Trump blasts ambassador as she testifies, prompting intimidation warning from Schiff
Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff asks Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch about Trump’s Twitter threat.
Even as ousted U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch warned Friday about the national security risks of publicly undermining American diplomats, President Trump took to Twitter to discredit her, handing Democrats additional ammunition for their impeachment case.
Yovanovitch, the latest career diplomat to testify publicly in the House impeachment inquiry, largely accomplished what Democrats hoped she would in their second day of public hearings. The State Department veteran, who was recalled in May amid a flurry of unfounded rumors that she was anti-Trump, put a sympathetic face on the investigation as she described her confusion and despair at being abruptly sidelined.
She said she understood the president’s right to replace an ambassador at any time but said, “I do wonder why it’s necessary to smear my reputation falsely.”
Yovanovitch also warned that openly criticizing U.S. officials working in foreign countries undercuts the nation’s interests and may encourage foreign leaders to attempt to sideline American diplomats who are pushing for difficult but needed reforms.
“Shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want,” she said, referring to her ouster in May following what she calls a smear campaign by some in the Trump administration. “After these events, what foreign official, corrupt or not, could be blamed for wondering whether the ambassador represents the president’s views?”
As she testified, Trump went on Twitter to criticize her and defend his right to hire and fire ambassadors at will. He claimed without evidence “that everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” disparaging her previous service in Somalia as well as her work in Ukraine.
Trump’s tweet marked a stark change from his reaction to the first hearing Wednesday, when he was silent on Twitter and said he had not watched. He said Friday he saw part of the hearing and found it to be a “disgrace.” Trump has defended his actions regarding Ukraine and dismissed the impeachment inquiry as politically motivated.
Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. 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.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 15, 2019
Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, paused questioning Friday to read the president’s tweet and defend Yovanovitch’s 33-year record.
Asked to respond, Yovanovitch said, “I can’t speak to what the president is trying to do. But the effect is to be intimidating.”
Trump said later that he did not think his tweet was intimidating. But Schiff said the committee would take the issue “very, very seriously.”
“We saw today witness intimidation in real time,” Schiff said.
Yovanovitch said that she believed her anti-corruption efforts made her a target of dishonest Ukrainians who were opposed to U.S. efforts to clean up the government there. What shocked her, she said, was that they appeared to find allies in the Trump administration, including the president’s personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani.
“What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them, and working together, they apparently succeeded in orchestrating the removal of a U.S. ambassador,” she said. "[I] do not understand Mr. Giuliani’s motives for attacking me, nor can I offer an opinion on whether he believed the allegations he spread about me.”
The career foreign service officer has been portrayed by Democrats as the first victim of Trump’s scheme in Ukraine, and her testimony gets to their narrative that the president abused his power in a way that damaged U.S. interests. She was recalled by Trump after a weeks-long campaign by former Ukrainian officials that was amplified by conservative media outlets, Giuliani and the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. The abrupt removal came just two months after Yovanovitch was asked by the State Department to stay on through 2020.
Trump’s attack on a well-regarded career foreign service employee while she was testifying about efforts to stop corruption overseas was immediately seen by some as a misstep. Republicans said privately they did not want to appear to be bullying Yovanovitch because it wouldn’t help their cause.
“The president kind of blew up any Republican plan to treat the witness with respect,” the former Republican chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Mike Rogers, said on CNN. “It’s really kind of shocking.”
Former independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who led the inquiry into President Clinton, called Trump’s tweet “quite injurious.”
“I must say the president was not advised by counsel in deciding to do this tweet. Extraordinarily poor judgment,” Starr said on Fox News.
Trump’s attack on Yovanovitch not only put him in jeopardy of incurring more charges in the impeachment case, it also risked backfiring politically. The president is increasingly unpopular among suburban women, who have been upset by his track record of attacking women and could be a key demographic in the 2020 election.
Intelligence Committee member Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-New York) told reporters that she disagreed with the president’s tweet, but that shouldn’t be the focus of the hearing. She started her questioning by thanking Yovanovitch for her service.
Trump ally Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) offered support. “The president is going to defend himself,” Zeldin said. “It’s about the president wanting to ensure that the entire story is getting out there for the American public.”
White House spokeswoman Stephanie Grisham called the tweet “simply the president’s opinion, which he is entitled to.”
House Democrats are weighing whether to file articles of impeachment against the president after learning he withheld $400 million in aid to Ukraine and leveraged a possible White House visit to coerce newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into publicly committing to investigations that could prove politically beneficial to Trump.
Trump wanted Ukraine to look into baseless allegations that the country interfered in the 2016 U.S. election and to investigate a natural gas company that employed Hunter Biden, son of a potential 2020 Trump rival, former Vice President Joe Biden. Ukrainians have said neither Biden is suspected of any wrongdoing.
Democrats have tried to show that sidelining Yovanovitch created an opportunity for Trump and Giuliani to create a backchannel that allowed them to directly press for the investigations.
The inquiry, which continues next week with three days of public hearings, began with a whistleblower complaint that raised concerns about the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky in which Trump repeatedly presses for the investigations.
While thanking her for her service, Republicans largely dismissed Yovanovitch’s appearance as a Democratic sideshow, noting she was recalled months before the July 25 call. She testified she knew nothing about the call or the delayed aid, which was finally released in September.
Ranking Republican committee member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Tulare) questioned why Yovanovitch was brought in if she has no direct knowledge of the events at hand.
“The ambassador is not a material fact witness to any of the accusations being hurled” against Trump, he said.
Yovanovitch, who has served under both parties and was known for her anti-corruption efforts in post-Soviet countries, resisted efforts by Democrats to portray her as a victim.
“I’m a private person; I don’t want to put that all out there. But it’s been very difficult,” Yovanovitch said when asked how the ouster affected her family.
“This is about far more than me or a couple of individuals,” Yovanovitch said. “As foreign service professionals are being denigrated and undermined, the institution is also being degraded. This will soon cause real harm, if it hasn’t already.”
Democrats voiced outrage on Yovanovitch’s behalf. “I’m angry that a woman like you would not only be dismissed but humiliated by the president of the United States,” Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said.
The audience in the hearing room stood and applauded as Yovanovitch walked out of the room at the end of the day.
Yovanovitch and other State Department witnesses have told House investigators in closed-door depositions that she was driven out through a concentrated effort to convince Trump and conservatives that she favored Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
Transcripts of depositions show several others have testified that the accusations against Yovanovitch have no basis in fact. The Hill newspaper published several articles with the accusations against Yovanovitch in March that were quickly picked up by conservative media personalities including Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham.
The State Department declined to defend Yovanovitch against the smears despite pleas from embassy employees, other witnesses have said. Yovanovitch said she was told Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and the State Department would not defend her because “it could be undermined, that the president might issue a tweet contradicting it.”
Just as the hearing began, the White House released a summary memo of an April call in which Trump congratulated Zelensky for winning the Ukrainian election. It was unclear whether the account is a complete transcript. It does not include discussion about corruption in Ukraine, something specifically highlighted in the White House readout of the call released in April. The White House did not respond to questions about the discrepancy.
Meanwhile, a State Department employee told lawmakers in a closed-door deposition Friday afternoon that he overheard Trump in a cellphone call ask EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland about the status of the “investigations,” according to Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Torrance).
State Department official David Holmes overheard the call while having lunch with Sondland and others in a restaurant in Kyiv on July 26. Holmes’ boss, acting U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine William Taylor, told lawmakers about the call during his public testimony earlier this week.
The call provides another instance the Democrats can point to in making the case that Trump was actively pushing Ukraine to announce investigations.
Times staff writers Jennifer Haberkorn, Eli Stokols and Noah Bierman in Washington contributed to this report.
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