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State Department Aide Shares Details About Sondland Call In Closed-Door Deposition


State Department official David Holmes has been testifying behind closed doors tonight in the House impeachment inquiry. He's the aide who overheard a phone call between Ambassador Gordon Sondland and President Trump; a call that came to light earlier this week during the public testimony of acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor.


WILLIAM TAYLOR: Following that meeting, in the presence of my staff at a restaurant, Ambassador Sondland called President Trump and told him of his meetings in Kyiv. The member of my staff could hear President Trump on the phone asking Ambassador Sondland about the investigations.

CORNISH: For more on Holmes' testimony, we have NPR's Tim Mak.

Welcome back.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Hey there.

CORNISH: What have you learned so far about what he's had to say?

MAK: So Holmes is the aide that Taylor testified Wednesday overheard a call between Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU, and President Trump. Democratic Congressman Ted Lieu said that Holmes had a detailed recollection of that phone conversation.


TED LIEU: He has some specific quotes that leaves no doubt what the president of the United States was thinking.

MAK: So according to Holmes' opening statement, which was obtained by CNN and which NPR has not independently confirmed, Holmes, Sondland and two other embassy staffers went for lunch on July 26 of this year. That was also the day after President Trump's now-famous phone call with President Zelenskiy. During the lunch, Ambassador Sondland said he was going to call the president. And Holmes now claims that the phone volume was so loud, he could hear the president's voice - President Trump's voice when the two eventually connected. He says that he heard the president say to Sondland, quote, "so he's going to do the investigation," and that he heard Sondland reply that the Ukrainian president would do, quote, "anything you ask him to." Jackie Speier, a Democratic member of the Intelligence Committee, explained what she saw as the significance of the testimony.


JACKIE SPEIER: I think it adds more color to what we know about how the president looks at Ukraine. And it's very disheartening.

MAK: Ultimately, what's so interesting about this testimony is that it directly ties the president to requests for investigations, putting him at the very center of this impeachment inquiry.

CORNISH: But what is significant about that? I mean, how does this fit into the other elements the public will have heard about the impeachment inquiry?

MAK: So it syncs with testimony we heard from William Taylor, who you alluded to earlier. It also disrupts a key Republican criticism of the process. So so far, the witnesses that have testified openly have only observed the effects of the president's alleged efforts to leverage U.S. foreign policy for political gain. The problem, Republicans say, is that the House has not heard from anyone with firsthand knowledge. This testimony comes from someone who directly heard the president, and that could really change the whole situation. Congressman Lieu seized on this point tonight.


LIEU: You know, Republicans keep complaining about no firsthand knowledge. The guy has firsthand knowledge.

MAK: So if David Holmes proves to be a credible witness, his testimony could change the direction of the inquiry and how Republicans have been defending the president.

CORNISH: How will this impact next week's planned open hearings - ones that will be in public?

MAK: Well, Lieu has already suggested that Democrats will want to hear from David Holmes, although there's been nothing scheduled as of right now. It will also draw a lot of attention to Sondland's testimony, which is scheduled for Wednesday. Sondland has already reversed his initial statement to the committee. He said he wasn't aware of any sort of quid pro quo. Later, he amended that statement, saying he relayed to a top Ukrainian official that military aid to Ukraine would not be released until they agreed to an investigation that they had been discussing. So it suggests, if Holmes is accurate, that Sondland was not being truthful. This is going to be a big focus over the coming week.

CORNISH: Tim Mak is NPR's political reporter.

Thanks so much.

MAK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
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