Four Things We Learned at the Second Trump Impeachment Hearing

WASHINGTON — Marie Yovanovitch, the daughter of Soviet refugees, joined the American foreign service under President Reagan. She served in seven different countries, from war-torn Somalia to corruption-riddled Ukraine. She helped open the U.S. embassy in Uzbekistan and dodged bullets when a gunman opened fire during a visit to that embassy. “It took us three tries, me without a helmet or body armor, to get into a vehicle to go to the embassy,” she said. “We went because the ambassador asked us to come and we went because it was our duty.”

Earlier this year, Yovanovitch found herself caught in a mess of a different kind. She was in the final year of a three-year tour as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, after being appointed by President Obama and unanimously confirmed by the Senate. She’d performed well enough that a superior asked if she’d extend her stay for another year. Then, without warning, Yovanovitch found herself the target of “a campaign of disinformation” run through back channels and led by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, two Giuliani associates (who have since been indicted), as well as a shady prosecutor in Ukraine who was friendly with Giuliani. The plot eventually succeeded: Trump recalled Yovanovitch and she was told to catch the next flight home. Without being told why, she saw her time in Ukraine was finished.

In a six-hour hearing on Friday, Yovanovitch described in a clear, sober manner how her work in Ukraine met an abrupt and disturbing end. The only witness at the second public hearing of the ongoing impeachment inquiry, she spoke about the earliest indications that Giuliani and his cronies were running a shadow foreign policy as well as the damage inflicted on the morale of American diplomats and on the State Department as an institution.  Here are four things we learned from Yovanovitch’s testimony.

Yovanovitch believed Giuliani’s “campaign of disinformation” against her — on Trump’s behalf — put America’s credibility at risk. Yovanovitch said repeatedly that an ambassador serves at the pleasure of a president, and that the president can recall any ambassador any time he wants. 

But she added that the murky circumstances of her ouster — no real reason given, told to board the next available plane out of Kyiv — left her with the impression that the Trump administration had put private interests of Giuliani and others above the interests of the country. “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 U.S. interests in this way,” she testified.

What’s more, she added, she feared that an ambassador committed to rooting out corruption being unceremoniously removed from her post after a concerted campaign by Giuliani and others sent a terrible signal to the rest of the world. “If people see that I, who have been promoting our policies on anti-corruption … if they can undermine me and get me pulled out of Ukraine, what does that mean for our policy?” she asked. “Do we still have that same policy?”

She went on: “Which country’s interests are served when the very corrupt behavior we have been criticizing is allowed to prevail? Such conduct undermines the U.S., exposes our friends, and widens the playing field for autocrats like President Putin.”

The smearing and questionable removal of a career diplomat, Yovanovitch said, hurt morale and added to the “hollowing-out” of the State Department. Having spent most of her career at the State Department, Yovanovitch made a compelling case for why Giuliani’s disinformation campaign against her and Trump’s subsequent decision to remove her as ambassador demoralized America’s diplomatic corps.

She insisted in her opening statement that the story of her ouster had greater implications than merely her own career.”This is about far, far more than me or a couple individuals as foreign service professionals being denigrated or undermined,” she said. “The institution is also being degraded. This will soon caue real harm if it hasn’t already.”

The State Department, she noted, is the “pointy tip of the spear” of American influence around the world. And it’s a much cheaper way to export the values of democracy or rule of law than with bombs and soldiers, she went on. (Not that the U.S. has ever learned that lesson.) But at a time when diplomacy was as important as ever, the Trump administration and its allies were hollowing out the State Department in an effort to score partisan points. “This is not a time to undercut our diplomats,” Yovanovitch said.

Yovanovitch saw the president’s attacks on her — including in real time during her testimony — as an attempt to intimidate her and other witnesses. About an hour into the hearing, Yovanovitch described what she felt when she learned President Trump had called her “bad news” and ominously said she was “going to go through some things” on the July 25th phone call between Trump and the new president of Ukraine. At almost the exact same moment, Trump fired off a tweet saying “everywhere” Yovanovitch had served “turned bad.”

It was a stunning moment: The president attacked a witness in an impeachment inquiry while that same witness was mid-testimony on Capitol Hill. Intelligence Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Schiff asked her to respond to the president’s tweet. “It’s very intimidating,” she replied.

After Democrats accused the president of witness tampering, Trump brushed it off. “I have the right to speak,” he told reporters.

The blockbuster witnesses with firsthand knowledge of Trump’s plot to pressure the Ukrainian government are still to come.  Yovanovitch arrived in Ukraine for her ambassadorship in August 2016 and left for good on May 20, 2019, after Trump recalled her from her post. She said in her opening statement, and later under questioning by Republican members, that many of the events under investigation by Congress as part of the impeachment inquiry took place after she left or above her paygrade.

Her testimony left no doubt that she was a victim of Trump and Giuliani’s campaign to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate the Bidens and a conspiracy theory about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election. But the witnesses who had direct knowledge or participation in that plot — Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the EU; White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney; officials in the Office of Management and Budget; Rudy Giuliani; and more — have yet to appear before the committee. Some, like Mulvaney and Giuliani, may never appear.

The trio of career ambassadors who testified this week laid the groundwork for the upcoming witnesses. They explained how a group of businessmen and Trump cronies put private and partisan gain over the interests of the country. They described how Giuliani’s “irregular” back-channel to Ukraine top officials undermined the stated foreign policy of the U.S. and risked our national security. They called into question whether the U.S. wanted to root out corruption overseas — or enable it. “Which country’s interests are served when the very corrupt behavior we have been criticizing is allowed to prevail?” Yovanovitch said. “Such conduct undermines the U.S., exposes our friends, and widens the playing field for autocrats like President Putin.”

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