Defying White House efforts to block her testimony, Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told lawmakers Friday that President Trump was behind the decision to recall her from Kyiv in May based on “unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”
Her closed-door deposition on Capitol Hill, which ran more than eight hours, began just as a federal appeals court affirmed lawmakers’ right to obtain Trump’s financial records and the day after two associates of his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, were arrested while trying to leave the country — gathering signs that the wall Trump has erected to block scrutiny of his actions may have begun to crack under pressure in Congress and the courts.
Yovanovitch’s decision to testify in the impeachment inquiry, which centers on the president’s attempts to get Ukraine’s newly elected government to investigate his possible 2020 political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, represented an early victory for House Democrats in their fight for access to witnesses.
Democrats subpoenaed Yovanovitch, who is still a State Department employee, to appear before three House committees on Friday after the State Department, “at the direction of the White House,” ordered her Thursday evening not to appear.
In a statement calling that White House directive “illegitimate,” the chairmen of the three committees overseeing the impeachment inquiry reiterated that efforts to block potential witnesses from testifying “will be deemed obstruction of a coequal branch of government and an adverse inference may be drawn against the president on the underlying allegations of corruption and coverup.”
In her opening statement, which was obtained by several news organizations, Yovanovitch lamented that the State Department has been “hollowed out” under Trump and speculated about why Giuliani and others involved in Trump’s campaign to influence Ukrainian officials had pushed for her early removal from her post.
“I do not know Mr. Giuliani’s motives for attacking me,” the statement said. “But individuals who have been named in the press as contacts of Mr. Giuliani may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”
She also told lawmakers that Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told her in April that there was “a concerted campaign” behind her ouster.
“He also said that I had done nothing wrong,” Yovanovitch’s opening statement said.
Emerging from the sealed hearing room early in the evening, Rep. Dennis Heck (D-Wash.) said the deposition was more powerful than anything he has heard in his three years on the House Intelligence Committee, including the hearings into the investigation led by Robert S. Mueller III into Russian interference in the 2016 election. But he refused to get into specifics.
“It was that amazing, that powerful, that impactful,” he said.
Yovanovitch at one point got emotional and left the room after discussing “how she was thrown to the wolves,” according to Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.). “She was fired because she was a thorn in the side of those who sought to use the Ukrainian government for their own political and financial gain — and that includes President Trump.”
Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.), who took part in the deposition, called Yovanovitch “a brave woman” for defying the administration’s attempts to sideline her and squash her testimony.
But Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare), the top Republican on the Intelligence Committee, attacked Yovanovitch on Friday on Fox News for “badmouthing the Trump administration,” and called her a “partisan ambassador” who was “coordinating” with Democrats.
Republicans were critical of Democrats’ decision to hold the deposition behind closed doors, arguing that none of the material warranted being classified and suggesting Democrats were trying to frame a narrative more sinister than Yovanovitch actually projected.
“There is not a single word that was uttered over the course of this entire day that the American public shouldn’t have just been listening to live,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.).
In her opening statement, Yovanovitch denied that she had ever tried to curtail Ukraine’s corruption investigations, as Trump allies have charged, and called the notion that she was disloyal to Trump “fictitious.”
On the White House South Lawn on Friday afternoon, a reporter asked Trump whether he pushed to recall Yovanovitch. His response did not answer the question.
“She may be a wonderful woman. I don’t know her,” he said.
“If you remember the phone call I had with the president ... he didn’t speak favorably,” Trump continued, referring to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “But I just don’t know her. She may be a wonderful woman.”
In fact, it was Trump who initially spoke disparagingly about Yovanovitch during the call, although he did not refer to her by name.
“The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news, and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that,” he told Zelensky. “She’s going to go through some things,” he added.
Trump also hedged Friday when reporters asked whether Giuliani was still his personal lawyer.
“I don’t know,” he said. “I haven’t spoken to Rudy. He has been my attorney.”
Giuliani and other Trump allies campaigned against Yovanovitch, a career diplomat with 33 years of experience. They suggested she had become an impediment to their efforts to search for damaging material on Biden.
It was two months after her removal that Trump asked Zelensky for “a favor” during the July 25 phone call, sparking the whistleblower complaint that ultimately led to the impeachment inquiry.
Yovanovitch’s name featured prominently in the indictment in New York of two businessmen who helped Giuliani set up meetings in Ukraine.
The indictment, made public Thursday after the two men were arrested, charged Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman with campaign finance law violations on allegations that they funneled foreign money to numerous candidates and committees, including a super PAC supporting the president and a congressman who later encouraged Trump to recall Yovanovitch.
Parnas was born in Ukraine and Fruman was born in Belarus. The two were held on a $1-million bond after their arrests at Dulles International Airport outside Washington, and remain in federal custody.
Federal prosecutors and agents are still examining financial dealings involving Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman, according to a U.S. law enforcement official who did not want to be identified discussing the case.
A lawyer for the two men told Congress last month they had assisted in Giuliani’s representation of Trump and have also been “represented by Mr. Giuliani in connection with their personal and business affairs.”
Depending on what they find, Giuliani “could be in some jeopardy here,” said James Cohen, a law professor at Fordham University.
Cohen said federal prosecutors often leverage suspects to provide information about higher-profile suspects, such as Giuliani, who has repeatedly discussed his efforts to influence Ukraine policy on behalf of the president.
“Rudy has a target on his back,” Cohen said.
The three House committees involved in the impeachment inquiry have subpoenaed Parnas and Fruman, and again warned that noncompliance with document requests and deposition orders would be viewed as evidence of obstruction.
The committees also plan to hear from several more current and former diplomats and administration officials.
Earlier this week, the White House directed Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, not to testify. Sondland’s lawyer said Friday that the former Oregon hotelier, who was appointed ambassador after donating $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, will testify on Thursday. But Sondland will not turn over documents that the committee demanded, the lawyer said, since those are in the State Department’s custody.
Fiona Hill, who served as senior director for Europe and Russian affairs at the National Security Council until she stepped down in August, is scheduled to testify on Monday and is expected to offer further insight into Trump’s efforts to use foreign policy to boost his political campaign.
Although it’s unclear whether matters beyond Trump’s dealings with Ukraine ultimately will be part of the Democrats’ impeachment probe, his opponents won a round in the courts Friday when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld Congress’ right to demand Trump’s business and accounting records.
A three-judge panel ruled 2 to 1 that Congress has broad investigative powers. They rejected the argument from Trump’s lawyers that the House Oversight and Reform Committee had no legitimate legislative reason to demand the files from the accounting firm Mazars USA.
Disputes between Congress and the president “are a recurring plot in our national story,” the judges wrote.
“And that is precisely what the Framers intended,” they wrote. “Having considered the weighty interests at stake in this case, we conclude that the subpoena issued by the Committee to Mazars is valid and enforceable.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) heralded the ruling and, during a conference call with Democratic members Friday afternoon, reminded lawmakers that she views the impeachment inquiry as something bigger than partisan politics.
“The whole point of this inquiry is to save the Constitution of the United States,” Pelosi told lawmakers, according to an aide on the call. “The subpoena is the oversight that Congress has as a separation of powers — political branches of government have checks and balances on each other.”
“I’ve said before Trump, himself, is not worthy of impeachment because it’s divisive in the county. But our Constitution is worth it. Our democracy is worth it.”
Trump’s lawyers can ask the entire court to rehear the case or take it to the Supreme Court.
Times staff writer Del Quentin Wilber in Washington contributed to this report.