Before Marie Yovanovitch even spoke on Friday, President Donald Trump’s surrogates in Congress and conservative media expected her to cry on command for the impeachment-hearing cameras. As Yovanovitch began testifying about the smear campaign that forced her from her ambassadorship in Ukraine, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) tweeted that impeachment wasn’t about her feelings.
But for over five hours, the 33-year veteran diplomat left no doubt why she was there and what she endured, even as the president himself weighed in on Twitter, seeming to intimidate her as she sat in front of the congressional panel. The president’s attack wasn’t the only one she brushed aside. Yovanovitch methodically outplayed a series of Republican efforts to cast her firing as normal, the president’s behavior as unremarkable, and the harm she suffered as negligible—rather than the prelude to a shadow diplomatic effort to coerce Ukraine into aiding Trump’s re-election.
Instead, she made it clear that she would have been an obstacle to the president’s pressure on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had she remained in Kyiv. At one point, she told Rep. Jim Himes (D-CT) that she would have opposed the summer 2019 suspension of $400 million in U.S. military aid and would never have asked Zelensky to pursue the conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election. Asked to affirm that Trump was legitimately concerned about Ukraine corruption, she shot back, “That’s what he says.”
Not much of Friday’s hearing, the second in the House impeachment inquiry, went the GOP’s way. The exception was Rep. Chris Stewart (R-UT), who, knowing that Yovanovitch was fired before the pressure campaign on Zelensky proceeded, got her to concede she had no knowledge of criminal wrongdoing by Trump.
Most of their attempts to discredit or dismiss her either fell flat or ended in retreat.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup, an Ohio Republican, asked Yovanovitch to affirm that presidents get to select their ambassadors. In perhaps the most powerful line of the hearing, Yovanovitch replied, “I obviously don’t dispute the president has the right to withdraw an ambassador at any time for any reason, but what I do wonder is why it was necessary to smear my reputation.”
Wenstrup quickly replied that wasn’t his question, pressed the sound on his mic off and sat back in his chair.
When the Republicans’ counsel for impeachment, Steve Castor, put forward a series of public statements from 2016 from Ukrainians upset with candidate Trump, Yovanovitch frustrated a line of questioning meant to establish what Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the top Intelligence Committee Republican, called “Ukrainian election meddling.”
“Those elements you’ve recited don’t seem to be a plan or plot of the Ukrainian government to work against President Trump. Those are isolated incidents,” she said. “I’ve come to learn public life can be quite critical. I’d remind, again, that our own U.S. intelligence community has conclusively determined” that Russia, not Ukraine, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
Castor also walked into a trap by asking if Trump might have been justified in feeling Ukraine was against him based on internet-borne comments. Yovanovitch, whom Trump had just disparaged in a tweet, icily replied, “Well, sometimes that happens on social media.”
Stewart, who called impeachment “nonsense,” implied it was appropriate for Trump to seek a Ukrainian investigation of Burisma, the national-gas firm that put Joe Biden’s son on its board. Yovanovitch responded that “we have a process for that” that Trump did not follow, one involving communication between the Justice Department and its Ukrainian counterpart under a mutual legal-assistance treaty. Stewart reiterated the question “regardless of the process,” although corruption by definition routes around official channels in pursuit of private agendas.
Similarly, when John Ratcliffe (R-TX) asked if it was a potential “conflict of interest” for Joe Biden to seek the firing of a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor in 2016—a central Republican defense of Trump—Yovanovitch rejected his premise. “I actually don’t,” she said. “I think the view was that Mr. [Viktor] Shokin was not a good prosecutor-general fighting corruption. I don’t think it had to do with the Burisma case.”
Republicans attempted to approach Yovanovitch respectfully. They praised her service—even as they defended Trump for ending it prematurely—and gave prominence to Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) so as to avoid the optics of men attacking a woman. Yet they were at times dismissive of what Yovanovitch had described as a nightmare. Rep. Michael Conaway (R-TX), asked her basic questions about her post-ambassadorship gig at Georgetown University—how many classes does she teach? How many students does she have?—and the regard her diplomatic colleagues have for her, suggesting that she suffered no real harm after the president capped an assassination of her character by firing her.
Later, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-IL) had the room laughing when he spelled out the upshot of that inquiry. “It’s like a Hallmark movie,” he said from the dais. “You ended up at Georgetown. This is all OK!”
The ultimate sabotage to the GOP’s attempt to treat Yovanovitch as an impeachment sideshow was committed by Trump himself. With a series of tweets slamming Yovanovitch as she testified, the president did plenty of work to make her appearance even more relevant to the impeachment inquiry. The ambassador—and Democratic lawmakers—said Trump’s broadside was intended to intimidate not only her but future impeachment witnesses. It fueled talk of a whole new article of impeachment.
Few Republicans felt compelled to justify the president’s tweets. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.), a reliable ally of the president, said Trump is allowed to defend himself and that Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), the Democratic floor general on impeachment, had cherry-picked tweets about the ambassador to read from the dais.
As the hearing wrapped, Republicans maintained that Stewart’s line of questioning was the punch that would linger from the hearing. “This witness can’t shed any light on what Dems claim are their impeachable offenses, and can’t advance their narrative,” said a senior House GOP aide.
But Democrats left with the impression they got even more than they’d wanted—that a witness initially pitched as someone who could flesh out the human impact of Trump’s Ukraine designs served many more purposes.
“You know, it’s funny,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-IL), “the more the day went on, I personally thought she became more and more enlightening for purposes of our inquiry.”
The ambassador’s appearance met a rare ending for the staid hearing rooms of Capitol Hill. Schiff closed with a thundering statement, and before Yovanovitch could even rise from her chair, the crowd in the gallery erupted in a standing ovation.