Congress

Former ambassador to Ukraine says Foreign Service being ‘degraded’ under Trump

Yovanovitch said her ouster caused real harm, morale decline at State Department

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on the impeachment inquiry Friday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Top State Department leadership came under searing attack Friday by one of their own senior ambassadors in remarkably stark language during the second day of public hearings in the House’s impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump. 

Former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified before the House Intelligence Committee that nearly three years into the Trump administration, the State Department has been badly harmed by attacks on its diplomats from the president and his allies.

“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 said, referring to what she called a monthslong smear campaign against her by Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and other Ukrainian officials and private executives who were apparently frustrated with her focus on implementing official U.S. anti-corruption policies in the former Soviet republic.

[Impeachment news roundup: November 15]

Trump ended up cutting her tenure as Ukraine ambassador short by several months. The circumstances around Yovanovitch’s removal from Kyiv are a focus of House Democrats’ investigation into Trump’s efforts to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to open investigations against Joe and Hunter Biden by withholding nearly $400 million in congressionally approved security assistance for Ukraine. The military aid was intended to help Ukraine’s army in its yearslong conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country.

“This is about far, far more than me or a couple of individuals,” Yovanovitch said. “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.”

She said the personal attacks on her and others by Trump officials and allies have created a “crisis” at Foggy Bottom where “the policy process is visibly unraveling.”

“Leadership vacancies go unfilled and senior and mid-level officers ponder an uncertain future,” Yovanovitch said. “The crisis has moved from the impact on individuals to an impact on the institution itself. The State Department is being hollowed out from within at a competitive and complex time on the world stage.”

Yovanovitch, who at age 3 immigrated to the United States with her parents who fled the Soviet Union, warned that if the State Department’s diplomats and officials are not able to perform their jobs well, then the United States will have to rely on “other tools even more than it does today.”

“Those other tools are blunter, more expensive and not universally effective,” she added.

 Later in her testimony, she was asked if her ouster had a negative effect on the Foreign Service.  “I think that it has had exactly that, a chilling effect, not only in embassy Kyiv but throughout the State Department because people don’t know kind of whether their efforts to pursue our stated policy are going to be supported and that is a dangerous place to be.”

The efforts of Trump and Giuliani to push a foreign policy in Ukraine that explicitly ran counter to the longtime official policies of U.S. administrations as well as laws passed by Congress has significantly harmed U.S. national security interests, multiple officials from the State Department and the Pentagon have testified in recent days and weeks. The exact long-term impacts of that harm are not yet fully known.

“Our Ukraine policy has been thrown into disarray 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,” Yovanovitch said. “After these events, what foreign official, corrupt or not, could be blamed for wondering whether the U.S. ambassador represents the president’s views? And what U.S. ambassador can be blamed for harboring the fear they can’t count on our government to support them as they implement stated U.S. policy and protect and defend U.S. interests?”

The manner of her removal from Ukraine has “been a big hit for morale both at U.S. embassy Kyiv but also more broadly in the State Department,” she said.

Under questioning by House Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., Yovanovitch said some of her department colleagues tried to persuade Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to issue a statement of support for her but they were ultimately unsuccessful when it became clear such a statement would have been undercut by Trump.

Confirming that very fear, Trump on Friday issued fresh criticism of Yovanovitch as she was testifying.

“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,” he wrote on Twitter.

Trump did not issue such personal attacks against acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor or Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent when they testified in the House impeachment inquiry Wednesday.

Schiff read Trump’s tweet aloud and asked Yovanovitch to respond.

“I don’t think I had such powers,” she answered. “Where I served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made them better. For both the United States and the countries I served in.”

The three-time ambassador, who throughout her decades-long Foreign Service career has served in multiple hardship posts, said being criticized in such a manner by the U.S. president was “very intimidating.”

“I can’t speak what the president is trying to do, but I think the effect is intimidating,” she said.

Ahead of the testimony this week by Yovanovitch and her two State Department colleagues, Taylor and Kent, Democrats criticized Pompeo for his failure to shield Yovanovitch from the highly personal attacks made against her despite his spring 2018 promise when he was first sworn in as secretary to help the department “get its swagger back”

“Our secretary of State should be the number one defender of our diplomatic corps,” Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Bob Menendez, D-N.J., said in a Friday statement for the Senate record. “He should defend the officials who serve in his own department. And he could start by uttering just one word of support for Ambassador Taylor, Deputy Assistant Secretary Kent, and Ambassador Yovanovitch. But he has had plenty of time for that. We’ve seen very clearly where he stands.”

Menendez led the Democratic members of the committee this week in sending a letter to the department’s No. 2 and No. 3 ranking officials, Deputy Secretary John Sullivan and Undersecretary Brian Bulatao, urging them “to commit to no retaliation against the career public servants risking their careers and reputations” to testify in the impeachment inquiry.

John T. Bennett and Katherine Tully McManus contributed to this story.Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone.