Ousted ambassador felt threat; Trump assails her anew

WASHINGTON (AP) — Former U.S. Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch provided chilling detail Friday in Trump impeachment hearings of being suddenly ousted from her post and feeling threatened upon learning President Donald Trump had denounced her in a phone call to Ukraine’s president. In that call, Trump assailed her as “bad news” and said she was “going to go through some things.”

In an extraordinary moment, even in an administration filled with them, Trump himself went after her again as she spoke, tweeting from the White House that everywhere she served had “turned bad.”

Asked at the hearing about the potential effect of such censure on U.S. officials and witnesses, she said, “Well, it’s very intimidating.”

Yovanovitch was testifying on the second day of public impeachment hearings into Trump, just the fourth time in American history that the House of Representatives has launched such proceedings. The investigation centers on whether Trump’s push for Ukrainian officials to investigate his political rivals amounted to an abuse of power, a charge he and Republicans vigorously deny.

After Trump’s tweet on Friday, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee swiftly intervened, halting the questioning to read the president’s comments out loud to the witness — and Americans following the hearing — during a live broadcast across the country.

“Ambassador Yovanovitch, as we sit here testifying, the president is attacking you on Twitter,” said Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff of California. He asked if it was designed to intimidate.

“I can’t speak to what the president is trying to do, but I think the effect is to be intimidated,” she said.

Said Schiff, “Well, I want to let you know, Ambassador, that some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously.”

Trump, asked about it later, said, “I have the right to speak. I have freedom of speech.”

Rather than distract from the career diplomat’s testimony, Trump’s interference could provide more evidence against him in the probe. Democrats said an allegation of witness intimidation could become an obstruction of justice charge in the impeachment probe.

In her testimony, Yovanovitch described a “smear campaign” against her by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and others, including the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., before her firing.

She told the lawmakers her sudden removal had played into the hands of “shady interests the world over” with dangerous intentions toward the United States. They have learned, she said, “how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want.”
She said quietly, “Even now words fail me.”

Her removal from her post is one of several events at the center of the impeachment effort.

In his July phone call with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Trump asked for a “favor,” according to an account provided by the White House. He wanted an investigation of Democrats and 2020 rival Joe Biden. Later it was revealed that the administration was withholding military aid from Ukraine at the time.

“These events should concern everyone in this room,” the diplomat testified in opening remarks.

Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the panel, said she was “too tough on corruption for some, and her principled stance made her enemies.”

It became clear, he said, “President Trump wanted her gone.”

The daughter of immigrants who fled the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, she described a 33-year career, including three tours as an ambassador to some of the world’s tougher postings, before arriving in Ukraine in 2016. She was forced out in May 2019.

She denied allegations against her, including that she favored Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump in the 2016 election, and she rejected the notion that Ukraine tried to interfere in the election, as Trump claims, counter to mainstream U.S. intelligence findings that it was Russia.

The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, bemoaned the hearings as a “daylong TV spectacle.”

Nunes complained that Democrats are relying on hearsay testimony from witnesses who only know of Trump’s actions second-hand, and Republicans noted during questioning that Yovanovitch had left her position before the July phone call.

Nunes also pressed to hear from the still anonymous government whistleblower who first alerted officials about Trump’s phone call with Ukraine that is in question. “These hearings should not be occurring at all,” he said.

But one Republican, Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, said Trump’s live tweeting at the ambassador was wrong. She said, “I don’t think the president should have done that.”

Just as the hearing was opening, the White House released its rough transcript of a still-earlier Trump call with Zelenskiy that was largely congratulatory.

Nunes read that transcript aloud. In it, Trump mentioned his experience with the Miss Universe pageant in Ukraine and invited Zelenskiy to the White House. He closed with, “See you very soon.”

Yovanovitch, a career diplomat, who has served both Republican and Democratic presidents, relayed her striking story of being told to “watch my back” and then being suddenly recalled by Trump in a swiftly developing series of events that sounded alarms about a White House shadow foreign policy.

In particular, Yovanovitch and others have described Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, as leading what one called an “irregular channel” outside the diplomatic mainstream of U.S.-Ukraine relations. Asked during an earlier, closed-door deposition if anyone at the State Department who was alerted to Giuliani’s role tried to stop him, she testified, “I don’t think they felt they could.”

Under questioning from Republicans, she acknowledged that Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, serving on the board of a gas company in Ukraine could have created the appearance of a conflict of interest. But she testified the former vice president acted in accordance with official U.S. policy.

The White House has instructed officials not to comply with the probe, and most have been issued subpoenas to appear.

Later Friday, the panel in closed-door session was to hear from David Holmes, a political adviser in Kyiv, who overheard Trump asking about the investigations the day after the July conversation with Zelenskiy. Holmes was at dinner with Gordon Sondland when the Ambassador to the European Union called up Trump. The conversation was apparently loud enough to be heard.

Trump says he knows nothing of such a call. The Associated Press has reported a second U.S. Embassy official also overheard it.

Yovanovitch and other officials now testifying publicly are providing accounts that Democrats are relying on to make the case that the president’s behavior was impeachable.

Americans are deeply entrenched in two camps over impeachment, resulting in a mounting political battle that will further test the nation in one of the most polarizing eras of modern times.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi says Trump’s actions toward Ukraine amount to “bribery.”

Trump repeatedly assails the proceedings as a “hoax” and a “sham” and says he did nothing wrong.

Thursday afternoon, after the completion of the impeachment proceedings in Washington, DC, NJTV News Senior Correspondent David Cruz sat down with the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers John Farmer, a former state attorney general who was appointed to the post by Republican Gov. Christie Whitman.

Cruz talked with Farmer, also a professor of law at Rutgers, about the testimony of Yovanovitch before the House Intelligence Committee. Here’s an edited transcript.

Cruz: So your initial thoughts on day two of these hearings.

Farmer: Well, I think Ambassador Yovanovitch was clearly uncomfortable being in this setting because it was so highly politicized, and she is a by design, apolitical person. I actually met her about 10 years ago when she was sent to Armenia to be ambassador there after they had violence during their elections, and I was called over as a team to help them investigate the violence. So I can attest that she’s the kind of ambassador they send to difficult places, not the kind of ambassador who, you know, sort of buys the office and is sent to a comfortable place

Cruz: We have been hearing so much about Rudy Giuliani. On Wednesday and then today much more. How unprecedented is it for a private citizen to have such a major role in foreign policy?

Farmer: Well, it isn’t clear exactly what his role was or what the design was, but certainly what was clear today is it was very unsettling for the professional diplomats that there was this back channel going on and they didn’t exactly know why or whether it was even consistent with stated U.S. policy.

Cruz: We heard Devin Nunes suggest that today’s hearing should have been held in some human resources subcommittee. His point being that Ambassador Yovanovitch has no relevance to the impeachment inquiry where it stands right now. What is her connection to all of that that we heard on Wednesday?

Farmer: Well, she’s a fact witness, OK. So I think the version of events that is being established here is that for whatever reason they wanted her out of the way. And they wanted her out of the way to do what exactly? We’re not sure. But if that’s the case, then she’s an essential witness. I mean, maybe it was appropriate to have a hearing in front of another committee too having to do with personal management. But certainly in building the narrative that the Democrats are putting together, she seems to be an essential part of that.

Cruz: I want to ask you about this extraordinary, really surreal moment, where Chairman Schiff asked the Ambassador about a tweet that had just been posted by the president of the United States. He says, “She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” Then fast forward to Ukraine where the new president spoke unfavorably about her. I just imagine President Nixon having access to Twitter during that period. What comes out for that?

Farmer: Well, I don’t think that’s necessarily a criminal act. I don’t think it’s necessarily witness intimidation per se, but it doesn’t have to be. I mean, so impeachment is ultimately a political judgment that the legislative branch has to make about whether a president has so abused his power that it warrants removal from office. So President Clinton committed a crime when he perjured himself in a deposition, but that did not rise to the level of or touch upon his office in such a way that warranted removal from office. But you can also imagine a situation where no technical crime has been committed, but the abuse of power is so manifest that legislators could determine that it warrants removal.