WASHINGTON — The effort to pressure Ukraine for political help provoked a heated confrontation inside the White House over the summer that so alarmed John R. Bolton, then the national security adviser, that he told an aide to alert White House lawyers, House investigators were told on Monday.
Bolton got into a sharp exchange on July 10 with Gordon D. Sondland, the Trump donor turned ambassador to the European Union, who was working with Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, to press Ukraine to investigate Democrats, according to testimony provided to the investigators.
Bolton instructed Fiona Hill, the senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs, to notify the chief lawyer for the National Security Council that Giuliani was working with Mick Mulvaney, the acting White House chief of staff, on a rogue operation with legal implications, Hill told the investigators, according to two people familiar with her closed-door testimony.
“I am not part of whatever drug deal Rudy and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Bolton, a Yale-trained lawyer, told Hill to tell White House lawyers, according to the testimony.
It was not the first time Bolton expressed grave concerns to Hill about Giuliani. “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up,” Hill quoted Bolton saying during an earlier conversation.
The account of the backroom discussions came as House impeachment investigators sought Monday to establish how Trump’s allies circumvented the usual national security process and ran their own rump foreign policy to extract help from Ukraine in undercutting his Democratic adversaries.
The investigators privately interviewed Hill, who was cut out of dealings with Ukraine led by Giuliani. And they widened their net in the fast-paced inquiry by summoning a senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who abruptly resigned last week.
The interviews indicated that House Democrats were proceeding full tilt with their inquiry despite the administration’s declaration last week that it would refuse to cooperate with what it called an invalid and unconstitutional impeachment effort. Hill became the first former White House official to testify, and the House committees have set a busy schedule of testimony from others who plan to appear.
Committee officials scheduled a Wednesday interview with Michael McKinley, a career State Department official who served as a senior adviser to Pompeo before quitting last week. Career diplomats have expressed outrage at the unceremonious removal of Ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch from Ukraine after she came under attack by Giuliani, Donald Trump Jr. and two associates who have since been arrested on campaign violations.
Three other administration officials were scheduled to talk with investigators this week despite the White House statement. Sondland, who backed out of testifying at the last minute last week on orders of the State Department, will now appear on Thursday.
George P. Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state who deals with the region, is scheduled to testify on Tuesday. And the committee on Monday set an interview for Friday with Laura K. Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, Eurasia policy.
Trump made no visible effort to block the testimony on Monday, even as he called on House Democrats to interview the anonymous CIA officer who first filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that the president abused the power of his office by pressuring Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and other Democrats.
“A total Impeachment Scam!” Trump wrote on Twitter. Later in the day, he posted a number of video clips of Mark Levin on Fox News excoriating the Democrats for pursuing impeachment, quoting the television host calling it “a silent COUP effort.”
Hill’s testimony, which unfolded behind closed doors over nine hours in the secure rooms of the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill, had been highly anticipated because of her position as a senior director at the National Security Council, typically a key job coordinating policy toward members of the former Soviet Union. But it was not clear whether her account would help either side, since she left her post in July shortly before some of the key events in the saga.
She and others objected strenuously to the recall of Yovanovitch, seeing it as an egregious abuse of the system against a career professional for doing her job.
Hill was prepared to testify that she opposed the idea of the now-famous July 25 telephone call between Trump and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine because she did not understand its purpose. While it was described as a congratulatory call following parliamentary elections in Ukraine, Trump had already made a congratulatory call to Zelenskiy in April following his own election.
She was not told that Trump would use the call to press for an investigation into Biden, nor did she know about the president’s decision to withhold $391 million in U.S. assistance to Ukraine until shortly before her departure, according to the person informed about her account.
Her testimony does not establish a quid pro quo between the suspended aid and Trump’s pressure for investigations, the person said. But she would confirm that the administration leveraged a coveted White House invitation for Zelenskiy to a commitment to investigate corruption, which was seen as code for investigating Democrats.
Hill took her objections to the treatment of Yovanovitch, who was targeted by Giuliani and conservative media outlets, to Bolton, as well as others. Bolton shared her concerns, according to the person, and was upset at Giuliani’s activities, which she viewed as essentially co-opting U.S. foreign policy toward Ukraine.
Yovanovitch, a 33-year veteran of the Foreign Service who served under Republican and Democratic administrations, including three times as an ambassador, told House investigators last week that the president had personally pushed for her ouster for months, based on “false claims.”
Two associates of Giuliani were charged on Thursday with campaign finance violations connected to their efforts to convince a congressman to lobby Pompeo to fire Yovanovitch for privately expressing “disdain” for the Trump administration. Yovanovitch denied ever expressing such a sentiment.
Hill is a widely respected, British-born former Brookings Institution scholar and intelligence officer. She is the author, with Clifford Gaddy, of “Mr. Putin,” a critical biography of the Russian leader, and she was appointed senior director for Russian and Eurasian affairs on the National Security Council staff in 2017. She turned over her duties to her successor on July 15 and left on July 19, just days before the July 25 call. For much of her tenure, Hill found herself caught in the middle, a noted skeptic of Putin working for a president who valued his friendship with the Russian leader. She came under fire from some of the most conservative figures and news media outlets around Trump, which portrayed her as an enemy within, even as some of her longtime friends and colleagues expressed disapproval that she had gone to work for the president in the first place.
“I know she has received all sorts of threats,” said Angela E. Stent, a Georgetown professor and Hill’s predecessor as national intelligence officer for Russia under President George W. Bush. “It is frightening. Imagine someone goes into public service to try to do the right thing, and this is what happens to you.”
Strobe Talbott, a former deputy secretary of state under President Bill Clinton and Hill’s former boss at the Brookings Institution, said she stood up to the flak. “Fiona Hill doesn’t frighten,” he said. “I would say she is gimlet-eyed.”
While critical of Putin, she was never as hard-line as some Russia experts in Washington in the perpetual debate about how to confront Moscow. “She is not a hawk. She is not a dove,” Talbott said. “She is an owl and wise.”
The White House did not attempt to stop Hill from testifying, according to the person familiar with her account, but White House lawyers exchanged letters with Hill’s lawyer about precedents regarding the confidentiality of presidential communications.
The House Intelligence Committee issued a last-minute subpoena Monday morning to compel Hill to speak with the investigators, according to an official involved in the investigation. The arrangement was similar to one used last week to secure Yovanovitch’s cooperation, allowing both witnesses to more easily justify ignoring the White House’s clear opposition to cooperation with the House inquiry.
Hill brought no opening statement to Monday’s session, unlike Yovanovitch and Kurt D. Volker, the former special envoy for Ukraine, when they were interviewed by House investigators. Unlike Volker, she had no documents, emails or text messages to turn over because she left them behind when she stepped down.
In addition to the robust interview schedule, the House committees have also set a series of consequential deadlines on Tuesday for the Trump administration and key witnesses to produce documents related to Trump’s conversation with Zelenskiy, the decision to hold back the security aid and other matters.
Those already under subpoena to produce the material include the White House Office of Management and Budget, the Defense Department and Giuliani. Vice President Mike Pence also faces a deadline to hand over a vast set of records voluntarily, or face a subpoena.
The deadlines force each department or witness to decide between the White House’s direction not to cooperate with the House’s work and the demands of Congress. Democrats have warned that failure to comply will be considered obstruction of their inquiry, which could merit its own article of impeachment against Trump.