A Diplomat With A History Of Voicing Concerns Set To Testify In Impeachment Inquiry

Nov 21, 2019
Originally published on November 21, 2019 10:22 am

A career diplomat who overheard a U.S. ambassador's phone chat with President Trump this summer in which Trump allegedly referred to "investigations" to be carried out by Ukrainian officials is set to testify in the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry Thursday.

David Holmes, a senior staffer at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, is expected to expound on testimony he gave to lawmakers last week behind closed doors.

Holmes, according to transcripts released Monday by House committees investigating the Ukraine affair, said he heard Trump ask Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, "So he's going to do the investigation?"

According to the transcript, Sondland, who testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday and is a White House point-person on Ukraine, said yes.

"He's going to do it," Sondland said, referring to Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the new Ukrainian president. According to Holmes, Sondland also told Trump that Zelenskiy "loves your ass" and will "do anything you ask him to."

The July 26 phone call

Holmes was with Sondland and two other staffers at a restaurant in Kyiv when the ambassador used his cellphone to call Trump on July 26.

That's the day after Trump spoke with Zelenskiy in that now-infamous phone call — where Trump asked his Ukrainian counterpart for "a favor," according to a rough transcript made public by the White House in September.

Holmes is one of the few witnesses in the impeachment inquiry to hear Trump in his own words on the Ukraine affair.

He could add evidence to the assertion that Trump engaged in a quid pro quo with the Ukrainians by putting a freeze on roughly $400 million in military aid and a promise of an Oval Office meeting in exchange for investigations that could be beneficial to Trump's reelection campaign.

U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland listens during the public impeachment hearing.
Andrew Harnik / AP

But Trump never dictated explicit details of the alleged quid pro quo, according to the public testimony given by Sondland on Wednesday.

As NPR's Phil Ewing notes, Republican counsel Steve Castor asked Sondland, "Did the president ever tell you personally about any preconditions for anything?"

Sondland, simply responded, "No."

Expect Holmes to be pressed by lawmakers about an exchange he and Sondland had at the Kyiv restaurant once the phone conversation with Trump ended.

Holmes recalls the ambassador saying that Trump cares about "big stuff" that is beneficial to the president, like the "Biden investigation."

During the public hearing, Sondland said the only part of Holmes' testimony he takes exception to is that he himself never mentioned the Bidens by name.

He added that he didn't know at the time that the investigation into "Burisma" — the Ukrainian energy company on whose board former Vice President Joe Biden's son, Hunter, served for a time — was, in effect, code for the Biden family.

A history of taking a stand on issues

David Holmes joined the foreign service in 2002. He has served in a number of posts including in Kosovo, Kabul, New Delhi and Moscow, before his current post as counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine.

In a tweet, former U.S. Ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul said he had worked with Holmes, who "had the well-deserved reputation as a rising star in the State Department."

In 2014, Holmes won a "constructive dissent" award raising concerns about how the Obama administration was carrying out Afghanistan and Pakistan policy. Using the classified dissent channel, Holmes sent a formal message where he explained that the system at the time was cumbersome and that it "hindered our diplomatic effectiveness."

"His message was so good and so influential that it went all the way to the secretary of state," said Eric Rubin, an active duty foreign service officer and president of the American Foreign Service Association.

The William R. Rivkin award goes to midlevel officials at the State Department who shine a light on policy issues they observe.

Rubin, who also received the award in 1994, made clear it is not about whistleblowers, but rather recognizing someone who feels strongly enough to put themselves on record for voicing views on policy that may differ from the administration.

He said the memo Holmes crafted ultimately became "the subject of senior interagency meetings to discuss how to reorganize our approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan."

In an interview last week on All Things Considered, Dan Feldman, a former State Department official who worked with Holmes in Afghanistan and Pakistan, said Holmes represented "the best of the rising generation of foreign service officers."

"Many of the things that would signal that, he got even after he filed the dissent cable," Feldman said.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Two witnesses have been called for today's impeachment hearings against President Trump. The first, Fiona Hill, who, until earlier this year, was the top Russia policy specialist on the National Security Council, and we'll be hearing about her this morning.

Let's focus for the moment on the only other witness on tap today. He's a career diplomat serving in the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. His name is David Holmes. He's testified in private to what he described as an extraordinary conversation between President Trump and the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.

And for more on Holmes and his testimony, we're joined by NPR's Brakkton Booker. Hi, Brakkton.

BRAKKTON BOOKER, BYLINE: Hey, David.

GREENE: So what was it about this call that made David Holmes tell lawmakers that he, quote, "had never seen anything like this"?

BOOKER: Well, David Holmes is a career foreign service officer who testified behind closed doors last week. And his transcripts were made available on Monday. He said in that deposition that the call is something he remembers, quote, "vividly."

He says EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland and two other U.S. officials were at a Ukrainian restaurant on July 26. He said - and Sondland calls Trump to update him on meetings the group had with Ukrainian officials. And what struck Holmes as, quote, "so remarkable" is that, one, Sondland places the call on an unsecure phone line in the middle of a Ukrainian restaurant. And two, Holmes says he can overhear Trump and Sondland openly discussing, quote, "investigations."

GREENE: So it'd be safe to say no one knows who might be listening in to a phone call at a restaurant unsecured in Kyiv. OK. So what does David Holmes say the president and Ambassador Sondland actually discussed when it comes these investigations?

BOOKER: So according to the transcript, Holmes says Sondland told the president, quote, "he's going to do it." And Holmes says, after the phone call ended, he asked Sondland about the president's concerns about Ukraine. And Holmes says Sondland said that Trump only cares about, quote, "the big stuff" - the big stuff that benefits the president, quote, "like the Biden investigation." Now, in his testimony yesterday before lawmakers, Sondland said he never mentioned the Bidens in this conversation with Holmes.

GREENE: OK. And we actually have tape of this. This is EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland in this exchange with House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ADAM SCHIFF: And you have no doubt - no reason to doubt Mr. Holmes' recounting of your conversation with the president?

GORDON SONDLAND: The only part of Mr. Holmes' recounting that I take exception with is I do not recall mentioning the Bidens. That did not enter my mind. It was Burisma and 2016 elections.

SCHIFF: You have no reason to believe that Mr. Holmes would make that up - if that's what he recalls you saying. You have no reason to question that, do you?

SONDLAND: I don't recall saying Biden. I never recalled saying Biden.

BOOKER: So David, look for this testimony with David Holmes to look like a real "he said, he said" dynamic.

GREENE: Well, something else that came up a lot yesterday and also in Holmes' closed-door testimony was the American rapper A$AP Rocky, who was jailed in Sweden. How does that figure into all this?

BOOKER: You can't make this stuff up, right? Like, A$AP Rocky makes a cameo in an impeachment hearing and gets name-checked by the witness that is testifying and Gordon Sondland, the EU ambassador.

Now, A$AP Rocky was the subject of this phone call between Trump and Sondland, according to Sondland's recollection. He says, at the time of the phone call, the rapper was having real legal trouble in Sweden. He was arrested on assault charges. And while much of the focus of this phone call had to do with the investigations, Sondland testified that, actually, the majority of this phone call was about Trump's interest in how to strategize around the interest in the rapper's arrest.

GREENE: OK. We focused on what to expect from David Holmes' testimony today. You've been talking to people just about, like, him - his career. What do people say about him?

BOOKER: Honestly, I couldn't find anybody to say a negative thing about David Holmes. He is someone who has been described as principled, as ethical. And in his mid-40s, he's still considered a rising star in the Foreign Service. He's served in Kosovo and Afghanistan and Russia. And I think it's important to note that, in 2015, he won - sorry - 2014, he won the Constructive Dissent Award given to mid-level career officers for voicing concern on U.S. policy. Just want to note - this happened in the Obama administration. And people who know him are worried that, you know, he may end up being - his career may be derailed because of this spotlight in the impeachment hearings.

GREENE: NPR's Brakkton Booker. Brakkton, thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.