Editor’s note: This is one of many summaries of depositions released by House impeachment investigators. The others are available here.
Foreign service officer David Holmes testified before Congress in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Nov. 15. Below is a summary of his testimony, as compiled from the transcript of his deposition and his opening statement.
David Holmes is a career foreign service officer with the Department of State who, in August 2017, began work as a political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, Ukraine. In this role, he gathers information about the host country’s internal politics, foreign relations and security policies; reports back to Washington; represents U.S. politics in his foreign country of residence; and advises the ambassador on policy development and implementation. Holmes was involved in many meetings with Ukrainian leaders, including President Volodymyr Zelensky and his administration, and is often called upon to take notes during these meetings. Holmes testified that he was not privy to issues in the energy or justice sectors.
Holmes served as the chief policy adviser to Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch from the beginning of his term until her removal in May 2019 and praised her professionalism. Holmes noted that during Yovanovitch’s tenure, the team helped achieve the passage of a law that established an independent anti-corruption court to try corruption cases brought by the National Anti-Corruption Bureau (NABU), another independent institution established with U.S. support. Holmes highlighted that these efforts led to tension between Yovanovitch and then-President Petro Poroshenko and then-Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko.
In March 2019, Holmes saw a significant change due to the political agenda promoted by Rudy Giuliani and others. These efforts included negative press reports and attempts to discredit the ambassador by Lutsenko, and they overshadowed the embassy’s work on Ukrainian democratic reform and resistance against Russian aggression. Lutsenko claimed that Yovanovitch was using her position to advance Democratic Party interests, including a mandated investigation of the former head of Ukraine’s tax service by NABU because that person was a “Ukrainian contact of the Republican Party and of President Trump personally.” Lutsenko also made allegations about the former prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, shutting down a case with a tie to Burisma and Vice President Joe Biden’s son.
Holmes indicated that the allegation that Yovanovitch was using the embassy to advance democratic political interests was false. He stated that allegations that the embassy pressured a former prosecutor general to engineer the closing of a case of someone with a remote tie to Burisma and Hunter Biden occurred before his time in Ukraine, but that his counterparts at the embassy believed those allegations to be false.
Holmes saw negative feedback from the Trump administration following Zelensky’s election. Giuliani canceled a visit to Ukraine, alleging that the new president was surrounded by enemies of President Trump. Vice President Mike Pence canceled his plans to attend the inauguration on May 20.
The new delegation to the inauguration included Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who represented himself as the conduit to Trump and Acting Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney. Holmes noted that this was odd, as Sondland’s mandate did not cover individual member states, let alone a non-member country like Ukraine. Additional members of the U.S. delegation included Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations Kurt Volker, National Security Council staffer Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, and Acting Charge d’Affaires Joseph Pennington. Perry, Sondland and Volker later referred to themselves as the “Three Amigos” and took the lead on coordinating with the Zelensky administration. During the delegation’s meeting with Zelensky after his inauguration, Perry passed Zelensky a list of “people he trusts” from whom Zelensky could seek advice on energy sector reform.
At about this same time, Holmes reported that he was made aware of Giuliani’s involvement in Ukraine by Ivan Bakanov, the head of the Security Services of Ukraine. Bakanov told Holmes he had been contacted by someone named Giuliani who said he was “an advisor to the President,” which Holmes then reported to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent. Holmes came to understand that Giuliani was directly influencing the foreign policy agenda the Three Amigos were implementing in Ukraine.
Holmes testified that he did not believe that Giuliani was simply advocating for his client, President Trump, but rather that Giuliani was taking a direct role in Ukrainian diplomacy. Holmes believed this because the Ukrainians viewed him as an important representative of American interests and important to speak with to manage their relationship with the United States.
Following the visit of the U.S. delegation for the inauguration, Trump signed a congratulatory letter to the new Ukrainian president that included an invitation to visit the White House. Holmes indicated that this was particularly significant to Zelensky, as it signaled U.S. support critical to advance his ambitious anti-corruption agenda and encourage Russian President Vladimir Putin to take Zelensky’s peace effort seriously.
Zelensky immediately tried to arrange this visit. While he awaited an answer, Zelensky took his first overseas trip to Brussels to celebrate American independence with Sondland. In the week leading up to this event, Holmes saw Perry, his staff and Sondland play an active and unconventional role in formulating new priorities for the new Ukrainian administration.
On June 17, Ambassador William Taylor arrived in Kyiv as charge d’affaires. Taylor, the Three Amigos and the embassy team began to prepare for an expected White House visit. But it became apparent within the first two weeks that the energy sector reforms, commercial deals and anti-corruption efforts were not sufficient to secure a White House meeting. On June 27, Sondland told Taylor over the phone that Zelensky must make clear to President Trump that he was not standing in the way of “investigations.” Taylor relayed the content of this message to Holmes, who understood this to mean the Burisma/Biden investigation that Giuliani began speaking about in March 2019. Taylor also told Holmes about a June 28 call between Zelensky, the Three Amigos and himself, on which it was made clear that some action on the Biden/Burisma investigation was a precondition for an Oval Office meeting.
Holmes believed that the “investigation” referenced on June 27 in the phone call between Sondland and Taylor, which Taylor relayed to Holmes, was the Burisma/Biden investigation because of the abnormality of the narratives advanced by Giuliani and his associates in the media. One of these narratives was the Burisma/Biden investigation, which was the only investigation referenced during this time period. The embassy typically does not talk about “investigations” on specific cases, Holmes said. He came to focus more on these issues as the embassy tried to discern why these narratives were coming to prominence when they were not consonant with what he understood to be the staff’s formal policy.
On July 18, Holmes participated in a two-hour National Security Council (NSC) secure video conference meeting in the embassy conference room. Near the end of the call, an Office of Management and Budget staff member surprisingly announced the hold on Ukraine security assistance, an order that came from the president and that was conveyed by Chief of Staff Mulvaney with no further explanation. NSC staff could not determine the cause of the hold or how to lift it.
On July 25, Trump made a congratulatory call to Zelensky regarding the recent parliamentary election. Holmes indicated that, contrary to standard procedure, the Ukrainian embassy received no readout of the call and Holmes was not aware of what was discussed on the call until a transcript was released on Sept. 25. Upon reading the transcript months later, Holmes noted that none of the agreed upon foreign policy priorities were discussed.
On July 26, Holmes attended meetings in Kyiv with Taylor, Volker and Sondland. First, the group met with Andriy Bohdan, Zelensky’s chief of staff, who indicated that Trump expressed interest in Zelensky’s personnel decisions related to the prosecutor general’s office. In a subsequent meeting, Zelensky indicated that Trump had “three times” raised “some very sensitive issues” that would need to be followed up on in person. A final meeting occurred between Sondland and Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Zelensky. Holmes was asked to be a note taker for the meeting by Sondland but was ultimately excluded.
When Bohdan indicated to Holmes that Trump was interested in President Zelensky’s personnel decisions relating to the prosecutor general’s office, Holmes did not understand what Bohdan meant. Later, Holmes understood that Lutsenko had been referenced in the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call in connection with a discussion of personnel. Holmes explained that, after Zelensky’s election, there was a period of two or three months before he could make new appointments due to the parliamentary system. Holmes told the committee he believed that Lutsenko sought to keep his position and, to that end, attempted to appeal to Giuliani and President Trump by pushing out false theories about the Bidens and the 2016 election.
After the final meeting, Holmes and Sondland went to lunch, along with other State Department staffers. During the lunch, Sondland placed a call to Trump on his mobile phone and announced multiple times, “Gordon Sondland holding for the President.” Holmes could hear the president’s voice through the earpiece; Sondland held the phone away from his ear during the first part of the phone call, and Holmes believed this was because Trump's voice was very loud on the other end.
Sondland indicated that he was in Kyiv and that Zelensky “loves your ass”—that is, Trump's. Holmes then heard Trump ask Sondland, “So, he’s gonna do the investigation?” Sondland replied that “he’s gonna do it,” adding that Zelensky will do “anything you ask him to.”
The discussion shifted to Sondland’s efforts to assist a rapper jailed in Sweden, indicating that the rapper was “kind of f-----d there,” and “should have pled guilty.” Sondland recommended that Trump “wait until after the sentencing or it will make it worse,” adding that the president should “let him get sentenced, play the racism card, give him a ticker-tape when he comes home.”
After the call, Holmes asked Sondland for his candid impression of the president’s views on Ukraine and if it was true that the president did not “give a s—t about Ukraine.” Sondland indicated that was the case and that the president only cares about “big stuff.” Holmes responded that war with Russia is “big stuff.” Sondland indicated that he meant “big stuff” that benefits the president, like the “Biden investigation,” that Giuliani was pushing.
Holmes indicated that he was surprised that Sondland placed a call to Trump on his mobile phone because phone calls with the president are very sensitive and handled accordingly. Embassy staff generally assume that mobile communications in Ukraine are being monitored. The phone call between Sondland and Trump left an impression, Holmes stated, because it was an extremely distinctive experience in his foreign service career. Holmes had never seen someone call the president from a mobile phone, at a restaurant, and have a conversation of this level of candor and explicit language.
Holmes reported this conversation that same day to the deputy chief of mission and sent an email to an embassy official in Sweden regarding the discussion over the U.S. rapper. Holmes relayed the incident to Taylor when Holmes returned from a pre-planned vacation. Holmes told the committee he remembered the look on Taylor’s face, which was akin to, “yeah, as we expected.”
Holmes indicated that embassy staff shifted their strategy in order to frame the importance of Ukraine in ways that would appeal to Trump. On Aug. 27, National Security Advisor John Bolton visited Ukraine and indicated that Trump had agreed to meet with Zelensky on Sept. 1 in Warsaw. Bolton indicated to Bohdan that the meeting would be “crucial to cementing their relationship.” Bolton indicated that the hold on security assistance would not be lifted prior to the Warsaw meeting and was contingent upon Zelensky’s ability to “favorably impress” Trump.
Trump ultimately pulled out of the Warsaw trip. At Bolton’s suggestion to Taylor, Holmes drafted and sent a cable on Aug. 29articulating the importance of the security assistance to U.S. national security interests. Holmes came to believe that appeals to Trump based on national security or foreign policy were insufficient and that withholding security assistance was intended as a signal relating to the Burisma/Biden investigation.
Holmes was not aware of Trump’s alleged demands on Sept. 7 and 8 that Zelensky personally go to a microphone and say he was opening investigations of the Bidens and 2016 election interference. He was also not aware of Yermak’s message to Sondland that Zelensky was prepared to make a statement on CNN—he stated he learned this only from Taylor’s recent testimony. Yet, on Sept. 8, Taylor told Holmes that, “now they’re insisting Zelensky commit to the investigation in an interview with CNN.” Holmes was surprised by this and believed it to be out of the ordinary.
On Sept. 11, the hold on security was lifted without explanation. On Sept. 13, an Embassy colleague of Holmes’ received a phone call from a colleague at the U.S. Embassy to the European Union indicating that Sondland said that the Zelensky interview was meant to be that day or the following Monday, Sept. 16. In this interview, they planned to announce that a certain investigation that was "on hold" would progress. Later that day, Taylor and Holmes ran into Yermak following a meeting with Zelensky. Taylor stressed to Yermak the importance of staying out of U.S. politics and that he hoped no interview was planned. Yermak shrugged in resignation and did not answer, as if to indicate that the Ukrainians had no choice. But the interview did not ultimately occur.
Despite the hold being lifted and the initiation of the congressional investigation into the president's actions on Ukraine, Holmes stated that he remained concerned that Zelensky would continue to feel compelled to go forward with the CNN interview. He feared that the hold on the aid may have been lifted after Zelensky gave some sort of commitment to do the interview.
Due to discussions with NSC staff, Holmes and the embassy staff were under the impression that Pence would be the senior member of the U.S. delegation to Zelensky’s inauguration. However, no final decision had been made as to who would, in fact, lead the U.S. delegation. Plans were upended after Giuliani gave an interview with the New York Times in which he indicated that he had planned to travel to Ukraine but canceled his trip because there were enemies of the U.S. president in Zelensky’s orbit. Following this interview, embassy staff heard that Pence would not be a part of the U.S. delegation. Holmes stated that Giuliani gave a number of interviews where the upshot was that he intended to meddle in investigations in Ukraine. Holmes was not aware that the president personally told the vice president not to go to Zelensky’s inauguration.
Regarding Perry’s role, Holmes testified that Perry’s staff was very aggressive in terms of promoting an agenda and excluded embassy personnel from meetings without explanation—an unusual dynamic. Perry’s staff, as well as at least two of the Three Amigos, were communicating with WhatsApp and sending messages directly to Ukrainian officials with whom embassy staff usually dealt. Embassy staff was in the loop on certain things but suspected they were out of the loop on others.