Ukraine Envoy’s Testimony on ‘Smear Campaign’ Draws Fire From Trump

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(Bloomberg) -- The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine faced down the president she still serves with a scathing account of how Donald Trump was played by corrupt actors eager to get her fired and expose American policy to political manipulation.

Less than an hour after Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch began testimony before the House impeachment inquiry on Friday, Trump weighed in with a tweet that assailed her three decades of service in the U.S. diplomatic corps and singled out her time in one of the world’s most difficult posts.

Ukraine Envoy’s Testimony on ‘Smear Campaign’ Draws Fire From Trump

“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” Trump said in the tweet. “It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.”

It was a moment of high drama in the impeachment inquiry, as Democrats sought to portray Yovanovitch as the first casualty of a campaign by Trump, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Giuliani’s associates to clear her out of the way and achieve their own political ends: an investigation of Trump’s 2020 political opponent and unsubstantiated claims that Ukraine boosted Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Over the course of six hours, Yovanovitch proved to be a tough witness for Republican lawmakers, who argued that the president has the right to appoint -- or recall -- his ambassadors as he sees fit. They questioned why she hadn’t sounded the alarm more loudly about Ukrainian officials who criticized Trump in 2016 or a Ukrainian company’s decision to put former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter on its board.

“You admitted in your opening statement that you do not have any first-hand knowledge of the issues that we are looking into,” said Representative Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the panel. “I am not exactly sure what the ambassador is doing here today.” He called the hearing an embarrassing show trial.

She detailed how Ukrainians with a history of corrupt behavior appeared to have persuaded Giuliani -- and by extension the president himself -- to oust her.

The result, she said, was a dangerous lesson to U.S. adversaries and to the State Department’s rank-and-file, who saw themselves falling victim to corrupt outsiders because their own leadership at the department and the White House wouldn’t -- or were afraid to -- defend them.

‘Foreign Corrupt Interest’

“How could our system fail like this?” Yovanovitch said. “How is it that foreign corrupt interest could manipulate our government?”

Democrats argued that the envoy’s ouster was the start of an ultimately ineffective effort by Trump and Giuliani to persuade Ukraine’s new government to open up an investigation into the Bidens. That effort is at the heart of the debate over whether the president sought to use American aid to leverage domestic political benefits heading into the 2020 election -- and whether he should be removed from office.

It wasn’t until after Yovanovitch was removed that many of the key events surrounding the Ukraine controversy took place -- including the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodomyr Zelenskiy, where the president asked for “a favor” linked to Biden. But Yovanovitch was still on the president’s mind even then, and he referenced her as “that woman” who was going to “go through some things.”

‘Watch Your Back’

Yovanovitch’s remarks gave a sense of the human costs at the center of the impeachment inquiry -- detailing how she hurriedly boarded a plane back to Washington after months of criticism by Trump allies, finally being told by Ukraine’s interior minister to “watch your back.”

She lamented the public silence from Secretary of State Michael Pompeo and described her disappointment, but eventual acceptance, of the fact that he wouldn’t issue a statement on her behalf. She said she understood Pompeo had expressed support for her privately.

“While I obviously don’t dispute that the president has the right to withdraw an ambassador at any time for any reason, what I do wonder is why it was necessary to smear my reputation,” she said, adding that no one has said she did anything improper as envoy.

Despite weeks of criticism, Pompeo has declined to publicly back Yovanovitch, her temporary replacement William Taylor or other State Department employees who have come forward to testify, saying he doesn’t discuss “personnel issues.” As Yovanovitch spoke, Pompeo gave a speech on foreign policy at Rice University in Texas. He didn’t address the day’s developments and wasn’t asked questions about the testimony.

Losing Influence

But Yovanovitch’s remarks -- following Wednesday’s hearing with Taylor and another senior American official involved with Ukraine policy -- showed how career diplomats and political appointees carrying out the president’s own policies quickly began to lose influence over U.S. strategy to outsiders like Giuliani who critics say doesn’t have America’s best interests at heart.

Yovanovitch said she first learned that she was facing criticism from Giuliani and others starting in mid-2018. Those attacks continued months after she had been recalled to Washington.

On Friday, the president’s eldest son also took up his cudgel online. In a Twitter post, Donald Trump Jr. said Americans had elected Trump “to fire people like the first three witnesses we’ve seen. Career government bureaucrats and nothing more.”

He didn’t mention that Pompeo handpicked one of those witnesses, Taylor, the current temporary ambassador in Kyiv, in May; or that Yovanovitch was twice nominated to be an ambassador by a Republican president, George W. Bush.

‘Tough As Nails’

Republican lawmakers on Friday also argued that Yovanovitch had come to no harm, emphasizing that she remains employed by the State Department and wound up as a fellow at Georgetown University. And they pointed out that her replacement, Taylor, is widely respected as a non-political envoy.

By the end, after repeatedly criticizing committee Democrats for refusing to take testimony from the whistleblower who helped kickstart the Ukraine impeachment inquiry, even Republicans found themselves praising her career.

“You’re tough as nails and you’re smart as hell and you are a great example of what our ambassadors should be like,” Republican Will Hurd of Texas said.

The Intelligence Committee’s work continues Saturday with the deposition of Mark Sandy, a career employee at the Office of Management and Budget. Next week will see public testimony from National Security Council officials at the heart of the drama, including former senior director for Europe Fiona Hill and Ukraine director Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.

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