Five takeaways from ex-ambassador’s dramatic testimony

Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, told House impeachment investigators Friday that President Trump’s side-channel foreign policy in Kyiv “knee-capped” U.S. anti-corruption efforts, deflated morale at the State Department and struck a blow to career diplomats fighting to advance U.S. policy around the globe. 

It was an extraordinary message coming from a 33-year veteran of the foreign service, who by all accounts had fought vigorously to promote anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, only to be removed prematurely last May in what she described as a political hit job by Trump and his allies.

She was the third witness to appear publicly in the Democrats’ investigation into Trump’s handling of foreign policy in Ukraine, and the first who could testify about the personal toll of being on the wrong side of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, who was leading the White House campaign to have Ukrainian leaders find dirt on Trump’s political rivals at home.

What emerged was a portrait of a shadow foreign policy that shunted the career of a top diplomat while putting Trump’s political interests — and Giuliani’s business pursuits — above national security concerns.

Here are five takeaways from the roughly five-hour hearing. 

Democrats finish Week 1 of impeachment hearings on high note

As Democrats opened their impeachment probe to the TV cameras for the first time this week, there were plenty of questions about how the witnesses — all of them little-known career diplomats — would perform under the intense media glare. No one’s asking those questions any more. 

Yovanovitch struck the pose of a competent and credible figure, one who had served in hot-spots around the world — under presidents of both parties — without a blotch on her record and was removed abruptly for reasons never explained. That résumé posed a dilemma to Trump’s Republican defenders, whose most damning critique was that the former ambassador was recalled to Washington before the key events driving the impeachment inquiry — including Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — occurred.

“I’m not exactly sure what the ambassador’s doing here today,” said Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), senior Republican on the Intelligence Committee.

Other witnesses before her — the senior diplomats William Taylor and George Kent, who testified Wednesday — provided similar details about Giuliani’s pursuits and how they threatened to undercut official State Department policy and empower Russia’s hand in the volatile region. But Yovanovitch added a sympathetic note to that message, telling lawmakers — at times with wet eyes — how profoundly she was affected by the smear campaign emanating from the White House.

“After 33 years of service to our country, it was terrible,” she said. “It is not the way I wanted my career to end.”

Women figure prominently in hearing 

As the recent elections in Virginia revealed, Republicans are struggling to win over female voters in the suburbs. Friday’s hearing with Yovanovitch won’t help.

On Day One of the public impeachment hearings, Trump restrained himself from tweeting personal attacks against the two male witnesses, Taylor and Kent.

But after Yovanovitch, the first female impeachment witness, was sworn in at the hearing, Trump unloaded on her to his nearly 69 million Twitter followers: “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad.”

Trump’s top GOP allies on Capitol Hill appeared to follow Trump’s lead as they mocked Yovanovitch. Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) told a gaggle of reporters that Democrats, throughout the hearing, pushed Yovanovitch to talk about her “feelings” to try to get her “to cry for the cameras.”

Another memorable moment came when Yovanovitch tried to give a more complete answer to a question from Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) about whether Ukraine was part of Ambassador Gordon Sonland’s portfolio. 

Turner cut her off: “Not on my time, you’re done.”

Republicans seemed to be aware of the poor optics. So they tried to turn the tables on Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and the Democrats.

Republicans put their only female lawmaker on the committee, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), front and center. When it came for the 45-minute GOP questioning period from Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), he turned over the mic to Stefanik. 

Schiff gaveled her down, citing a Democratic-written rule that only Nunes or the GOP staff counsel, Steve Castor, could ask questions during this initial period.

Schiff blocked Stefanik from questioning Yovanovitch as the hearing resumed after a recess, citing a violation of committee rules surrounding the hearing.

“The gentlewoman will suspend. You are not recognized,” Schiff told Stefanik.

After the hearing, Stefanik was out front for Republicans once again, fielding questions from reporters at a news conference. 

“Ambassador Yovanovitch testified that the president can appoint ambassadors at will,” she said before a bank of TV cameras. “The president has a right to pick who his or her ambassadors are.” 

Trump tweets could be tied to article of impeachment

Trump’s Twitter attack on Yovanovitch — suggesting she bears the blame for the more fetid conditions of her previous posts — quickly became a central focus of Friday’s hearing, sending Democrats into a rage and leaving frustrated Republicans fighting to blunt the backlash.

Schiff, informed of the tweet, read it aloud and asked Yovanovitch’s response. She was blunt.

“It’s very intimidating,” she said. 

In response, Democrats adopted a new charge against Trump — witness intimidation — and said it could play a factor as they weigh whether they’ll draft articles of impeachment designed to remove the president. 

Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) called it “clear witness intimidation, and other Democrats on the Intelligence Committee quickly agreed.

“Everything the president does, from obstruction to intimidation, becomes part of the record,” said Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.). “And we’ll decide later — or not — whether it’s part of the articles.”

Schiff didn’t go quite so far, but made clear the episode is on his radar.

“I want to let you know, ambassador, that some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously,” he told Yovanovitch.   

Pompeo under fire

For all the prominent administration names that have appeared throughout the Democrats’ seven-week-old investigation, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has flown largely under the radar. That changed in dramatic fashion with Yovanovitch’s testimony on Friday.

While the former ambassador largely avoided mentioning Pompeo by name, she was fierce in denouncing the State Department’s top brass for their failure to protect career diplomats from the politically tinged pressure campaign operating out of the White House. 

“I remain disappointed that the Department’s leadership and others have declined to acknowledge that the attacks against me and others are dangerously wrong,” she said. “It is the responsibility of the Department’s leaders to stand up for the institution and the individuals who make that institution still today the most effective diplomatic force in the world.”

Yovanovitch said she was told, upon her return to Washington in May, that Pompeo had initially sought to protect her, but later abandoned the effort. The reason?

“My understanding was that the president had wanted me to leave,” she said. 

Yovanovitch also told lawmakers that her allies at State has pressed Pompeo to issue a statement denouncing the smear campaign against her. They were not successful, she said, because Pompeo feared such a statement would be undercut by Trump.

Asked if Pompeo had ever explained the reason she was removed early, she didn’t hesitate.

“No,” she said.

GOP’s early defense: unreliable witnesses 

The Republicans’ defense has continuously evolved over the course of the seven-week inquiry. 

But this week, as the public phase opened, they’ve landed on a common message: the witnesses might be reputable public servants, they say, but they have little first-hand knowledge of the allegations at the center of the Democrats’ impeachment probe. 

That argument was on ready display Wednesday, as Republicans hammered the narratives provided by Taylor and Kent as “gossip” and “hearsay” — stories based on accounts learned from others, and therefore unreliable in a process as consequential as removing a sitting president. 

And it was a theme GOP lawmakers returned to on Friday, as they noted that Yovanovitch was not privy to events following her May 20 removal from Kyiv.

“I don’t really have very many questions for you,” Nunes said. “You admitted in your opening statement that you don’t have any firsthand knowledge of the issues that we are looking into.”

That argument might not hold too much longer. Among the witnesses slated to appear in public hearings next week are several who were listening in on the July 25 phone call, or have spoken to Trump directly about his intentions in Ukraine. 

This story was updated at 6:35 p.m. 

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Written by Alan Smith

Alan Smith

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