Yovanovitch tells damning story of political interference in Ukraine

Alexander Nazaryan
National Correspondent

WASHINGTON — On Friday, a 33-year veteran of American diplomatic service faced a panel of House members, half of them highly skeptical of who she was and what she was going to say. Behind her, in a stately House hearing room, members of the media and the public sat riveted as Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, described how she was removed from her post because she was seen as standing in the way of political concessions President Trump wanted to allegedly wrest from the new presidential administration in Kyiv. 

Among the millions watching on television was Trump himself, who taunted Yovanovitch in a tweet. “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” the tweet read, describing postings she’d had throughout her career, including in Somalia. An aide showed the tweet to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who in turn read the message to Yovanovitch and asked for her response.

“I can’t speak to what the president is trying to do,” she answered, “but the effect is to be intimidating.”

That exchange — a strange and telling collision of congressional protocol, presidential power and the power of Twitter — was indicative of the second day of public testimony in the impeachment investigation, with Republicans eager to downplay Yovanovitch’s testimony on social media and cable news. 

Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testifies during the impeachment hearing on Friday. (Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call Inc. via Getty Images)

Their initial approach to Yovanovitch was clarified by Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the Intelligence Committee’s ranking member. In his opening statement, Nunes deemed the impeachment inquiry a “farce.” He did not, as others did, thank Yovanovitch for her life of public service, instead depicting her as an ancillary figure incapable of shedding light on the president’s actions or intentions. 

“I’m not exactly sure what the ambassador is doing here today,” Nunes said at a later time. 

Subsequent Republican questioners treated Yovanovitch more sensitively, once they realized that she was a sympathetic, credible witness and that the aggressive Nunes approach was proving to be counterproductive, now that there was a Trump tweet hovering over the proceedings. 

If the first day of testimony did not prove especially kind to Trump, the second day was hardly better. An immigrant to the United States whose family left the Soviet Union, Yovanovitch described her diplomatic career as “an expression of gratitude for all that this country has given my family and me.” She said that throughout that career, she “had no agenda other than to pursue our stated foreign policy goals.”

U.S. goals in Ukraine for the past five years have been to contain Russia’s incursions into sovereign Ukrainian territory. Russian-backed forces currently occupy the Donetsk region of Ukraine, as well as the Crimean peninsula. Yovanovitch expected that policy to continue. “Supporting Ukraine is the right thing to do,” she said in her opening statement. 

“It is also the smart thing to do,” she continued. “If Russia prevails and Ukraine falls to Russian dominion, we can expect to see other attempts by Russia to expand its territory and influence.”

Instead of executing foreign policy, Yovanovitch found herself caught in political intrigue, in large part because her anti-corruption efforts ran afoul of two Ukrainian prosecutors, Yuri Lutsenko and Viktor Shokin. Lutsenko exacted his revenge by telling John Solomon, a journalist known for furthering conservative narratives, that Yovanovitch had a do-not-prosecute list that presumably included people somehow affiliated with the Obama administration, which had initially appointed her to the Ukrainian post. 

Yuri Lutsenko, former prosecutor general of Ukraine. (Photo: Sergii Kharchenko/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

As she made clear in her testimony on Friday, no such list existed. “I did not tell Mr. Lutsenko or other Ukrainian officials who they should or should not prosecute,” Yovanovitch said. 

But the Solomon article, published in March, resonated with conservatives and was shared on social media by President Trump’s son Donald Jr. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a private lawyer of the president’s, saw the Solomon article as evidence that Yovanovitch was disloyal to Trump. That view prevailed, and Trump recalled her to the United States in May.

After the recall, Giuliani campaigned earnestly for the authorities in Kyiv to open a new investigation into supposed Ukrainian electoral interference to help Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. As enticement to investigate, the prospect of an Oval Office meeting was held out to the new Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. Later in the summer, Zelensky’s aide was told the U.S. assistance would not come unless the Ukrainian president announced a second investigation into Burisma, an energy company with a history of corruption. A onetime board member of Burisma had been Hunter Biden, the son of former Vice President and current presidential candidate Joe Biden.   

Even after Yovanovitch returned to the United States, the reasons for her dismissal were unclear, until a whistleblower within the intelligence community filed a complaint about President Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. The White House eventually released a partial transcript of a call between Trump and Zelensky that took place on July 25. During that call, Trump told Zelensky that Yovanovitch was “going to go through some things.”

On Friday, Yovanovitch explained what it was like to read those words. “I didn’t know what to think, but I was very concerned,” she said. “It didn’t sound good. It sounded like a threat.”

Marie Yovanovitch. (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Republicans tried to paint Yovanovitch’s dismissal as little more than the kind of change any leader can make in his or her diplomatic corps. “The president has a right to have their own foreign policy and to make their own decisions,” pointed out Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio.

Yovanovitch did not dispute that. “What I do wonder is why it was necessary to smear my reputation falsely,” she said, just hours after Trump had attacked her on Twitter.

A mid-morning break allowed Republicans to regroup, and when it came their turn to question Yovanovitch, it was with a markedly more gentle tone. Nearly every GOP member thanked her for her service, sometimes quite effusively. “You’re tough as nails, and you’re smart as hell,” said Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas.

But the muted approach also prevented them from landing the kinds of prosecutorial blows they would have needed to land in order to call Yovanovitch’s credibility into question. Calm and composed, she afforded them few opportunities to do so. Republicans didn’t help their case with suggestions like the one made by Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Texas, who suggested that State Department official George Kent had praised her because perhaps “somebody paid him to do it.”

Yovanovitch seemed stunned by the suggestion. “No,” she said, laughing off the suggestion. “Absolutely not.”

Yovanovitch, who remains a State Department employee and is currently teaching at Georgetown University, appears to have been left undaunted by the inquiry. “I will continue with my work,” she testified. 

When she left the hearing room sometime later, she was serenaded with applause. It was an unusual conclusion to yet another unusual day in Washington.

Jon Ward contributing reporting to this story 


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