When the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine was abruptly removed from her post this year, some Democratic lawmakers called it "a political hit job." Now the congressman in charge of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump is making the case that Marie Yovanovitch's ouster is part of the story of a president abusing his power in relations with Ukraine.
Yovanovitch will be the sole witness Friday, the second day of the inquiry's public hearings over whether Trump used military aid as leverage to pressure Ukraine into investigations that would benefit him politically.
Marie Yovanovitch was the U.S. ambassador in Kyiv from August 2016 to May of this year, when she was removed and ordered to return to Washington. State Department colleagues say she was withdrawn following a campaign of slander led by Rudy Giuliani, the personal lawyer for President Trump.
In the transcript of her private testimony in the impeachment inquiry last month, Yovanovitch says she was informed of her removal by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan.
"He said that the president had lost confidence in me and no longer wished me to serve as an ambassador. He added that there had been a concerted campaign against me and that the department had been under pressure from the president to remove me since the summer of 2018," Yovanovitch told lawmakers. "He also said that I had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors for cause."
In those many hours of testimony, Yovanovitch offered a dramatic picture of her ouster.
She said she first learned that Giuliani was campaigning against her from a Ukrainian official who told her to "watch [her] back."
In late April, a colleague also warned her that she was at risk.
"She said that there was a lot of concern for me, that I needed to be on the next plane home to Washington," Yovanovitch said.
Diplomats were accustomed to criticism from Ukrainians or Russians who didn't like their messages, said George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs. But Giuliani's campaign against Yovanovitch was different, said Kent, who was the ambassador's deputy in Ukraine.
"It was unexpected and most unfortunate to watch some Americans — including those who allied themselves with corrupt Ukrainians in pursuit of private agendas — launch attacks on dedicated public servants advancing U.S. interests in Ukraine," Kent told lawmakers Wednesday on the first day of public testimony.
Kent said he tried to get the State Department to push back against what he has called a "disinformation operation." Instead, the State Department brought Yovanovitch home, claiming the move was timed to coincide with the inauguration of a new president in Ukraine.
Kent testified that corrupt Ukrainian prosecutors who had their own ax to grind were feeding bad information to Giuliani.
"They were now peddling false information in order to exact revenge against those who had exposed their misconduct, including U.S. diplomats, Ukrainian anti-corruption officials and reform-minded civil society groups in Ukraine," he said.
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., who is leading the impeachment inquiry, said sidelining Yovanovitch set the stage for Giuliani to advance the president's personal and political interests.
Republicans dismiss that argument, saying the president has the authority to recall any ambassador for any reason.
Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas, took Kent to task on this point during Wednesday's hearing.
"So you agree with me that we shouldn't impeach a president for exercising his constitutional authority," Ratcliffe said.
"I'm here as a fact witness to answer your questions," said Kent. "Your constitutional obligation is to consider the evidence before you."
Former U.S. diplomats have been outraged by the treatment of Yovanovitch, who is still a State Department employee.
Tom Countryman, who spent 35 years in the foreign service, said ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president, but the president's rights are not unlimited.
"He's got the authority to do it," Countryman said of Trump's removal of Yovanovitch. "But if he exercises the authority for the purpose of extorting something from the government of Ukraine, I would certainly call that an abuse. But that's the judgment that the Congress has to make," he said in an interview.
Another former career diplomat, Nancy McEldowney, was furious that
Secretary Mike Pompeo's State Department has not supported Yovanovitch, even after a rough call log of a July 25 call between Trump and Ukraine's new president in which Trump said the ambassador would be "going through some things."
"Ambassador Yovanovitch was told to watch her back by the interior minister in Ukraine, who's responsible for the intelligence and law enforcement services. All of this considerable intimidation that has been imposed on these people. And yet they come forward because they feel duty bound and honor bound to tell the truth," said McEldowney, who now is at Georgetown University's Walsh School of Foreign Service.
She said public servants are putting their careers, privacy and personal safety at risk.
Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are warning the administration not to punish State Department officials who testify.
State Department leadership "has focused on preventing and dissuading its personnel from providing information and testimony to Congress. Many have decided, boldly, courageously, to stand up and testify nonetheless—at great personal, financial, and reputational expense," 10 senators wrote in a letter on Tuesday to the deputy secretary of state and undersecretary of state for management.
The senators noted that they were addressing the letter to two of Pompeo's top aides rather than to the secretary of state himself because, they said, Pompeo's "silence to date speaks volumes. He has failed to stand up for his Department's own people."
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
President Trump has called her bad news. Former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch gets her chance to respond publicly tomorrow. She will share her take on how she was ousted after what her colleagues call a campaign of slander led by Trump's private lawyer Rudy Giuliani. Joining us to talk about this is NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Like the other witnesses slated to testify publicly, Yovanovitch has already testified behind closed doors. What were the big takeaways from her deposition according to the transcript?
KELEMEN: Well, in those many pages of transcript, Marie Yovanovitch offered a pretty dramatic picture of her ouster. She said that she first learned that Trump's private lawyer was campaigning against her from a Ukrainian official who told her to watch her back. In late April she got a call from one of her colleagues that she should get on the first plane home and that this was about her security. When she got back, she was told simply that the president had lost confidence in her.
SHAPIRO: President Trump's defenders have pointed out that ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president. He has a right to remove her. So what makes this situation different?
KELEMEN: Well, to answer that, I'm going to take you through a little bit for the next few minutes of the testimony that we've heard so far.
KELEMEN: So George Kent is another career foreign service officer. He had been Yovanovitch's deputy in Ukraine, and at the first public impeachment hearing yesterday, he said that, you know, as diplomats, they were used to criticism from Ukrainians or Russians who didn't like their messages.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
GEORGE KENT: It was unexpected and most unfortunate, however, to watch some Americans, including those who allied themselves with corrupt Ukrainians in pursuit of private agendas, launch attacks on dedicated public servants advancing U.S. interests in Ukraine.
KELEMEN: Kent tried to get the State Department to push back at the disinformation campaign. Instead, the Department quietly brought Yovanovitch home, claiming it was time to coincide with the inauguration of a new president in Ukraine. Kent testified Wednesday that corrupt Ukrainian prosecutors who had their own axes to grind were feeding bad information to Trump's private lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KENT: They were now peddling false information in order to extract revenge against those who would expose their misconduct, including U.S. diplomats, Ukrainian anti-corruption officials and reform-minded civil society groups in Ukraine.
KELEMEN: The Democrat leading the impeachment inquiry says the sidelining of Yovanovitch set the stage for Giuliani to advance the president's personal and political interests. At that hearing, though, Republican John Ratcliffe dismissed that argument, quoting Kent himself as saying the president has the authority to recall an ambassador for any reason.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOHN RATCLIFFE: So you agree with me that we shouldn't impeach a president for exercising his constitutional authority.
KENT: I'm here as a fact witness to answer your questions. Your constitutional obligation is to consider the evidence before you.
KELEMEN: Former U.S. diplomats have been outraged by the treatment of Yovanovitch, a three-time ambassador and career public servant. Tom Countryman, who spent 35 years in the Foreign Service, says ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president, but the president's rights are not unlimited.
THOMAS COUNTRYMAN: He's got the authority to do it, but if he exercises the authority for the purpose of extorting something from the government of Ukraine, I would certainly call that an abuse. But that's the judgment that the Congress has to make.
KELEMEN: Another former career diplomat, Nancy McEldowney, was furious that Mike Pompeo's State Department has not supported Yovanovitch. The secretary did not put out a statement even after a call transcript was released showing that Trump was telling Ukraine's new president that the ambassador would be, quote, "going through some things."
NANCY MCELDOWNEY: All of this considerable intimidation that has been imposed on these people - and yet they come forward because they feel duty-bound and honor-bound to tell the truth.
KELEMEN: She says public servants are putting their careers, privacy and personal safety at risk. And, Ari, you know, some Democratic lawmakers are warning the administration not to punish those State Department officials who do come to testify.
SHAPIRO: Because even though she's no longer the ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch is still a State Department employee, right?
KELEMEN: That's right. She's still a foreign service officer. She's just teaching for the year at Georgetown University.
SHAPIRO: Michele, thank you for your reporting on Yovanovitch. Before we let you go, on a slightly lighter note, the staff here at ALL THINGS CONSIDERED noticed something in yesterday's public hearings that I want to ask you about.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
KENT: The U.S. embassy in Keev (ph)...
SHAPIRO: That was Kent saying Keev. We on the air have been saying Kyiv. Can you explain?
KELEMEN: Well, right. So it was actually - in 2006, the State Department adopted that pronunciation and a different spelling - K-Y-I-V rather than K-I-E-V - because it sounds more Ukrainian rather than Russian. And by the way, it was George Kent who was the one who got the U.S. Board on Geographic Names to agree to that change.
SHAPIRO: With apologies to George Kent, NPR's official pronunciation guidance remains Kyiv.
Michele Kelemen, thanks a lot.
KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.