WASHINGTON — The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine told the House impeachment inquiry Friday that she felt threatened by President Donald Trump and “shocked, appalled, devastated” that he vilified her in a call with another foreign leader, as Trump attacked her in real time on Twitter, drawing a stern warning about witness intimidation from Democrats.
The extraordinary back-and-forth unfolded on the second day of public impeachment hearings as Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted as the envoy to Ukraine on Trump’s orders, detailed an unsettling campaign by the president’s allies to undermine her as she pushed to promote democracy and the rule of law.
In deeply personal terms, Yovanovitch described to the House Intelligence Committee how Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, worked hand in hand with a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor to circumvent official channels, smear her and push her out of her job.
Her testimony came amid only the third impeachment inquiry in modern U.S. history. It drew a spontaneous standing ovation and a loud round of applause from spectators and capped a revealing first week of public hearings as Democrats seek to make their case that Trump abused his power to enlist Ukraine’s help in discrediting his political rivals, chiefly former Vice President Joe Biden. Speaker Nancy Pelosi this week called it “bribery,” echoing the language in the Constitution that describes impeachable offenses.
Shortly after Yovanovitch finished speaking, another witness revealed a potentially crucial episode in the impeachment inquiry. An official from the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv told investigators in a private interview that he overheard a call in July between Trump and Gordon Sondland, a Trump ally and ambassador to the European Union, in which the president loudly asked about “investigations” he sought from Ukraine, according to three people familiar with the closed-door session.
The official, David Holmes — who worked for Yovanovitch in Kyiv — overheard Sondland telling Trump that President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine “loves your ass” and would conduct the investigations and do “anything you ask him to,” according to two of the people, all of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because they did not have authorization to describe the testimony. Holmes testified that Sondland told him afterward that the president cared more about the investigations, which affected him personally, than he did about Ukraine.
Yovanovitch’s public testimony, which played out over more than five hours in a packed and hushed House Ways and Means Committee Room, was an indictment of foreign policy in the Trump era, outlining the harm to U.S. diplomacy and national security by a president who embraced false claims to target his own officials representing the United States overseas.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” Trump wrote on Twitter at the very moment that Yovanovitch was testifying about having felt threatened by the president. “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.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif. and chairman of the Intelligence Committee, interrupted his counsel’s questioning to read the president’s words aloud to Yovanovitch and ask for her reaction. There were audible gasps in the room as he did so.
“It’s very intimidating,” she replied, taken aback.
To that, Schiff replied gravely, “Some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously.”
Democrats said Trump’s comments were clear attempts by the president to intimidate a crucial witness in the impeachment inquiry and do the same to others who might yet come forward. They argued that the comments could constitute grounds for an article of impeachment against Trump.
At the White House, Trump angrily denied the charge.
“I want freedom of speech,” he told reporters, lashing out at Democrats for conducting what he called an unfair impeachment process.
“It’s considered a joke all over Washington and all over the world,” Trump said of the proceedings, claiming after hours of tweeting about it that he had watched only “a little bit” of the hearing. His press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, later issued a statement deeming the session “useless and inconsequential” and saying it had produced “zero evidence of any wrongdoing by the president.”
Determined to avoid looking as if they were bullying Yovanovitch, Republicans gave the lone Republican woman on the committee, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a prominent role in questioning her. Unlike the president, they refrained from attacking Yovanovitch even as they dismissed her as irrelevant to the allegations at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.
Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the ranking Republican on the committee, called her removal an “employment disagreement.” Other Republicans argued that her removal did not change U.S. policy, that her career was not permanently damaged, and that the president had well-founded reasons to be concerned about corruption in Ukraine.
Still, the session was tense at times, as Republicans — who have for weeks accused Schiff of running roughshod over them — made parliamentary points that the chairman, banging his gavel, repeatedly ruled out of order. And Yovanovitch, soft-spoken and calm, showed little hesitation in challenging her Republican interrogators.
“I do wonder why it was necessary to smear my reputation,” she said at one point, addressing Rep. Brad Wenstrup, R-Ohio, noting that Trump had the authority to remove her at will.
Wenstrup cut her off, saying, “Well, I wasn’t asking you about that, so thank you very much, ma’am.”
Yovanovitch’s testimony did not go precisely to the heart of the Democrats’ case against Trump; she had left Ukraine by the time Trump asked Zelenskiy in a phone call July 25 to “do us a favor” and look into Biden and his son Hunter Biden. But Democrats argued that there was a direct line between Yovanovitch’s ouster and Trump’s pressure campaign.
Trump, they noted, brought up Yovanovitch himself during the call — shortly after he praised a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor who had balked at her efforts to root out corruption and shortly before he mentioned the Bidens. The president told Zelenskiy that she was “bad news” and said that she was going to “go through some things,” a comment that Yovanovitch told the committee had taken her breath away when she read a reconstructed transcript of the call.
She testified that the color drained from her face and that she was “shocked, appalled, devastated that the president of the United States would talk about any ambassador like that to a foreign head of state — and it was me. I mean, I couldn’t believe it.”
“It sounded like a threat,” Yovanovitch added.
Yovanovitch was recalled from Ukraine abruptly in May. She told lawmakers that she learned she was being pulled back two months earlier than planned from the deputy secretary of state, John Sullivan, who called her while she was hosting an “International Women of Courage” event honoring a Ukrainian anti-corruption activist who died after having acid thrown at her.
She said Sullivan relayed “words that every Foreign Service officer understands: ‘The president has lost confidence in you.’”
“That was a terrible thing to hear,” she added.
In an impassioned defense of the State Department and the career Foreign Service officers who work, and sometimes give their lives, to advance the interests of the United States, Yovanovitch recounted the months that preceded her ouster. During that time, she became the target of a smear campaign led by Giuliani, two of his associates — Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who have since been indicted on a scheme to violate campaign finance laws — and the right-wing news media.
She spoke of her astonishment at how the men, working with a corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor who opposed her efforts to promote the rule of law in the country, were ultimately able to turn Trump against her.
“Perhaps it was not surprising that when our anti-corruption efforts got in the way of the desire for profit or power, Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old, corrupt rules sought to remove me,” Yovanovitch said. “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 the U.S. ambassador.
“How could our system fail like this?” she wondered aloud. “How is it that foreign, corrupt interests could manipulate our government?”
But Yovanovitch cast her own personal ordeal as far less important than the sweeping implications Trump’s actions had for the U.S.’ national security and the delicate balance of geopolitical forces operating in and around Ukraine, a struggling democracy and “battleground for great power competition” ever since the Russians invaded five years ago.
With the right support from the United States, Yovanovitch testified, Ukraine “could move out of Russia’s orbit.” But she said it was even more critical that Ukraine root out the lasting Soviet legacy of corruption, which undercuts the country’s reliability as a strategic and trading partner of the United States — and only strengthens the hand of President Vladimir Putin of Russia.
Known as Masha to her friends, Yovanovitch, a Canadian immigrant whose parents fled the Soviet Union and Nazis, was known as a vigorous fighter against corruption in Ukraine.
Republicans did not try to undercut her credibility, but they did try to prove an unsubstantiated theory that Ukrainian officials conspired with Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign to interfere in the election at Trump’s expense.
Yovanovitch pushed back on the assertion.
“We all know that people are critical,” she said after Steve Castor, a lawyer for the Republicans, pointed to disparaging statements that a Ukrainian official had made about Trump during the campaign. “That does not mean that someone, or a government, is undermining either a campaign or interfering in elections.
“And I would just remind you again,” she went on, “that our own U.S. intelligence community has conclusively determined that those who interfered in the election were in Russia.”