For the former top Russia adviser on President Donald Trump’s National Security Council, the moment of clarity came during the House Intelligence Committee’s impeachment hearings, when Fiona Hill saw a set of email exchanges involving Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland.
Sondland’s emails with other officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, showed that a shadow operation outside normal channels was pursuing goals that undermined official U.S. policy toward Ukraine. Their objective: pressuring that government to publicly commit to conducting investigations that could politically benefit Trump.
“He was being involved in a domestic political errand,” Hill said of Sondland. “And we were being involved in national security, foreign policy. And those two things had just diverged.”
Those three words from Hill’s testimony Thursday — “domestic political errand” — put a capstone atop two weeks of riveting public hearings. She was a devastating witness, who summarized better than anyone else the crux of the impeachment case against Trump.
But Hill also spoke to something more fundamental about Trump and how he regards the presidency. He views every public servant as his own lackey, there to serve no higher purpose than attending to his whims and advancing his personal interests.
We’ve seen these tendencies in Trump from the start. The nation’s armed services have become, in his words, “my generals” and “my military.” And Trump has suggested those who criticize him are guilty of “treason,” a capital offense.
The president treats the federal government as though it were his family business — and sometimes, it seems he is right.
We were expected to believe, for instance, that a rigorous site-selection process led to the conclusion that the ideal location for next year’s Group of Seven summit just happened to be Trump’s own financially struggling Doral resort. Even after the ensuing public outcry forced Trump to back away from that idea, he continued to maintain that he didn’t see any problem with the arrangement.
During the past two weeks of impeachment hearings, witness after witness buttressed the inescapable conclusion that Trump’s true priority in dealing with Ukraine subjugated the United States’ interests there to his personal ones in getting reelected.
Only because of a still-unidentified whistleblower were Trump and his errand boys thwarted in turning congressionally appropriated military aid to Kyiv into a bargaining chip that would force Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to publicly announce an investigation into the business dealings of former vice president Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
Sondland seemed to concede that this was purely for political show, and not an effort to actually ferret out corruption, when he testified that Zelenskiy “had to announce the investigations. He didn’t have to actually do it, as I understand it.”
In his relentlessly dissected July 25 phone call with Zelenskiy, Trump also asked another “favor.” He wanted the Ukrainians to come up with supposed evidence to undermine the U.S. intelligence community’s conclusion that Trump’s cheering section in Moscow interfered with the 2016 presidential election.
Specifically, Trump wanted to shift the blame from Russia, where it belongs, to a crackpot conspiracy theory about Ukrainian interests being behind the 2016 hacking of Democratic National Committee computers.
On Friday, Trump was back at it, spouting the nonsensical scenario in a 50-minute rant on Fox News: “They gave the server to CrowdStrike, or whatever it’s called, which is a company owned by a very wealthy Ukrainian. And I still want to see that server. You know, the FBI has never gotten that server. That’s a big part of this whole thing. Why did they give it to a Ukrainian company?”
Indulging Trump’s fantasies on this one is particularly dangerous, as Hill noted at the outset of her testimony.
“The impact of the successful 2016 Russian campaign remains evident today. Our nation is being torn apart. Truth is questioned. Our highly professional expert career Foreign Service is being undermined. U.S. support for Ukraine — which continues to face armed aggression — has been politicized,” she said. “The Russian government’s goal is to weaken our country, to diminish America’s global role and to neutralize a perceived U.S. threat to Russian interests.”
From here the process will move to the House Judiciary Committee, which will determine whether anything Trump did constitutes bribery, extortion, abuse of power or any other offense that could rise to the level of the ill-defined standard of “high crimes and misdemeanors” that the Constitution sets for impeachment.
The outcome looks preordained by our politics: The Democratic House will impeach; the Republican Senate will acquit. It remains to be seen whether one party or the other will benefit as a result, but Hill’s testimony is a reminder that there is something larger to be gained, whatever the electoral fallout.
“I have no interest in advancing the outcome of your inquiry in any particular direction,” Hill told the Intelligence Committee, “except toward the truth.”
She has indeed done that, and the entire country should be grateful.