The circumstances of Yovanovitch’s recall have undercut Republican claims that Trump’s differences with state department officials could be put down to policy.
In the second day of public impeachment hearings against Donald Trump, the House intelligence committee chairman, Adam Schiff, accused Donald Trump of removing a respected American ambassador to Ukraine to clear the way for his personal domestic political agenda.
Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was recalled by Trump after three years in Kyiv in May, became the third witness to testify in the televised hearings. Her recall , and a campaign led by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani to baselessly frame her, as a personal critic and opponent of the president, sparked uproar in state department ranks.
Yovanovitch said she was “amazed” that corrupt actors in Ukraine who considered her an enemy for anti-corruption efforts in the region had “found Americans willing to partner with them”.
“I still find it difficult to comprehend that foreign and private interests were able to undermine US interests in this way,” she said in her opening statement.
Democrats accuse Trump of abusing the power of his office by pressuring Ukraine to announce investigations that he thought would help his re-election campaign. Trump denies wrongdoing.
“The question before us is not whether Donald Trump could recall an American ambassador with a stellar reputation for fighting corruption in Ukraine, but why would he want to?” Schiff said.
“Getting rid of Ambassador Yovanovitch helped set stage for an irregular channel that could pursue the two investigations that mattered so much to the president, the 2016 conspiracy theory, and most important, an investigation into the 2020 political opponent he apparently feared most, Joe Biden.”
Yovanovitch briefly told the committee about her family’s refugee experience, fleeing both the Soviet Union and then Nazi Germany to land in Canada, where Yovanovitch was born and lived till the age of three.
“I come before you as an American citizen who has devoted the majority of my life, 33 years, in service of the country that all of us love,” Yovanovitch said. “I had no agenda other than to pursue our stated foreign policy goals.”
Trump’s defenders have pointed out that ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president and he may recall whom he pleases.
But the circumstances of the recall of Yovanovitch have undercut Republican claims that Trump’s differences with state department officials could be put down to policy.
Schiff drew a direct line between the recall of Yovanovitch and Trump’s alleged project in Ukraine. Schiff suggested Giuliani attacked Yovanovitch to please a former Ukrainian prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, who wanted “revenge” on Yovanovitch for past conflicts.
Lutsenko was a major voice in Ukraine advancing the story, including in the American media, that an investigation into a gas company that employed Joe Biden’s son had been improperly shelved, and promoting a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukrainians colluded against Trump in the 2016 election.
Yovanovitch pushed back sharply on an allegation by Lutsenko, later retracted, that she had given him a “no-prosecute list”, an allegation later picked up by Giuliani.
“Mr Giuliani should have known those claims were suspect, coming as they did from individuals” whose commercial ambitions would be stymied by her anti-corruption campaign, Yovanovitch said.
In the freelance atmosphere of the Trump administration’s Ukraine policy, the purported revenge campaign quickly gained traction at the highest levels of American government, though it clashed with the official policy of supporting Ukraine against Russia, witnesses have testified.
The campaign championed by Giuliani was joined, by Donald Trump Jr, who called Yovanovitch a “joker” on Twitter; and ultimately by the president himself, who told the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in a July phone call that Yovanovitch was “bad news”.
The campaign against Yovanovitch was plainly visible to state department officials abroad and in Washington. Multiple officials, including deputy assistant secretary of state George Kent and Michael McKinley, a former senior adviser to the secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, urged the state department to issue a statement of support for Yovanovitch, but were rebuffed, the men have testified.
Yovanovitch herself sought support from multiple state department figures, including one of the impeachment inquiry witnesses, undersecretary of state David Hale, who is schedule to testify next week.
“What I was told was that there was concern that the rug would be pulled out from under the state department if they put out something publicly,” Yovanovitch told investigators last month.
“By whom?” she was asked.
“The president,” she replied.
The campaign against her, and the failure of the state department to issue a statement backing her, damaged her ability to carry out her work, Yovanovitch testified.
When she sought advice on how to stop the smear campaign that resulted in her ouster, she was told to tweet something nice about Trump, she said.
“You know the president,” ambassador Gordon Sondland told Yovanovitch, she testified. “Well, maybe you don’t know him personally, but you know, you know, the sorts of things that he likes. You know, go out there battling aggressively and, you know, praise him or support him.”