On Friday, November 15, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified on the second day of public hearings in the impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump.
Decades of diplomatic service
Marie Yovanovitch was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine between August 2016 and May 2019. Barack Obama appointed her in this position and the Republican-controlled Senate confirmed her appointment. Former colleagues told CNN that she was the ideal choice to serve in Kiev. Before this, she served in Somalia, Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. Yovanovitch has been a foreign service officer for 33 years and during her diplomatic career, she has represented six presidential administrations.
As ambassador, Yovanovitch sought to encourage Ukraine to tackle corruption. During her tenure, she tried to strengthen the National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU), an organization that seeks to bolster efforts to fight corruption in that nation.
In a March 2019 speech to the Ukraine Crisis Media Center (UCMC), Yovanovitch decried the lack of progress made by the Ukrainian government in combating corruption. Yovanovitch said, “It is increasingly clear that Ukraine’s once-in-a-generation opportunity for change has not yet resulted in the anti-corruption or rule of law reforms that Ukrainians expect or deserve.”
In April 2019, Trump relieved her of her duties. A State Department official informed Yovanovitch that she was being recalled. It seemed that she no longer had the confidence of the president.
Why is Marie Yovanovitch a witness in the hearings?
Marie Yovanovitch was the only witness of the second day of the House Intelligence Committee’s public impeachment inquiry. The committee called Yovanovitch to examine the validity of claims that President Trump and his associates pushed the distinguished diplomat out of Ukraine to make it easier to implement their own foreign policy goals.
In his opening statement, Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee said, “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?” Observers have noted that Yovanovitch is a key witness regarding the main concern of the impeachment inquiry – President Trump’s shadow foreign policy campaign in Ukraine.
Before her testimony on Friday, Democratic investigators said the removal of Yovanovitch is a crucial piece of the timeline. “She was the first casualty of the president’s efforts that would ultimately lead to the pressure campaign in support of the 2020 election.”
Victim of a smear campaign
Yovanovitch testified for over six hours. During her extensive testimony, she spoke of how she was the victim of a smear campaign led by President Trump and former Mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani, his lawyer.
She said the campaign had “kneecapped” her, undermined U.S. national security interests and emboldened Russian aggression. According to the former ambassador, Trump allies had worked with corrupt Ukrainians to spread falsehoods about her. She said the claim that she instructed staff members to ignore Trump’s orders because “he was going to be impeached” was false and the accusation that she had a list of Ukrainians she didn’t want prosecuted was a “fabrication.”
The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., also tweeted an article about calls to remove her. He wrote the U.S. needs “less of these jokers as ambassadors.” Yovanovitch said she thought “if the president’s son is saying this,” it “would be very hard to continue in my position and have authority in Ukraine.”
In her testimony, Yovanovitch highlighted the fact that the United States had helped Ukraine make progress against corruption in recent years. Under the Trump administration, Yovanovitch contended, Ukrainian corruption had strengthened to the extent that corrupt elements of the country succeeded in removing a U.S. ambassador. “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,” she said.
“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. Giuliani should have known those claims were suspect, coming as they reportedly did from individuals with questionable motives and with reason to believe that their political and financial ambitions would be stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine,” she told the House Intelligence Committee, referencing allegations that the State Department fully understood “were false and the sources highly suspect.”
“How could our system fail like this? How is it that foreign corrupt interests could manipulate our government?” she said.
Response to July 25 phone call
A July 25 call between President Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky is at the center of the impeachment inquiry. According to a rough transcript released by the White House, Trump called Yovanovitch “bad news” and said that “she’s going to go through some things.”
Asked to describe her reaction to the president’s comments, Yovanovitch said “Shocked. Appalled. Devastated that the president of the United States would talk about any ambassador like that to a foreign head of state — and it was me. I mean, I couldn’t believe it.”
Impact of efforts to remove Yovanovitch
Yovanovitch said the efforts of Trump and his allies to influence foreign policy in Ukraine damaged the U.S. global authority and undermined the State Department’s anti-corruption efforts in Kiev. “Our Ukraine policy has been thrown into disarray, and shady interests … have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want. If our chief representative is kneecapped, it limits our effectiveness to safeguard the vital national security interests of the United States,” she said.
Yovanovitch criticized members of the State Department for failing to issue a public statement of support after Trump forced her removal as ambassador. She testified that efforts to get Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to release a statement were unsuccessful due to “concerns on the seventh floor” that Trump would undermine it.
The State Department’s failure to defend her and other diplomatic service members from political attacks caused significant damage to the institution, according to Yavonovitch. “This is about far, far more than me or a couple of individuals,” she said. “As Foreign Service professionals are being denigrated and undermined, the institution is also being degraded. This will soon cause real harm, if it hasn’t already.”
Trump attacks Yovanovitch in real time
As Yovanovitch was describing the fear and intimidation she felt because of Trump-led personal attacks, the president criticized her on Twitter. The president denounced her diplomatic career and maintained it was his discretion to remove an ambassador.
As Yovanovitch was testifying, Trump tweeted “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” he wrote on Twitter. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.”
Chairman Schiff stopped the hearing to read Yovanovitch the tweet. Yovanovitch responded by saying Trump’s words were “very intimidating.” She added, “I can’t speak to what the president is trying to do, but the effect is to be intimidating.” Schiff noted, “Some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously.”
Representative Jim Himes, a Democratic member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s tweet was witness intimidation. “Her boss sent a real-time signal about what he thought about her testimony,” Hime said. “That’s about as clear an example of witness intimidation as there is.” Trump’s comments during the ex-ambassadors testimony could result in the House of Representatives adding witness intimidation as a separate article of impeachment.
Republicans hold back from attacking Yovanovitch
Republican members of the committee did not attempt to undermine Yovanovitch’s credibility and avoided personal attacks. They praised her diplomatic career and thanked her for her service instead.
They, however, argued her testimony had no bearing on whether the president had committed an impeachable offense. Republicans also emphasized that the removal of the former ambassador happened before the events under scrutiny took place.
Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican member of the House Intelligence Committee, categorized her removal as an “employment disagreement.” He also said Yovanovitch was “not a material fact witness to any of the allegations that are being hurled at the president.”
Republicans pointed out that it was the right of the U.S. president to remove an ambassador from office. Yovanovitch said she didn’t dispute “that the president has the right to withdraw an ambassador at any time for any reason”, but added, “I do wonder why it was necessary to smear my reputation also.”
As in the first public hearing, the Republicans attempted to prove an unsubstantiated theory that Ukrainian officials conspired with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign to interfere in the election. Yovanovitch said there was no evidence to support these claims and that the claims contradict the consensus of the United States Intelligence Community (IC).
“We all know that people are critical,” she said after Steve Castor, a lawyer representing the Republicans, pointed to critical statements that a Ukrainian official had made about Trump during the campaign. “That does not mean that someone, or a government, is undermining either a campaign or interfering in elections.
And I would just remind you again,” she went on, “that our own U.S. Intelligence Community has conclusively determined that those who interfered in the election were in Russia.”