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Impeachment hearing: What to expect from Yovanovitch’s testimony

Former ambassador to Ukraine describes “the smear campaign against me” by Trump allies
Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in Washington.
Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in Washington.

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Marie L. Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, described in calm but strikingly personal terms on Friday “the smear campaign against me” by allies of President Donald Trump working in tandem with corrupt Ukrainians leading to her removal from her post based on untrue allegations.

In public testimony to the House Intelligence Committee leading the impeachment inquiry, Yovanovitch flatly denied the “baseless allegations” raised against her by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal attorney, and others working with him. She called them part of a “campaign of disinformation” that was orchestrated with Ukrainians because she was a powerful advocate of fighting corruption.

“Mr. Giuliani should have known those claims were suspect, coming as they reportedly did from individuals with questionable motives and with reason to believe that their political and financial ambitions would be stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine,” she told the House Intelligence Committee as it opened its second day of public impeachment hearings.

She added: “If our chief representative is kneecapped, it limits our effectiveness to safeguard the vital national security interests of the United States.”

Yovanovitch went on to say that the State Department’s failure to defend her and others subjected to partisan attacks had a profoundly negative impact on the institution as a whole.

“This is about far, far more than me or a couple of individuals,” she 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.”

The White House released a rough transcript of Trump’s first call with the Ukrainian president.

As the hearing was about to be gaveled to a start on Friday morning, the White House released a rough transcript of another phone call that Trump had with Ukraine’s president in an effort to demonstrate that there was nothing untoward in that conversation.

Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the top Republican on the committee, read the record of the conversation out loud as part of his opening statement in sort of a dramatic re-enactment of the conversation.

The record documented an April 21 call that Trump made from Air Force One to President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine congratulating him on his election. That call came three months before the now-famous July 25 call in which the president asked Zelenskiy to do him “a favor” and investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.

The record of the original call reflected just a few minutes of pleasantries. “When you’re settled in and ready, I’d like to invite you to the White House,” Trump said. “We’ll have a lot of things to talk about, but we’re with you all the way.”

“Well, thank you for the invitation,” Zelenskiy replied. “We accept the invitation and look forward to the visit.”

According to the record, Trump made no mention of the desired investigations that he would raise later, but the promise of a White House meeting became a point of contention in the months to come. Text messages and testimony have indicated that the White House held up scheduling the promised meeting until Ukraine agreed to investigate Democrats.

The new White House record conflicted with the readout of the call that the White House put out to the media at the time. The official readout in April said that Trump “underscored the unwavering support of the United States for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity,” and expressed support for efforts “to root out corruption.” According to the record released on Friday, Trump made no mention of either of those points.

Democrats hope Yovanovitch provides a human face for the impeachment drama.

Democrats are betting that Yovanovitch — an immigrant who served under six presidents from both parties — will offer the public a compelling human story that dramatizes how Trump ran roughshod over American diplomats in pursuit of his own goals in Ukraine. In the view of Democrats, she is a sympathetic victim of bullying by Giuliani and the president, whose decision to pull her from Ukraine helped set the stage for the campaign to pressure that country’s president.

Rep. Adam B. Schiff, D-Calif., the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, has described her as “someone who served the country with distinctions for decades” and who witnessed what he called the damage that Giuliani’s efforts were having on America’s foreign policy. In his remarks on Wednesday, he said that after the ouster of Yovanovitch, “the stage was set” for the rogue diplomatic efforts that Giuliani led.

During her closed-door testimony, Yovanovitch displayed flashes of emotion, her voice trailing off as she described her disappointment when she realized her ambassadorship had been terminated. “Do you want to take a minute?” Daniel Goldman, the chief Democratic lawyer, asked her. “Yeah, just a minute,” she said, according to the transcript of her testimony.

Democrats are hoping she will replay that kind of reaction, and more, during Friday’s public hearing — this time in front of video cameras capturing the moments on television.

Republicans will avoid bullying the witness, but will say she is irrelevant.

Republicans know they have to be careful when they question Yovanovitch, making sure they don’t look as if they are bullying a victim in the impeachment story. One Republican strategist compared their preparations for dealing with Yovanovitch to the way senators prepared for the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, the professor who accused Justice Brett Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers.

But Republicans have already tipped their hand about how they intend to confront Yovanovitch. They plan to argue that she was terminated in late April, long before the events at the center of the impeachment inquiry: the July 25 telephone between Trump and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine, and the decision to withhold security aid unless Zelenskiy announced investigations into the president’s political rivals.

“She was not there during the relevant time that this whole impeachment inquiry is to address,” Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., said Thursday. “She was gone.”

Republicans also plan to make the point that ambassadors like Yovanovitch serve at the pleasure of the president, and can be fired any time the president decides he wants someone else to represent him. So her ouster, they will say, was perfectly appropriate.

Yovanovitch will describe the geopolitical risks of Trump’s approach to foreign policy.

The most important element of Yovanovitch’s testimony may be about the effect of Giuliani’s actions on the State Department. In her closed-door interview, she described in detail how his efforts to smear her undermined the work of other career diplomats as they pursued what they believed was the administration’s foreign policy.

“Bad actors” in Ukraine and elsewhere will “see how easy it is to use fiction and innuendo to manipulate our system,” she warned in that session. “The only interests that will be served are those of our strategic adversaries, like Russia.”

Among the bad actors that Yovanovitch identified were two American businessmen, Lev Parnas, who was born in Ukraine and Igor Fruman, who was born in Belarus. They worked with Giuliani to get rid of Yovanovitch and have since been indicted in a complex scheme to violate campaign finance laws.

But Yovanovitch is likely to focus on Giuliani. He criticized her repeatedly in public and private, suggesting she was disloyal to Trump and prompting venomous criticism from others, including Donald Trump Jr., who tweeted a link to an item that described Yovanovitch as “an anti-Trump, Obama flunkey.” She told lawmakers privately that “the harm will come not just through the inevitable and continuing resignation and loss of many of this nation’s most loyal and talented public servants.”

Democrats will highlight Trump’s disparaging words about Yovanovitch.

Yovanovitch will make one critical connection directly to Trump: the president’s own words about her during the July 25 call with Zelenskiy.

During that conversation, Trump referred to Yovanovitch by saying that she was “bad news” and later reassured Zelenskiy that “she’s going to go through some things. I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call.” Yovanovitch has said that she felt “threatened” by the president’s words, and still fears retaliation.

In her previous testimony, Yovanovitch described herself as “shocked” by the president’s comments about her, saying: “I was very concerned. I still am.” Democrats hope her public testimony about the president’s comments will counter a key Republican talking point, that many of the witnesses have only secondhand knowledge about what the president said or did. In the case of Yovanovitch, the president’s comments about her come directly from his own words on the call.

A new witness who overheard another Trump phone call will testify behind closed doors.

A new figure will enter the impeachment drama on Friday afternoon when David Holmes, the political counselor at the American Embassy in Ukraine, is scheduled to testify privately in the inquiry. Investigators want to ask him about a phone call that he overheard in July between Trump and Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, who was part of a group of Trump loyalists engaged in diplomacy with Ukraine.

William B. Taylor Jr., the top diplomat in Ukraine and Holmes’ boss, told lawmakers at Wednesday’s public hearing that he had recently learned that one of his aides overheard the president asking Sondland about “the investigations,” an apparent reference to Trump’s desire for investigations of his political rivals. Taylor testified that the aide — who investigators have since learned was Holmes — then heard Sondland respond that the “Ukrainians were ready to move forward.”

After the call ended, Holmes asked Sondland what the president thought about Ukraine, and the ambassador responded that, “President Trump cares more about the investigations of Biden,” according to Taylor. Republicans have argued that much of the testimony from Taylor and others has been secondhand. Democratic lawmakers are eager to hear Holmes, a Foreign Service officer for 17 years, describe the call himself.


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