She sat ramrod straight with hands folded, soft-voiced yet resolute, vulnerable yet steely. At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, he was irate, impulsive and menacing as always. Only one of them was unimpeachable.
Marie Yovanovitch, an immigrant and a career diplomat, delivered on Friday the profound riposte to Donald Trump that many in America had been hoping for from an impeachment inquiry that could lead to his removal from office.
The former US ambassador to Ukraine captured in one morning much of the gnawing anxiety of foreign service professionals about the ways in which the president is undermining trust in America and fracturing the world.
But even as Yovanovitch testified about being smeared and ousted, the president went and smeared her again, live, via Twitter. It was not the first time Donald Trump had tried to demean and disparage a woman and prompted Democrats to warn against “witness intimidation”.
It was the second public hearing of the impeachment inquiry into whether Trump sought to bribe Ukraine to boost his chance of re-election by investigating a political rival, former vice-president Joe Biden. Yovanovitch was abruptly recalled in May after coming under attack from Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, at a time when he was trying to persuade Ukraine to carry out the investigation.
In a committee room as chilly as a winter’s day in Kyiv, the bespectacled Yovanovitch, wearing black jacket and black trousers, sat at a long, curving desk with cans of Coca-Cola and ginger ale, bottles of water and disposable coffee cups.
From her seat, she could see Democrats and Republicans at ornately carved oak desks against a backdrop of blue velvet curtains with gold trim, framed by classical columns, decorative alcoves, clocks with roman numerals and sculpted eagles. Above her was a huge chandelier with two dozen lights. Behind her sat journalists at laptops and members of the public.
The power of televised impeachment hearings – so evident during Watergate in the 1970s – was realized again as Yovanovitch, far from speaking like a dry bureaucrat like previous witnesses, told a deeply personal story about the country she loves.
She delivered a 13-page opening statement, laying out her 33 years of government service under Democratic and Republican presidents, including 13 moves and spells in seven countries, five of them hardship posts, starting with Mogadishu in Somalia. She championed efforts against corruption in Ukraine – making her a target for some there who, astonishingly, found American accomplices.
In a cool, clear tone that was a useful antidote to the rage and hysteria of the social media age, Yovanovitch described a “smear campaign” involving Giuliani, reinforced by cable news hosts and the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr. Eventually, she recalled, she was told in April 2019 to come back to Washington on the next plane because she no longer had the confidence of the president.
Yovanovitch described how professional public servants serve US interests regardless of who occupies the White House. She cited the diplomats killed in the 2012 Benghazi attacks in Libya, tortured in captivity in Iran and injured in mysterious attacks in Cuba.
“We honor these individuals,” she told the hearing. “They represent each one of you here and every American. These courageous individuals were attacked because they symbolized America.”
Under questioning from Democrats, Yovanovitch said she was “shocked and devastated” when a rough transcript of Trump’s phone call with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, revealed the American president was bad-mouthing her to a foreign leader behind her back. “It was a terrible moment. A person who saw me reading the transcript said the color drained from my face.”
She added in a low voice: “Even now words fail me.”
In that now infamous phone call, Trump had ominously said of Yovanovitch that “she was going to go through some things”.
Yovanovitch said: “It didn’t sound good. It sounded like a threat.”
The effect of Trump’s comments, she said, “is very intimidating” and both for her and others who might be inclined to publicly attack corruption.
There was a surprise to come on a similar theme. As Yovanovitch was still testifying, Trump reached for his retaliatory weapon of choice, Twitter.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” he tweeted, pointing to the time she spent in Somalia and in Ukraine, where Trump said “the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavourably about her”.
Adam Schiff, the committee chairman, seized his moment. He told the former ambassador: “The president is attacking you in real time.” He read the tweet aloud and asked Yovanovitch for her reaction. Maintaining her dignity throughout, she paused and said: “I can’t speak to what the president is trying to do, but I think the effect is to be intimidating.”
Schiff replied: “Well, I want to let you know, ambassador, that some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously.”
And everyone in the room knew that, not only had Trump once again dug a hole for Republicans, but quite possibly just written a new article of impeachment against himself. It was also a sign of the times.
Susan Glasser, a writer at the New Yorker, tweeted: “For those who wondered what an impeachment in the Twitter era will look like, the answer is here: the President attacking a witness and impugning her in real time, as she is testifying. Imagine Nixon hate-tweeting John Dean live.”