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Opinion

Column: Witness intimidation? More like Trump threw Twitter acid on Marie Yovanovitch’s face

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was shocked that President Trump fired her. Trump trashed her on Twitter while she testified to the House committee investigating impeachment.
(Andrew Harnik / Associated Press)

On Friday, Marie Yovanovitch calmly recounted the story of her unceremonious firing to the House committee investigating President Trump’s impeachment.

She was a decorated career diplomat, with postings that included some of the most dangerous parts of the globe, including Mogadishu, Somalia. She was dedicated to helping Ukraine root out its longstanding corruption, to helping the fledgling liberal democracy flourish. She not only excelled at her job, she loved it.

As she testified, it became apparent, if it wasn’t already, that there really could only be one reason she was fired.

She was too good at standing up for American interests by standing up against Ukrainian corruption.

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Trump couldn’t take the implied criticism. Especially not from a woman.

“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” the president tweeted while she testified. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.”

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff projected the president’s deplorable tweet in the hearing room. “Now the president in real time is attacking you,” Schiff said. “What effect do you think that has on other witnesses?”

“It’s very intimidating,” she said. Of course it is. It’s meant to be.

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Yovanovitch said she learned of her firing last spring, while she was hosting a somber event in Kiev, honoring a slain Ukrainian anti-corruption crusader.

In July 2018, Kateryna Handziuk had been the victim of an acid attack in front of her home, and died a painful death three months later, at age 33. In April 2019, the embassy honored Handziuk with a posthumous “Woman of Courage” award.

By that time, Yovanovitch had already heard rumors that she was being smeared by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, some of his associates and even a Ukrainian prosecutor who admitted making up a story that she’d given him a “do not prosecute” list. People were saying she had bad-mouthed the president, telling Ukrainians to ignore him because he was going to be impeached.

Under oath, she emphatically denied ever saying such things.

Which is why her firing came as a shock. Why would Giuliani and Trump want to remove a diplomat who had just been asked to extend her three-year posting to Ukraine for another year?

Giuliani and Trump, it would appear, needed the principled ambassador out of their way so they could freely pursue a loony Vladimir Putin-promulgated conspiracy theory that it was actually the Ukrainians, not the Russians, who had interfered in the 2016 election.

They also needed her out of their way so Trump could strong-arm the new Ukrainian president into meddling in the 2020 presidential election. For our paranoid president, a dirty trick might be just the thing to damage former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential aspirations.

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Trump, we now know, wanted to withhold millions in American military assistance to Ukraine in its war against Russian aggression unless Zelensky agreed to announce — on American television, no less — that his government would investigate Biden and his son Hunter, a board member of a Ukrainian natural gas company.

The Bidens had done nothing wrong, of course. (The kind of nepotism that landed Hunter Biden on the board of a Ukrainian company while his father served as vice president is despicable, certainly, but not illegal. And anyway, when it comes to nepotism, the Trump family is the country’s foremost practitioner.)

Under questioning by Democratic Rep. Jim Himes of Connecticut, Yovanovitch said that, had she remained in her post, she would not have supported any of those Giuliani-Trump shenanigans.

Yovanovitch testified that her bosses assured her that she had done nothing wrong; in fact, she was a much lauded public servant who had dedicated 33 years to promoting American policy around the world. She was devastated by the news, she told the House committee. “I did not want my career to end like this.”

The president had simply, unaccountably, lost confidence in her. She needed to leave Ukraine on the next plane, she was told, for her own safety. Even a Ukrainian official, she said, had told her to watch her back.

Turns out the only threat to her safety was coming from her ultimate boss, the president. No one, it turns out, is safe from that guy. Especially if they stand between him and his lust for power. On Friday, Trump flung his personal brand of acid into her face, attacking her record in his own vicious way.

Toward the end of her appearance Friday, Yovanovitch was grilled by Stephen Castor, lawyer for the Republican side. He seemed to want to make the case that Trump was right to be angry at Ukraine because one of its officials had posted something negative about Trump during the 2016 American presidential campaign. (That official, Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, criticized Trump for saying he thought Ukrainian citizens who lived in regions that were illegally annexed by Putin in 2014 were happier under Russian control. “An outcast bowing down to Putin cannot be the guarantor of democratic freedoms in the U.S. and the world,” Avakov wrote on Facebook.)

“You see how that might create a perception?” Castor asked. “He said some real nasty things.”

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“Sometimes that happens on social media,” the veteran diplomat replied.

She should know.


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