Yovanovitch: Trump's Comments to Ukraine Leader ‘Sounded Like a Threat'

"A person who saw me actually reading the transcript said that the color drained from my face," said former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified Friday that she was "shocked and devastated" when she learned President Donald Trump told Ukraine's leader in a call now central to the impeachment inquiry that she was "bad news" and would be "going through some things."

"A person who saw me actually reading the transcript said that the color drained from my face," said Yovanovitch, adding that she felt threatened by the president's comments. “Even now words fail me.”

Yovanovitch provided chilling details to the House Intelligence Committee of a concerted "smear" campaign against her by Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and others, including the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr.

Chairman Adam Schiff said in his opening statement that Yovanovitch was "too tough" on corruption and that "pissed off corrupt Ukrainian officials" like Yuri Lutsenko and "certain Americans" like Giuliani and his associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. Lutsenko allegedly directed Giuliani's two associates -- who now face charges for financial crimes -- to push for Yovanovitch's ouster, NBC News reported.

"Unfortunately, not all Ukrainians embraced our anti-corruption work, thus perhaps it was not surprising that when our anti-corruption efforts got in the way of a desire for profits or power, Ukrainians who prefer to play by the old corrupt rules sought to remove me," Yovanovitch said in her opening statement. "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 a U.S. ambassador."

Yovanovitch testified behind closed doors last month that she was told to “watch her back” before she was ousted in May as Giuliani led a shadow foreign policy. 

As Yovanovitch testified at the Capitol, the president assailed her anew from the White House. Trump went after Yovanovitch as she spoke, declaring that everywhere she served “turned bad.” He said that as president he had the “absolute right” to appoint his own ambassadors.

Yovanovitch, who moments earlier testified about risks to her safety throughout her career overseas, responded in real-time: "I don't think I have such powers, not in Mogadishu, Somalia, not in other places. I actually think that where I served, I and others have demonstrably made things better."

Asked what possible effects the president's attacks could have on the willingness of other witnesses to come forward and expose wrongdoing, Yovanovitch said, "It's very intimidating."  

Republicans, meanwhile, avoided impugning Yovanovitch's character in their questioning. They mostly steered clear, too, of challenging her decades-long career in diplomacy.

Instead, the questioning from the top Republican on the panel Rep. Devin Nunes, the GOP's chief investigative counsel Steve Castor and GOP members of the committee, appeared aimed at blunting the impact of her testimony by getting her to concede that she was not a "firsthand" witness to key events, including the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskiy or in the preparations for it.

Democrats argue that Yovanovitch’s dismissal set the stage for a separate policy channel lead by Giuliani, who pushed for her firing.

Yovanovitch, a career diplomat, who has served both Republican and Democratic presidents, told lawmakers her sudden removal had played into the hands of "shady interests the world over" with dangerous intentions toward the United States.

“These events should concern everyone in this room,” the diplomat testified in opening remarks. “Shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want.”

She sounded the alarm about about the denigration of American diplomacy and the hollowing out of the State Department under President Trump. 

In often steely, defiant tones, Yovanovitch told House investigators that the failure of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other senior officials to publicly defend her and other career diplomats from political attacks by Trump and his supporters has contributed to severe demoralization in the State Department.

She said she was told that higher-ups didn't defend her because they would run the risk of being undercut by a presidential tweet. 

”The attacks are leading to a crisis in the State Department as the policy process is visibly unravelling, leadership vacancies go unfilled, and senior and midlevel officers ponder an uncertain future and head for the doors,” Yovanovitch said. “The crisis has moved from the impact on individuals to an impact on the institution. The State Department is being hollowed out from within at a competitive and complex time on the world stage."

The daughter of immigrants who fled the former Soviet Union and Nazi German, 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 that she circulated a “Do Not Prosecute” list to former top prosecutor in Ukraine Lutsenko, which she called a “fabrication.”

Nunes, R-Calif., bemoaned the hearings as a “daylong TV spectacle.” He 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.

In his phone call with 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.

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

Nunes read that summary 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.”

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.

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

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.

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