Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
Editor’s note: This is one of many summaries of depositions released by House impeachment investigators. The others are available here.
Former National Security Council official Fiona Hill testified before Congress in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Oct. 14. Below is a summary of her testimony, as compiled from the transcript of her deposition.
The deposition transcript of former National Security Council (NSC) Senior Director Fiona Hill offers a detailed account of the effects of the campaign undertaken by Rudy Giuliani and his colleagues on the official U.S.-Ukraine relationship, the role of Gordon Sondland in coopting the Ukraine portfolio, and the sequence of events surrounding a July 10 White House meeting between administration officials and representatives of Ukrainian Volodymyr President Zelensky’s new government. At the NSC, Hill had been the senior director overseeing the European Union and NATO, as well as Russia and Ukraine. Hill was on paid leave from July 19 until her official retirement from the administration on Sept. 3, so her testimony includes no details about the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky.
Hill did not make an opening statement, but in questioning from committee staff and members, she charted the growing influence of conspiratorial ideas about Ukraine championed by Giuliani. She told the committees that she first became aware of Giuliani’s interest in Ukraine “sometime between ... January 2019 and March 2019” because of an article in The Hill and “because of Mr. Giuliani’s statements on television.” A series of news clips sent to the NSC by the White House Situation Room revealed what Hill perceived as the extent of Giuliani’s interest in Ukraine.
In these clips, Hill recounted, “[t]here were references to George Soros; there were references to 2016; and then there were all kind of references to ... do-not-prosecute lists and statements from the Ukrainian prosecutor, Mr. Lutsenko, none of which I’d ever heard of anything about before.”
Hill described finishing “extremely long days” and then having to page through cable news and YouTube to find about out Giuliani’s “meta-alternative narrative about Ukraine.” Hill was worried by Giuliani’s ideas and consulted with colleagues who thought that Giuliani’s fixation on Ukrainian conspiracy theories “was related to personal business interests on his part.” Despite Giuliani’s saying “all the time” that he was acting as an agent of the state, Hill underscored that “everyone [at the NSC] was completely unaware of any direct official role that Mr. Giuliani had been given on the Ukraine account.” Officials at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, as well as think tank researchers in Washington, D.C., expressed concerns to Hill about Giuliani’s activities.
Early on, other administration officials also warned Hill of Giuliani’s ties to Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, as well as a third man named Harry Sargeant. She recounted that she “was told these gentlemen, Mr. Parnas, Mr. Fruman, and Mr. Sergeant had all been in business with Mr. Giuliani and that the impression that a number of Ukrainian officials and others had had was that they were interested in seeking business dealings in Ukraine.”
Hill explained to the committee that she had serious worries about the activities of Giuliani and his associates. She confessed that she was “extremely concerned that whatever it was that Mr. Giuliani was doing might not be legal.” Her fear about the legality of Giuliani’s behavior was heightened “after ... people had raised with me [that Parnas, Fruman and Sargeant] ... were notorious and that ... they’d been involved in all kinds of strange things in Venezuela and ... kind of were just well-known for not being above board.” Like her colleagues, Hill’s “early assumption was that” Giuliani and his colleagues’ efforts were “pushing particular individual’s business interests.”
Hill described Ambassador Yovanovitch as an early casualty of Giuliani’s influence over the administration. Following a barrage of “baseless” Giuliani-led conspiratorial accusations against Yovanovitch, including what Hill described as “frankly an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about George Soros,” Yovanovitch was removed from her post in late April. Hill linked Yovanovitch’s removal to a pattern of career public servants who either resign or get pushed out after damaging accusations are levied against them. Yovanovitch’s dismissal baffled Hill, who expressed deep admiration for the former ambassador’s aptitude and tenure in the diplomatic service. Hill attributes the removal to Giuliani, saying that she “understood” the dismissal “to be the result of the campaign that Mr. Giuliani had set in motion in conjunction with people who were writing articles[,]” which included “the constant drumbeat of accusations that he was making on television” that “created an atmosphere in which [Yovanovitch] was under great suspicion, and it was obvious that she would lose the confidence of senior people because these accusations seem to stick to people even when they’re proved not be true.” Hill added, however, that she had no indication that the president had a direct role in Yovanovitch’s dismissal. Yovanovitch’s removal “had a really devastating effect on the morale of all the teams that I work with across the interagency.” Bolton’s reaction “was pained[,]” and he commented that “Rudy Giuliani is a hand grenade that is going to blow everyone up.”
Bolton’s disdain for Giuliani extended beyond his anger at the mayor’s role in Yovanovitch’s dismissal. Hill testified that “Ambassador Bolton made it very clear that ... he didn’t think anybody should be dealing with Giuliani.” According to Hill, Kurt Volker did not heed Bolton’s advice. In May, Volker informed Hill and Bolton that he intended to meet with Giuliani “to try to see if he could resolve whatever issues there may be there” with Giuliani and Ukraine. Referring to the problems created by Giuliani, Volker told Hill “he was trying to fix it[,]” and she reported that Volker was interested in “smooth[ing]” things over with Giuliani in order to stabilize U.S.-Ukraine relations. Hill saw nothing pernicious in Volker’s efforts but described his overtures to the former mayor as “futile.”
In May, Amos Hochstein, the former U.S. envoy for energy who is now on the board of a Ukrainian gas company called Naftogaz, met with Hill to express concerns about Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman attempting to intervene in the Ukrainian energy sector. According to Hochstein, Giuliani’s efforts centered on two goals: to remove Hochstein from the Naftogaz board and to get the Ukrainians to launch investigations into Burisma. Hill learned that Giuliani had been communicating with Ukrainians about both matters and that Parnas and Fruman were exerting pressure on Naftogaz executives through “their connections … [t]o Rudy Giuliani, and through ... usurpation ... of some kind of Presidential authority.”
Hill described additional intrusions into the Ukraine portfolio from surprising sources. For one, she reported concerns about the involvement in Ukraine issues of Kash Patel—a former aide to House Intelligence Committee ranking member Devin Nunes, who now works in a different section of the NSC than does Hill—after a staffer erroneously implied that Patel, not Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, was the NSC director for Ukraine. This interaction made Hill concerned that the president actually thought Patel was in charge of Ukraine at the NSC and that Patel had been sending NSC material to Trump without authorization. Hill reported her concern about Patel to Charles Kupperman, who is in charge of NSC staffing, in addition to Kent and Taylor.
Although Patel’s incursions struck her as odd, Hill was more concerned with Gordon Sondland. Sondland made a positive initial impression on Hill: “He was enthusiastic. He clearly wanted to serve .... He’s a patriot. He wanted to serve the American people.” Hill, however, grew frustrated with Sondland, who showed widespread disregard for established norms of the diplomatic process. Hill explained that Sondland, for example, gave her personal cell phone number to foreign officials who would call her to demand to meet with her or Bolton, a practice she described as a “counterintelligence risk.” Sondland would meet with people without being briefed and was, in Hill’s words, “basically driving along with no guardrails and no GPS on an unfamiliar territory”; in one country, Sondland ignored the charge d’affaires and “pretended he wasn’t there.” This diplomatic naivety caught the attention of Hill and her NSC colleagues, who expressed concerns to Sondland about his lackadaisical behavior.
Hill expressed even greater frustration, however, at Sondland’s overreach in claiming authority over the Ukraine portfolio. Hill recounts a June “blow-up” with Sondland where he told her “he was in charge of Ukraine” after Hill had told him he was not. Sondland “got testy with” Hill, and she asked who told him he was in charge of Ukraine. The president did, Sondland responded. Sondland claimed to be in contact with the president, Volker, State Department counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, and Energy Secretary Rick Perry. Hill found the absence of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo from the above list to be “a bit odd.”
Hill conveyed skepticism about whether Sondland actually ever had any contact with the president, even though Sondland was in Washington “a shocking number of times” for someone detailed to Europe and was often around the White House—without going through proper protocol, in Hill’s account. Sondland would tell Hill that he had spoken with the president, but she would talk to White House staff, who would tell her that Sondland had “only been up to see [Acting White House Chief of Staff] Mick Mulvaney.” Hill told committee members that Mulvaney was the only White House staff that she knew for certain had interacted with Sondland.
Sondland was interested in establishing contact between Trump and President Zelensky, an effort that sometimes included cooperation with Mulvaney. The White House sent a congratulatory letter to Zelensky after his late May inauguration as president. Hill alleged that Sondland dictated a part of the letter mentioning a visit with President Trump. The letter, Hill noted, “did not go through the normal NSC procedures .... Ambassador Sondland coordinated on that letter directly with the Chief of Staff, and it did not go back through the National Security Council Executive Secretary.” Sondland was not included on the original list of those accompanying Secretary Perry on a U.S. delegation to Zelensky’s May 20 inauguration. Yet Hill detailed that Mulvaney’s office repeatedly put Sondland back on the list.
A significant portion of Hill’s testimony centered on a July 10 meeting between Trump administration officials and a delegation from Zelensky’s government. Sondland, Volker, Perry, Bolton, Wells Griffith (a special assistant to the president on energy issues) and Vindman represented the Americans. For the Ukrainians, there was Oleksandr Danylyuk (Zelensky’s national security adviser), Andrey Yermak (Danylyuk’s aide who has reportedly met with Giuliani) and an aide of Yermak’s. Hill recounted that the Ukrainians wanted help restructuring their national security apparatus and also pushed the Americans on getting a meeting between Zelensky and Trump. Bolton, the bureaucratic expert, chimed in on their first request but tried hard to avoid committing to a Trump-Zelensky meeting. Perry began to go through a series of Department of Energy talking points on the Ukrainian energy sector (Hill double-checked after the meeting that Perry’s comments to the Ukrainians were indeed bona-fide talking points). Chaos erupted as Sondland “leaned over across Ambassador Bolton” and blurted out, “[W]e have an agreement with the Chief of Staff for a meeting if these investigations in the energy sector start.” Bolton immediately ended the meeting after Sondland’s interjection.
Volker, Sondland and Perry then led the Ukrainians to a different White House room. Vindman and a collection of miscellaneous U.S. officials tagged along. Hill found the notion of a separate meeting “unusual[,]” and Bolton urged her to go check on what was happening. Perry had already left by the time Hill arrived, and Sondland appeared to be leading the breakout meeting. As she was walking in, Hill described that “Sondland, in front of the Ukrainians ... was talking about how he had an agreement with Chief of Staff Mulvaney for a meeting with the Ukrainians if they were going to go forward with investigations.” Vindman looked “completely alarmed.” She reported a stark disparity in reactions to Sondland’s comments between the two Ukrainians: “Mr. Danylyuk looked very alarmed as well. He didn’t look like he knew what was going on. That wasn’t the same with Yermak.” Sondland also mentioned Burisma in the meeting, Hill explained.
Hill testified that she told Sondland that they should not discuss the meeting in front of the Ukrainians, and he acquiesced momentarily. The Ukrainians left the room, and Hill told Sondland that Bolton wanted to make sure the head-of-state visit discussions go through the proper process. Sondland told her, “We have an agreement that they’ll have a meeting” and was “getting very annoyed” because “he already had an agreement with the Chief of Staff for a meeting between the Presidents on the basis of these investigations.” She testified that he mentioned “Mr. Giuliani” before Hill cut him off.
Hill immediately reported back to Bolton, who told her to tell NSC counsel John Eisenberg that he is “not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up on this, and you go tell him what you’ve heard and what I’ve said.” Hill briefly met with Eisenberg later that day and again the following day. She relayed the details of the meeting to Eisenberg along with her concerns that the Ukrainians were inside “the secure spaces of the White House” because of the unusual room in which Sondland had arranged for the breakout group to meet (arrangements that Hill reports were made through Mulvaney’s office). According to Hill, Eisenberg shared Hill’s account of the meeting with White House Counsel Pat Cipollone.
Eight days later, NSC staff was informed that the Office of Management and Budget had put a hold on military aid to Ukraine. Hill explained that she and her colleagues “were told that it actually came as a direction from the Chief of Staff’s office.” Hill testified that Bolton had no awareness of the hold in the lead-up to the July 10 meeting. Hill indicated that Kupperman and Vindman tried to get more information about the hold but did not succeed.