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Impeachment witness: I’ve never heard anything like Trump-Sondland Ukraine call

David Holmes, a state department official, said he had “never seen anything like” the phone call he overheard between Donald Trump and Gordon Sondland, the EU ambassador, in which Trump personally raised the investigations he had requested from Ukraine.

The call, which Holmes overheard during a lunch with Sondland in Kyiv, was so distinctive that no one needed to refresh his memory, according to testimony released late on Monday in the impeachment inquiry.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Holmes told House investigators, “someone calling the president from a mobile phone at a restaurant, and then having a conversation of this level of candor, colorful language. There’s just so much about the call that was so remarkable that I remember it vividly.”

Holmes’ account of the conversation on 26 July is the first to involve Trump personally calling about the investigations into Democrats and Joe Biden that are central to the impeachment inquiry.

The transcript was released on Monday, hours before the start of a marathon week of public hearings featuring key witnesses, including Sondland and several others who were on the 25 July phone call between Trump and the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, that led to the impeachment inquiry.

Holmes, a political counselor at the US embassy in Ukraine, is scheduled to testify publicly on Thursday.

Holmes, who joined Sondland and others during the lunch meeting, told investigators Trump was talking so loudly he could hear the president clearly on the ambassador’s phone. The call was not on speaker phone, he said.

“I then heard President Trump ask, quote, ‘So he’s going to do the investigation?’” Holmes testified. “Ambassador Sondland replied that ‘he’s going to do it’, adding that President Zelenskiy will, quote, ‘do anything you ask him to’.”

Holmes said he didn’t take notes of the conversation he overheard between Trump and Sondland but remembered it “vividly”.

Pressed during the interview over whether anyone had helped him recall the details, Holmes said: “That wouldn’t have been needed, sir, because, as I said, the event itself was so distinctive that I remember it very clearly.”

Holmes said he was surprised Sondland placed the call to the president using his cellphone because at least two of the three mobile networks are owned by Russian companies. Asked if there was a risk Russians might have intercepted the call, Holmes said: “We generally assume that mobile communications in Ukraine are being monitored.”

After the lunch, Holmes said he returned to the embassy and briefed Kristina Kvien, the deputy chief of mission in Ukraine, about the call.

“I told her the whole story. I said, you wouldn’t believe what I just heard,” Holmes said. “At lunch, Ambassador Sondland pulled out his cellphone and called the President. And then I told her the version of events that I testified to.”

Asked if Ukraine felt pressured to launch investigations into the president’s political rivals, Holmes said: “I think the Ukrainians gradually came to understand that they were being asked to do something in exchange for the meeting and the security assistance hold being lifted.”

A transcript was also released late on Monday from an interview with David Hale, the state department’s No 3 official, who is scheduled to testify publicly on Wednesday. He was questioned this month about the removal of the US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who testified publicly last week.

In his interview, Hale said he had encouraged Yovanovitch to “put out a statement” demonstrating her loyalty to the president to complement a statement of support from the state department for the ambassador, who had come under attack from the president’s allies, and later, the president himself.

“I thought it was a good idea for her to demonstrate,” as a member of the foreign service, “who we were loyal to and who we work for and that she committed to that, and that that would be backed up, of course, by the statement that she was also seeking from the state department,” he said.

The secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, declined to defend Yovanovitch, who served 33 years in the foreign service before being ousted, when asked on Monday if he agreed with the president’s Twitter attack on her while she testified.

Pompeo said: “I’ll defer to the White House about particular statements and the like. I don’t have anything else to say about the Democrats’ impeachment proceedings.”

Earlier on Monday, Pompeo’s predecessor, the former secretary of state Rex Tillerson, weighed in during an interview with PBS anchor Judy Woodruff at an event in Texas.

“Asking for personal favors and using United States assets as collateral is wrong. There’s just no two ways about it,” he told Woodruff in front of an audience. “So if you’re seeking some kind of personal gain and you’re using – whether it’s American foreign aid or American weapons or American influence – that’s wrong and I think everyone understands that.”