Trump impeachment: Stunning scenes as witness applauded after seeing off real-time 'intimidation' by president

Andrew Buncombe, Andrew Feinberg
Marie Yovanovitch, former US ambassador to Ukraine, after testifying at the impeachment hearings into Donald Trump: REUTERS

Career diplomat Marie Yovanovitch received a rare, emotional standing ovation after she testified about Donald Trump’s threatening intimidation over Ukraine, and fended off in real time a stunning Twitter attack from the president.

As Ms Yovanovitch delivered her testimony on Capitol Hill, providing a damning portrait of a “smear campaign” against her led by Rudy Giuliani, Mr Trump's personal lawyer, Democrats accused the president of seeking to intimidate witnesses, and said his words could be included in any articles of impeachment.

At the conclusion of Ms Yovanovitch’s evidence, congressman Adam Schiff, the Democratic chair of the House intelligence committee underscored the historic nature of the day. He said Mr Trump’s attack on the diplomat had been “just appalling”.

“But as we have observed so often, appalling in this administration is not the least bit surprising,” he added. “Nonetheless, she endured the attack and went on. We are grateful for that.”

Asked about suggestions from several members of his party that the president’s tweet could form part of an article of impeachment, he said they were “part of a pattern to intimidate witnesses. It’s also part of a pattern to obstruct the investigation”.

For her part, Ms Yovanovitch received loud applause from many of those watching, when she concluded almost five hours of testimony. In unusual scenes, spectators spontaneously started clapping when Mr Schiff gavelled the hearing closed, then stood and cheered for her as she left the room.

Ms Yovanovitch, 61, was not considered the Democrats’ star witness. As Republicans pointed out, the party first chose to call William Taylor and George Kent to deliver the opening public testimony on Wednesday.

The two men, like Ms Yovanovitch long-time career professionals who had served presidents of both parties, detailed how Mr Trump apparently placed his own political needs ahead of the security of Ukraine, by making military aid and a state visit to Washington dependent on Kiev announcing an investigation into Joe Biden and his son. Republicans have long accused the Democratic former vice president of improperly using his position to oust a prosecutor who threatened the business interests of his son, though there is no evidence to support the claims.

Ms Yovanovitch’s manner and demeanour were similar to those of her colleagues – methodical, logical and stressing service of country over partisan politics. She reminded her audience that diplomacy was not just about cocktail parties, and that US diplomats had died while working to represent the nation, most recently in the 2012 attack on a compound in the Libyan city of Benghazi.

Yet, the words of Ms Yovanovitch, who was recalled in May from her position as the US ambassador to Ukraine at the behest of Mr Trump and Mr Giuliani, carried more power for several reasons. Firstly, in her prepared remarks, she referred to discovering the president had been using been discussing her removal.

“Although, then and now, I have always understood that I served at the pleasure of the president, I still find it difficult to comprehend that foreign and private interests were able to undermine US interests in this way,” she said.

At another point she asked: "Why was it necessary to smear my reputation?"

Secondly, Ms Yovanovitch had already testified in a private deposition she had felt threatened when told Mr Trump had been speaking badly of her during a conversation to Ukraine’s newly elected president, Volodymyr Zelensky. The US president referred to her as "bad news" and "the woman" and warned: "Well, she's going to go through some things."

Yet, perhaps the most damning evidence against Mr Trump was delivered by the president himself, seemingly unable to ignore the proceedings, as he claimed he would, and equally unable not to tweet about them.

“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go,” the president tweeted, while Ms Yovanovitch was answering questions.

“Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian president spoke unfavourably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a US president’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.”

While a handful of Trump loyalists defended his words, many Republicans were aghast by the president’s latest attack on a career diplomat. (The president had mocked Mr Kent and Mr Taylor at an election rally in Louisiana on Thursday evening.)

“That was a turning point in this hearing so far. She was already a sympathetic witness and the president’s tweet ripping her allowed Schiff to point it out real time characterising it as witness tampering or intimidation – adding an article of impeachment real-time,” Fox News chief political anchor Brett Baeir wrote on Twitter.

Both the White House and Mr Trump denied he had sough to intimidate her, the president later telling reporters: “I have a right to speak.”

Yet, Ms Yovanovitch did not agree. Asked by Mr Schiff, what effect she thought his tweet would have on other potential witnesses’ willingness to come froward, she said: “It’s very intimidating.”

Democrats expect several more witness to testify next week, including EU ambassador Gordon Sondland, while two other officials, David Holmes and Mark Sandy, agreed to give evidence in private. Mr Holmes reportedly told politicians that he overheard a phone call between Mr Sondland and the president in which the ambassador said Mr Zelensky was willing to do "anything" he wanted.

Referring to Mr Trump's mid-evidence tweet, Mr Schiff said: “It’s designed to intimidate, is it not?” Ms Yovanovitch responded: “I mean, I can’t speak to what the president is trying to do, but I think the effect is trying to be intimidating.”

Democrats launched the impeachment probe after a whistleblower, believed to be from the US intelligence community, alleged Mr Trump had sought a quid pro quo from Ukraine during a 25 July phone call. The whistleblower alleged the president demanded an investigation into Joe Biden and his son, in exchange for the release of military aid. Mr Trump has denied any wrongdoing.

At the conclusion of the hearing, Republicans made no effort to try and defend Mr Trump’s tweets. Rather, congresswoman Elise Stefanik insisted that nothing revealed during the testimony rose to the level of an impeachable offence. She told reporters “We’re not here to talk about tweets, we’re here to talk about impeachable offences.”

Another Republican, Mark Meadows, said: “We’re learning a whole bunch about her feelings, but we’re not learning anything about a phone call ... about what happened during the relevant time ... this impeachment was about. She doesn’t have any relevant facts.”

By contrast, Democrats suggested Mr Trump had only come nearer the likelihood of a vote to impeach him.

“What we saw today is it wasn’t enough that ambassador Yovanovitch was smeared, it wasn’t enough that she was attacked, it wasn’t enough that she was recalled for no reason, at least no good reason,” said Mr Schiff.

“But we saw today witness intimidation in real time by the president of the United States. Once again going after this dedicated and respected career public servant in an effort to not only chill her but to chill others who may come forward. We take this kind of witness intimidation and obstruction of inquiry very seriously.”

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