Donald Trump is alone.
Not a single Republican lawmaker on the House Intelligence Committee backed up the president’s midhearing attacks on veteran diplomat Marie Yovanovitch Friday as she described a Trump-fueled “smear campaign” that effectively ended her career.
Not a single one sought to legitimize the “campaign of disinformation” she described, which was perpetuated by Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani and led Trump to abruptly recall her from Ukraine in May and badmouth her to Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in July.
Democrats worked methodically to portray Yovanovitch’s removal as the opening act of Trump’s impeachable abuse of power, suggesting the smears against her were in service of a sinister effort by Trump to pressure Ukraine to investigate his Democratic rivals.
Though Republicans noted that Trump has the authority to recall any ambassador at any time — a fact Democrats didn’t dispute — Yovanovitch left them with a question they similarly declined to address.
“I do wonder,” she mused, “why it was necessary to smear my reputation.”
If Yovanovitch’s testimony to impeachment investigators revealed anything, it’s that the president’s defenders didn’t share his limitless capacity to tear down his critics. Furthermore, the Republicans’ unwillingness or inability to undermine Yovanovitch’s narrative underscores the tremendous difficulty they face in mounting a factual defense against impeachment.
Republicans appeared particularly hamstrung by the sympathetic nature of a witness like Yovanovich, who has won virtually unanimous admiration from her colleagues in nearly every facet of the federal government, including among Trump’s own appointees.
One by one, Republicans praised Yovanovitch for her service, which includes 30 years handling some of the State Department’s most difficult postings.
“You're tough as nails and you're smart as hell,” said Rep. Will Hurd (R-Texas). “You’re a great example of what our ambassadors should be like. You are an honor to your family. You are an honor to the foreign service. You are an honor to your country.”
“I appreciate your years of service and enduring years of moving around the world to dangerous places,” said Rep. Brad Wenstrup (R-Ohio), who sympathized with her abrupt removal by comparing it to his own sudden deployment to Iraq in 2005.
Lawmakers sat rapt while Yovanovitch described an almost cinematic tale of the circumstances of her ousting in May.
She had been hosting a ceremony at her home in Kyiv to commemorate an anti-corruption activist who had been attacked with acid and killed. Rumors of a “concerted campaign” by Giuliani and his allies to remove Yovanovitch had been circulating for months and had broken open publicly in recent weeks, but she had also just had her tour in Ukraine extended by another year.
That night, Yovanovitch got a call from a State Department official in Washington telling her that something suspicious was afoot and that there were ill-defined concerns about her security.
Yovanovitch never got an explanation of what those concerns were, she said, but added that the official told her to hop on the first plane back to the United States, which she did a few hours later.
Trump’s fiercest allies never sought to undercut Yovanovitch’s credibility or intentions.
Instead, they diverted their defense of the president away from Yovanovitch and toward broader questions about, say, Barack Obama’s Ukraine policies, or Rep. Adam Schiff’s handling of the impeachment inquiry.
They sought to establish that Yovanovitch was not a witness to the central events that could result in Trump becoming the third president to be impeached, and they orchestrated an intentional violation of the rules in order to force Schiff to shut down questions from Rep. Elise Stefanik, a well-liked Republican lawmaker.
It was a reflection of the difficult bind Trump has put Capitol Hill Republicans in. He expects — even demands — that they embrace his rhetoric to defend against impeachment and chides lawmakers who’ve strayed slightly.
But even Republicans used to being put on the spot by Trump were dumbfounded when he blasted Yovanovitch as a failed ambassador soon after the hearing began.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” Trump tweeted. “Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him.”
Republicans largely chose to ignore the president’s words and tread carefully around the well-respected Yovanovitch’s career.
Democrats, meanwhile, walked away from the hearing believing Trump had done damage to his cause — and possibly even provided more fodder for an “obstruction of Congress” article of impeachment for the chilling effect his attack might have on future witnesses in their inquiry.
Yovanovitch’s emotional testimony will be followed in the coming days by those who did have more direct knowledge of Trump’s actions that are at the heart of Democrats’ probe. Already, they say, evidence they’ve gathered shows that Trump attempted to exploit Ukraine — a weakened ally fighting a war against Russia’s superior military — to investigate his Democratic adversaries.
But so far, Democrats have blunted Republicans’ attacks on the impeachment drive by beginning their inquiry with witnesses whose track records as nonpartisan, dedicated public servants are difficult to tear down.
Andrew Desiderio contributed to this report.