Congress

Ousted ambassador gives deeply personal account of firing by Trump

Yovanovitch describes feeling 'shocked and devastated' reading transcript of Trump call with Ukrainian president

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch takes her seat for the House Select Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was removed from her post by President Donald Trump, spent much of her Friday before the House Intelligence Committee disputing allegations that she worked against Trump while in Kyiv and describing in vivid detail the shock of being targeted by the president.

The career diplomat is a key witness in the impeachment inquiry into Trump's dealings with Ukraine, and the drama surrounding the hearing was only fueled by tweets Friday from Trump blasting Yovanovitch, who said she already felt threatened by the president.

"This is part of a pattern to intimidate witnesses," House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., said after the hearing.

Yovanovitch told the committee that she never told U.S. embassy employees to ignore Washington’s orders because Trump would soon be impeached, that she did not work on behalf of the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016, and that she has never spoken with Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, whom Trump wanted Kyiv to investigate for his lucrative role at a Ukrainian gas company.

“Partisanship of this type is not compatible with the role of a career Foreign Service Officer,” Yovanovitch said during the second day of public impeachment hearings focusing on Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. 

[Trump and Democrats agree that one impeachment lawsuit should be dismissed]

The former ambassador, who still works at the State Department, is the third diplomat to testify during open hearings related to the impeachment inquiry.

The Democratic counsel for House Intelligence, Daniel Goldman, dug into the personal details of Yovanovitch’s final days and weeks in her role in Ukraine, asking her to recount what she described as devastating moments in her career, particularly  reading the July 25 phone call in which Trump told the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, “I would like you to do us a favor” and announce investigations into the Bidens.

She responded to Trump’s remarks to Zelenskiy that Yovanovitch was “going to go through some things,” saying she felt threatened and that the remark “doesn’t sound good.”

“It felt like a vague threat so I wondered what that meant; it concerned me,” she testified.

She said she was “shocked and devastated” to be featured in a phone call between two heads of state, where her own president said that she was “bad news.”

“A person who watched me actually reading the transcript said that the color drained from my face. I think I even had a physical reaction. I think, even now, words fail me,” she told lawmakers.

Trump’s attacks of Yovanovitch continued on Twitter during the hearing.

“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. 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,” Trump tweeted.

Schiff acknowledged Trump’s live-tweeting.

“As you sit here testifying Trump is attacking you on Twitter,” Schiff said, allowing Yovanovitch to respond.

“It’s very intimidating,” she said of the president’s tweets attempting to paint her in a negative light while she testified. “I can’t speak what the president is trying to do, but I think the effect is intimidating.”

On Wednesday, her replacement in Kyiv, William Taylor, and another career diplomat, George Kent, testified that Trump removed Yovanovitch after Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani conducted a “smear campaign” against her.

Smearing Yovanovitch, the witnesses say, made it easier to remove her so that Giuliani could establish unofficial diplomatic channels with the Ukrainian government, as Trump wanted Kyiv to investigate the Bidens’ activities in Ukraine, possibly to damage Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential bid.

Democratic Party officials quickly picked up on the narrative. 

“Trump took the person fighting corruption out of the way so that he and his corrupt cronies could get to work. In removing Yovanovich, Trump freed himself to commit a gross abuse of power. The corruption revealed today, corruption that jeopardized our national security and the integrity of our next election, originated from the person sitting in the Oval Office,” Democratic National Committee War Room Director Adrienne Watson said.

[Impeachment news roundup: Nov. 15]Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, during his opening statement read into the record the just-released transcript of Trump’s first phone call with Zelenskiy in April, while criticizing the impeachment probe for distracting from legislative work.

As the hearing was getting under way, the White House released the summary of that first call, which took place in April shortly after Zelenskiy was elected. 

According to the summary, Zelenskiy invited Trump to his inauguration and Trump promised to send “very, very high level” representatives and Trump invited Zelenskiy to the White House. That White House meeting has not happened.

The memo recaps a short call in which Trump congratulates Zelenskiy on his election. There is no mention of the Bidens or corruption, but Trump does mention that he hosted the Miss Universe contest in Ukraine.

Trump’s first call with the Ukrainian president was marked as unclassified, for official use only. The second call was classified as Secret/Originator Controlled/No Foreign Nationals.

Schiff said he is thankful that Trump has released the new call record, but says he now wants documents released from the Office of Management and Budget, the State Department and all other relevant documents that the committee has requested as part of the impeachment probe.

Prior to reading the transcript, Nunes described the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry as a “Watergate fantasy,” saying the probe is complicating the House’s responsibility to fund the government, which will run out of money next week if Congress does not extend funding.

In his questions to Yovanovitch, Nunes established that the former ambassador had no contact in 2019 with Trump or Office of Management and Budget director and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

In doing so, Nunes attempted to bolster the GOP's main line of argument that the Democrat-called witnesses have no firsthand knowledge of Trump's actions or thinking. Many witnesses with firsthand knowledge, such as Mulvaney, have been subpoenaed in the impeachment inquiry and said they will not appear.

Schiff rebutted GOP talking points that Yovanovitch was a superfluous witness by reminding the panel that Trump criticized Yovanovitch and delegated much of Ukrainian diplomacy to EU ambassador Gordon Sondland, a donor to the Trump campaign.

Balking at procedure

Republicans launched their time for questioning by intentionally violating and pushing back against the rules and procedures for the impeachment inquiry adopted by the House in October.

Nunes yielded time to Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y, for questioning, a direct violation of the rules. The first 45 minutes of Republican questioning are designated for Nunes and his counsel.

Democrats were held to the same rules for the first 45 minutes, with questions only from Schiff and the Democratic counsel.

Schiff interjected to note the departure from the rules.

“What is the interruption for this time?” Stefanik shot back. “It is our time.”

Schiff banged the gavel and outlined the rules. Nunes and Stefanik pushed back, saying that Schiff was barring members of Congress from asking questions.

“You’re gagging the gentlelady from New York?” asked GOP counsel Steve Castor.

Eventually Nunes and Stefanik relented, and Nunes turned questioning over to Castor.

Each member of the Intelligence panel have five minutes to question Yovanovitch after the leaders' time.

Stefanik used her five minutes of questioning to read into the record a series of comments made by Schiff earlier in the year calling for the White House whistleblower to testify before the committee. She asked no questions in that round.

The viewing public gave a standing ovation as Schiff ended the hearing and gaveled down K. Michael Conaway as the Texas Republican tried to introduce a motion to hear from the anonymous intelligence community whistleblower whose report jump started the impeachment inquiry.

Jen Katchmark, who participated in the standing ovation, said she was applauding Yovanovitch for standing up for the work and commitment of State Department employees.

"Really it was an honor to see her speak and to to see her represent our Foreign Service," Katchmark said.

Now living in Minnesota, Katchmark is not a member of the foreign service herself, but said she is a former federal employee and Peace Corps volunteer. She stood in line for more than two hours to be able to get into the hearing and watch the afternoon portion of Yovanovitch's testimony.

John T. Bennett contributed to this story.

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