As Marie Yovanovitch outlined the smear campaign that President Donald Trump’s allies successfully used to oust her as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Trump decided to add to it.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” the president tweeted, insisting on his “absolute right” to appoint ambassadors. Yovanovitch had just finished describing the “vague threat” she felt from the president himself, months after his allies derailed a diplomatic career notable for fighting corruption in Ukraine.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the point person for the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry of Donald Trump, stopped a line of questioning to ask Yovanovitch what the effect would be on her and future impeachment witnesses. “I can’t speak to what the president’s trying to do,” said Yovanovitch, “but I think the effect is to be intimidating.”
The Democrats on the impeachment panel agreed. “If you’re somebody thinking about whether you’re going to come forward… those tweets are to make certain you don’t,” said Rep. Peter Welch (D-VT). “This whole episode is laden with witness intimidation.”
It was the latest escalation in what Yovanovitch described to the second public impeachment hearing as effectively a U.S. diplomat’s anxiety dream. For months in Ukraine, she was the target of a campaign of lies, pushed by powerful friends of Donald Trump, fueled by corrupt Ukrainians whom she had angered, and ultimately endorsed by the president himself.
“Perhaps it was not surprising that when our anti-corruption efforts got in the way of a desire for profit or power, Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old, corrupt rules sought to remove me,” Yovanovitch said Friday. “What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them and, working together, they apparently succeeded in orchestrating the removal of a U.S. ambassador. How could our system fail like this? How is it that foreign corrupt interests could manipulate our government?”
Yovanovitch, a career diplomat, was not a witness to most of the events, in the summer and fall of 2019, that Democrats consider impeachable. Instead, she is a unique figure in the unfolding story of the Trump administration’s pressure campaign on Ukraine: its casualty.
Beset by an onslaught of character assassination for being an obstacle to an agenda she did not understand, one advanced by agents of her own president, Yovanovitch exemplified a side of a shadow foreign-policy effort that was not merely “irregular,” as her successor in Kyiv, Bill Taylor, testified Wednesday, but cruel. To marginalize the regular diplomatic channel, one that supported Ukraine out of a sense it served U.S. interests rather than parochial benefit to Trump, Rudy Giuliani and his allies made Yovanovitch collateral damage.
“Our Ukraine policy has been thrown into disarray,” she testified, “and shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want.”
A smear campaign involving Trump attorney Giuliani, corrupt Ukrainian ex-prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko and now-indicted Giuliani allies falsely portrayed the now ex-ambassador as blocking Ukrainian investigations into Trump’s political enemies. Those two Giuliani allies, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were last month arrested and indicted for campaign-finance violations first reported by The Daily Beast. Among the donations made by the two, who have pleaded not guilty, is $325,000 given to Trump’s super PAC.
Announcing the indictment last month, U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman accused Parnas and Fruman of “sell[ing] political influence,” both to enrich themselves and “to advance the political interests of one foreign official, a Ukrainian government official who sought the dismissal of the U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine”—meaning Yovanovitch.
In May 2018, a politician who received $3 million from a PAC Parnas and Fruman helped fund, then-GOP Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX), wrote to Yovanovitch’s boss, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, calling for her dismissal on the grounds that she was alleged to have disparaged Trump. Months later, after Yovanovitch gave a March 2019 speech warning that Ukraine was not sufficiently tackling corruption, Lutsenko—tacitly criticized by Yovanovitch—told The Hill’s John Solomon that the U.S. ambassador had told him not to prosecute certain politically sensitive targets.
It was a fabrication that Lutsenko later retracted, but it spread widely among Trump allies, conservative media, Donald Trump Jr, and Trump himself. In Friday’s testimony, Yovanovitch called the accusations against her “baseless.” But when Yovanovitch approached a Trump ally and key figure on Ukraine, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, for help, he told her to tweet her loyalty to Trump, she testified, according to her deposition last month.
But in May 2019, the State Department recalled Yovanovitch, a move that shocked U.S. diplomats. Career department officials summoned her home so she would not suffer the indignity of being fired by a Trump tweet. The fateful call from the State Department came, testified Yovanovitch, on the night she was hosting an event honoring a Ukrainian anti-corruption activist who was killed in an acid attack.
“Although, then and now, I have always served at the pleasure of the president,” Yovanovitch recalled, “I still find it difficult to comprehend that foreign and private interests were able to undermine U.S. interests in this way.”
Curbing corruption in Ukraine, the very thing that Trump would later cite as his motivation in pressing Zelensky to investigate his political opponents, had been one of Yovanovitch’s priorities. One senior diplomat, Michael McKinley, told the impeachment inquiry that Pompeo’s silence amidst the attacks on Yovanovitch factored into his resignation.
She warned that Pompeo’s silence “will soon cause real harm, if it hasn’t already” to other diplomats and U.S. interests. “I remain disappointed that the department’s leadership and others have declined to acknowledge that the attacks against me and others are dangerously wrong,” Yovanovitch testified. A State Department inspector general report this week found politicized reprisals early in the Trump administration, predating Pompeo’s tenure, against employees perceived to be disloyal to Trump.
At the beginning of Friday’s hearing, Schiff said Yovanovitch was considered an “obstacle” to Trump’s personal agenda and situated her smearing within the case Democrats are making that the president abused his power.
“The question before us is not whether Donald Trump could recall an American ambassador with a stellar reputation for fighting corruption in Ukraine, but why would he want to? Why did Rudy Giuliani want her gone, and why did Donald Trump?” Schiff said.
The successful character assassination of Yovanovitch gave Taylor, her successor at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv, pause before taking the job, Taylor testified. He told Pompeo, who recruited him, that he would only serve if Pompeo guaranteed that the administration was committed to its traditional diplomatic, military, and anti-corruption support for Ukraine.
Despite receiving those guarantees, Taylor testified that he instead witnessed an “irregular channel” involving Giuliani, Sondland, Ukraine envoy Kurt Volker, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, and White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney that conditioned U.S. support on Zelensky agreeing to investigate the Bidens and a conspiracy theory that Ukraine rather than Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. Yovanovitch was sent home on the day of Zelensky’s inaugural, which Sondland, Perry, and Volker attended instead.
In his fateful July 25 phone call with Zelensky, Trump said Yovanovitch, “the woman,” was “bad news” and cryptically stated “she’s going to go through some things” while praising Lutsenko. She told the panel she was “devastated” to hear what she called a “vague threat.” In her deposition, Yovanovitch added she had concerns about losing her job at the State Department and even the pension that came along with it. Yovanovitch is still employed by the department but is teaching at Georgetown University, far from any diplomatic assignment.
Trump’s allies began to mock Yovanovitch ahead of her public testimony. Referencing how she grew emotional during her closed-door deposition, Fox News’ Sean Hannity, who had broadcast some of the false accusations against Yovanovitch, accused her of willingness to cry “on cue” at the hearing.
The president’s allies in the room for Yovanovitch’s testimony, meanwhile, played down Trump’s tweets disparaging the diplomat. “The president can defend himself,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-NY), who was in the audience on Friday morning. He accused Schiff of “cherry-picking” the president’s tweets to read in the hearing and said Republicans just want to get at “the other 99 percent of the story.”
While Yovanovitch’s account does not have a major impact on the issue at the heart of the impeachment inquiry—Trump’s demands of the Ukrainians and what he’d give in return—Democrats believed that she would help to illuminate, and debunk, the flow of misinformation from Giuliani and his associates that led to her ouster and so influenced Trump’s attitude toward Ukraine.
As she did in her closed-door deposition, Yovanovitch reiterated that she did not spread a “Do Not Prosecute” list of officials, and that she did not tell Lutsenko or any other officials what they should do. She also pushed back on rumors pushed by her foes that she said Trump could be ignored because “he was going to be impeached.”
Yovanovitch, who referenced the danger that U.S. diplomats can experience overseas—including those who died under attack in Benghazi in 2012—warned that what she endured may only be a prologue for future diplomats.
“What U.S. ambassador could be blamed for harboring the fear they cannot count on our government to support them as they implement stated U.S. policy and defend U.S. interests?” she asked.