden worked for or was paid by. And that is Burisma. I - we've had testimony from Ambassador Sondland and others that they didn't make the connection between the demand for an investigation of Burisma and the Bidens.

I think the more significant piece of information that Holmes has disclosed this morning is a June 28 meeting with President Zelenskiy from the Ukraine in which he makes a passing reference to certain demands made by President Trump that he has to address. That's quite significant because that would - if those demands are the investigations, it certainly reinforces this idea that this was not a pleasantry and that Zelenskiy certainly thought that he had to have some deliverables, that he was working on...

GREENE: To do something in order to get what he wanted out of this. Kim, what stands out to you this morning from David Holmes' opening statement?

WEHLE: Well, a number of things. He explained how the public was made aware through Rudy Giuliani's statements as early as March that the Burisma investigation was also about the Bidens. He also said he was really shocked that this money was withheld. And he's creating kind of - really reinforcing the narrative here that what President Trump did was not in the best interests of America and actually served the interests of Vladimir Putin. And I think we're going to hear more from Fiona Hill about that.

And that really is the question here about abuse of power for impeachment. Is - are we OK with people using the office of the presidency for their own personal gain? He mentioned that - the phone call, the - that he overheard, where Mr. Sondland said afterwards that Trump cares about big stuff that benefits him. That's really the narrative, a president using the office to benefit and entrench his own power in 2020 rather than to implement the objectives of the American people, which is to support Ukraine.

GREENE: Jonathan, let me ask you about what we're expected to hear from Fiona Hill this morning. I mean, she is stressing that it was Russia who interfered in the 2016 election, as U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded, and that it is some alternative narrative to suggest that Ukraine was somehow involved. I mean, if President Trump or someone like Rudy Giuliani was pressing Ukraine to investigate something that it turns out was just a false narrative, does that somehow play an important role in the question of impeachment?

TURLEY: Well, first of all, I think that this is precisely why the questioning is likely to get quite heated today. This has already been raised by the Republicans, that this suggestion from Hill is that the Republicans have denied that the Russians interfered with the election. And the Republicans are quite adamant that they have all, in fact, agreed with that assessment. Their position is that there was also interference, not exclusive, but also interference by the Ukrainians.

And they're citing some of the witnesses that have - that went before Mueller, including Nellie Ohr, who was one of the key players bringing the Steele dossier to the FBI. And Ohr has said that some of the key sources were in fact Ukrainians. And so the Republicans are simply saying, no one is denying Republican - Russian interference or the importance of that. But we also believe there was Ukrainian interference, and we would like all interference investigated. At least, that's their narrative. So they're going to jump on her for what they believe is an unfair characterization.

GREENE: Kim, what stands out to you, and what are you listening for from Fiona Hill as this other question now comes up, I mean, this whole question of investigating Ukraine's role or lack of role in interfering in election?

WEHLE: Yeah. I think she's trying - she will try to sort of set the stage of, what are the facts? What's actually real here, and what's fake? Or, what's what people have called conspiracy theories? We know that the American government consistently across the national security apparatus has made clear that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election, not the Ukrainians. And she is not only an expert in Russia. She wrote a book about President Putin himself. And she's quite concerned about the overall problems for democracy that we're seeing right now if we tolerate this kind of - sort of entertaining Russian influence into our electoral process.

GREENE: Kim Wehle, Jonathan Turley, you're always there for us in moments like this. We really appreciate you both.

TURLEY: Thank you.

WEHLE: Sure thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF COOKIN' ON 3 BURNERS' "KEB'S BUCKET") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.