Amid attacks from Trump, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine testifies to influence from 'foreign corrupt interests'

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent

A former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine testified Friday in the second public impeachment hearing, amid real-time attacks by President Trump himself, that she was the victim of a dishonest smear campaign in which one of the president’s personal lawyers worked with corrupt Ukrainian officials to remove her from her position earlier this year.

“Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old, corrupt rules sought to remove me. 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,” said Marie Yovanovitch, who served as ambassador from 2016 until her abrupt removal in late April. 

“How could our system fail like this? How is it that foreign corrupt interests could manipulate our government?” Yovanovitch asked the members of the House Intelligence Committee. 

The public hearings are part of an investigation led by Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., into whether the full House should vote on articles of impeachment and recommend to the Senate that it hold a trial to determine whether the president is guilty of “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors,” as outlined in Article 2, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution. 

Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, is sworn in on Friday prior to providing testimony before the House Intelligence Committee. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The Yovanovitch story is important, Schiff said, because she was an obstacle to efforts by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani to set up an “irregular channel” of diplomacy that could pressure the Ukrainians to announce they were investigating former Vice President Joe Biden, a rival of Trump’s for the presidency, and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. 

“The president’s scheme might have worked but for the man who succeeded Yovanovitch,” Schiff said, referring to Bill Taylor, who replaced Yovanovitch in June as acting ambassador to Ukraine.

Taylor testified Wednesday, in the first public hearing, that he was alarmed as he came to understand how this “irregular channel” — involving Giuliani and several others — was undermining national security by weakening U.S. support for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression. 

Taylor also called the withholding of nearly $400 million in military assistance to Ukraine until it announced an investigation of the Bidens “crazy” and “wrong.”

As Yovanovitch spoke to the committee, the president attacked her through his Twitter account, writing, “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad.”

“It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors,” Trump added. He said in a subsequent tweet that U.S. foreign policy is “very strong and powerful … much different than proceeding administrations.”

Yovanovitch, however, said that due to Trump’s actions, “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.”

Daniel Goldman, the Intelligence Committee attorney asking questions on behalf of Democrats, asked Yovanovitch about the effect on her of the president’s statement in July to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that she would “go through some things.”

That July statement, Yovanovitch said, “sounded like a threat.”

“I didn’t know what to think, but I was very concerned,” she said. “It didn’t sound good.”

Schiff then read Trump’s tweet to Yovanovitch, a 33-year veteran of the U.S. diplomatic corps, about 90 minutes into the hearing. 

“Now the president in real time is attacking you,” Schiff said.

“Where I’ve served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made things better for the U.S. as well as for the countries that I’ve served in,” she said. 

Schiff asked Yovanovitch what kind of impact the president’s tweet might have on others who consider whether to publicly testify against any kind of wrongdoing in the Trump administration.

“It’s very intimidating,” she said. 

Schiff referred to the president’s communication as “witness intimidation.”

“Some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously,” Schiff told Yovanovitch.

During a break in the hearing, Schiff told CNN that “we saw today witness intimidation in real time by the president of the United States.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff during the hearing on Friday. (Photo: Joshua Roberts/Pool via AP)

Fallout from Trump’s tweet was immediate and negative from Republicans, even from a member of the Intelligence Committee. 

Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican who has drawn attention for her combative presence in the hearings so far, criticized the president.

“I disagree with the tweet,” she told CNN’s Haley Byrd. “I think Ambassador Yovanovitch is a public servant.”

And Ken Starr, the former independent investigator who led the Republican impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998, said on Fox News that Trump’s tweets were “quite injurious” and showed “extraordinarily poor judgment.”

“The president frequently says, ‘I follow my instincts.’ Sometimes we have to control our instincts,” Starr said.

Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, the third-ranking Republican in the House, said the president was “wrong” to attack Yovanovitch. The former ambassador, Cheney said, “clearly is somebody who’s been a public servant to the United States for decades, and I don’t think the president should have done that.”

Scott Jennings, a Republican strategist, lamented the president’s action. 

“What else can you do to this person? You’ve already run her out of her job,” Jennings said. “From a strategic perspective, a strategic communications perspective, it makes no sense to do that.”

And Rep. Justin Amash, an independent from Michigan who recently left the Republican Party, tweeted, “Expect witness tampering to be an article of impeachment.”

The only defense of Trump’s tweet came from Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, who made the assertion that Yovanovitch “wouldn’t even know about the quote if Mr. Schiff hadn’t read the tweet.”

Republicans did not ask a question of Yovanovitch until more than three hours after the hearing had begun, in part because of rules agreed to by the full House in a party-line vote on Oct. 31. But Schiff also recessed the hearing around 10:30 a.m., and the break lasted well past noon. 

The top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, attacked Schiff and the Democrats’ process in his opening statement, rather than going after Yovanovitch. 

Nunes called the entire investigation and inquiry “an excuse for Democrats to fulfill their Watergate fantasies.”

When Nunes did begin his 45-minute block of questions, he mocked Yovanovitch and dismissed her testimony.

“Congratulations. You’ve been down in the secret deposition meeting rooms. You’ve graduated for your performance today,” he told her. 

“I don’t really have many questions for you. You don’t have any firsthand knowledge of the matters we’re looking into,” Nunes said. 

The Republican said that Yovanovitch’s removal was a matter more appropriately heard before a subcommittee on human resources, and characterized the hearing as an issue of an “employment disagreement with the administration.”

_____

Download the Yahoo News app to customize your experience.

Read more from Yahoo News: