David Holmes had “never seen anything like” it.
Holmes, a State Department official with the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, shared new details on Thursday about the phone conversation between President Donald Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland that he overheard this summer at a restaurant in Kyiv.
“This was a very distinctive experience,” Holmes told House investigators conducting the impeachment hearing, explaining how the moment stood out against the backdrop of his foreign service career. He recounted the July 26 episode, in which he was seated directly across the table from Sondland on an outdoor terrace with two other aides.
His testimony fleshed out a clearer picture of Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, which kicked off the impeachment inquiry back in September.
“Someone at a lunch in a restaurant making a call on a cellphone to the president of the United States, being able to hear his voice, his very distinctive personality — we’ve all seen him on television,” Holmes said.
Holmes was able to hear much of the discussion simply because Trump’s voice was very loud, he said in his prepared remarks, confirming a previously reported detail. He said Sondland “held the phone away from his ear for a period of time, presumably because of the loud volume.”
Trump, meanwhile, tweeted that he has “never” been able to hear a conversation not set to speakerphone, boasting that his hearing is “great.”
At the restaurant, Sondland told the president that he was calling from Kyiv, at which point the president “clarif[ied]” that Sondland was calling from Ukraine, according to Holmes. (Kyiv is the capital city of Ukraine.)
The ambassador then told Trump that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky “loves your ass,” Holmes said. (The remarks use an alternate spelling of Zelensky’s name.)
I then heard President Trump ask, “So, he’s gonna do the investigation?”
Ambassador Sondland replied that “he’s gonna do it,” adding that President Zelenskyy 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.
What Holmes heard stood out to him because of its relevance to his work. Just one day earlier, on July 25, Trump had asked Zelensky to “do us a favor” and look into the conspiracy theory that it was Ukraine, not Russia, that interfered in the 2016 election for the benefit of Hillary Clinton, not Trump. He also asked Zelensky to investigate Burisma, an energy company that once had Joe Biden’s son Hunter as a board member. Trump appeared to believe that the Bidens were involved in corruption in Ukraine ― and that an investigation announcement would hurt Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign.
Although Holmes did not read a transcript of the July 25 call until its public release in September, he had been hearing about the proposed investigations. For one, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had brought up the conspiracy theories on national television several times over the previous months.
“[Sondland and Trump] were directly addressing something I had been wondering about, working on, for weeks and even months. A topic that had led to the recall of my former boss, the former ambassador,” Holmes said, referring to former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was abruptly fired earlier this year. Yovanovitch said in public testimony last week that she believed she was fired for pushing back on the Trump administration’s efforts to launch an investigation into the Bidens in Ukraine.
According to Holmes, Sondland and Trump then pivoted the discussion to rapper A$AP Rocky’s legal troubles in Sweden, where he was held for assault.
Sondland said Trump should “let him get sentenced, play the racism card, give him a ticker-tape when he comes home,” Holmes recalled. “You can tell the Kardashians you tried,” Sondland added, according to Holmes.
After the call ended, Sondland told Holmes that Trump had been in a “bad mood,” as was “often the case early in the morning.”
He went on to testify that Sondland agreed Trump did not “give an expletive” about Ukraine.
“I asked why not,” Holmes said, “and Ambassador Sondland stated that the President only cares about ‘big stuff.’ I noted that 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.”
Holmes’ testimony ― concurrent with National Security Council adviser Fiona Hill’s ― is scheduled to be the last given this week in the impeachment inquiry, following public hearings with a number of other high-level officials.