“You’re going to think that I’m incredibly naive,” former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch told House impeachment investigators last month. “But I couldn’t imagine all the things that have happened over the last 6 or 7 months. I just couldn’t imagine it.”
That quote comes from the transcript of Yovanovitch’s closed-door testimony, released on Monday. In it, the former ambassador describes the stunning sequence of events that led to her sudden ouster from her post in April — a sequence that started with a smear campaign against her from Rudy Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal attorney.
By the end of it, she says, she was told to leave Ukraine on the next plane out for her own “security.” Officials later clarified to her this wasn’t due to a physical threat but rather because the State Department feared Trump would attack her by tweet unless she was removed immediately.
House Democrats released the transcript Monday, beginning the impeachment inquiry’s transition into a more public-facing phase. They intend to release more transcripts of depositions of other witnesses this week.
Because Yovanovitch was ousted back in April, she can’t shed much light on the key allegations against Trump: that he pressured Ukraine’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Joe Biden and his son in exchange for a White House meeting and withheld US military aid. All that unfolded after she left Kyiv.
But she did give her side of the story about how things ended up there — explaining how US foreign policy seemed to be hijacked by political plots. She explained that at one point she was advised that if she wanted to keep her job, she should tweet that she supports Trump. And she confirmed that an ominous comment about her by Trump — “she’s going to go through some things” — made her feel threatened.
Rumors of a plot
Yovanovitch testified that she first learned that Giuliani had an interest in Ukraine toward the end of last year — in November or December. And what she heard was alarming.
“Basically, it was people in the Ukrainian Government who said that Mr. Lutsenko, the former prosecutor general, was in communication with Mayor Giuliani, and that they had plans,” Yovanovitch said. “They were going to, you know, do things, including to me.”
At the time, Lutsenko was the prosecutor general — the top law enforcement official — for the previous Ukrainian presidential administration.
As an apparent effort to win President Trump’s favor, Lutsenko and Giuliani began discussing the possibility that the Ukrainian prosecutor general could launch investigations into Trump’s enemies. He’d investigate Burisma (the Ukrainian natural gas company Hunter Biden sat on the board of) as well as purported Ukrainian interference in the 2016 US presidential election.
Per Yovanovitch, Lutsenko asked the US embassy to set up meetings with top US law enforcement officials from the FBI or Justice Department. But Yovanovitch says she objected to that because that’s not the typical way these things are handled. Instead, she encouraged him to meet with the FBI’s legal attaché in Kyiv. “I don’t think he really appreciated it,” she told investigators.
In connection with this effort, Lutsenko also began spreading what Yovanovitch says was a completely fabricated story about her — that she gave him a list of people she didn’t want him to prosecute. (Lutsenko has since recanted that story.) Rumors also spread that she was a Trump critic. The goal of these rumors seems to have been to push her out of the ambassadorship.
Only gradually, though, did Yovanovitch realize the extent of the smear campaign against her. In February 2019, she said, a senior Ukrainian official “told me I really needed to watch my back.”
Yovanovitch says that this official, a cabinet minister, explained “that there were two individuals from Florida” — Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — “who were working with Mayor Giuliani, and that they had set up the meetings for Mr. Giuliani with Mr. Lutsenko.” Parnas and Fruman “were interested in having a different ambassador” because “they wanted to have business dealings in Ukraine,” she says she was told. (Parnas and Fruman were indicted in the US for campaign finance violations last month.)
The president’s allies begin attacking Yovanovitch publicly and the State Department refuses to push back
In March of this year, the campaign against Yovanovitch exploded into public view due to an interview Lutsenko gave to John Solomon of The Hill repeating the unsubstantiated allegation that Yovanovitch had given him a “do not prosecute” list.
Soon, top Trump allies like Giuliani and Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity were openly attacking Yovanovitch. The president’s son Don Jr. also tweeted an article about calls to remove her, writing that the US needs “less of these jokers as ambassadors.”
“If you have the President’s son saying” that, Yovanovitch testified, “it makes it hard to be a credible ambassador.” So she asked the State Department whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo could issue a statement defending her.
But Pompeo never did so. Yovanovitch was told this was in part due to fear that any such statement could quickly be “undermined”— by the president, with “a tweet or something.”
Yovanovitch says she asked US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland for advice on how to handle the situation, and his advice was that she should publicly proclaim her loyalty to President Trump.
Asked again about Sondland’s advice, Yovanovitch said, “He may not have used the words ‘support President Trump.’” But he said, “You know the sorts of things he likes,” and recommended she “go out there battling aggressively” and “praise him or support him.”
In another curious move, the State Department seems to have engaged in some diplomacy with Hannity, the Fox News host. Yovanovitch was told that Pompeo or one of his aides “was going to place a call to Mr. Hannity on Fox News to say, you know, what is going on?” She said the call was made, and for a time “things kind of simmered down.” But not for long.
Yovanovitch was ousted quite suddenly in April
On April 21, 2019, Volodymyr Zelensky won the Ukrainian presidency in a landslide. And just three days after that, Yovanovitch said, she was told she would be removed from her post.
Around 10 pm Kyiv time, Yovanovitch says, she got a call from the State Department’s director general, Carol Perez. “She said that she was giving me a heads-up, that things were going wrong, kind of off the track,” Yovanovitch said. Perez told her that there was “nervousness” among State Department leadership and in the White House but did not explain further.
About three hours later — around 1 am in Kyiv — Perez called Yovanovitch back and said she had to leave Ukraine immediately.
Yovanovitch asked if there was concern for her physical security and Perez said that wasn’t the impression she got, but that she should come back to the US immediately.
She did so, and once back in Washington, she asked what had happened. And, she says, State Department official Phil Reeker told her that, essentially, it was Trump’s decision — that Trump had wanted her out for nearly a year, that Pompeo had tried “to protect” her but that he “was no longer able to do that.”
Soon, she spoke to the Deputy Secretary of State, John Sullivan. “He repeated what Phil had already told me, which is that this was coming from President Trump” and that it was “final.”
Yovanovitch added that Sullivan elaborated more on the need for urgency in her departure — explaining that the real fear was over “some sort of either public tweet or something else from the White House” attacking Yovanovitch. The cryptic demand for her return, he said, was to make sure she’d be treated with “as much respect as possible.”
Yovanovitch felt threatened by Trump
In September, the White House released the document summarizing Trump’s July 25 phone call with President Zelensky and Yovanovitch says she was “shocked” to learn she was a subject of discussion.
“The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news, and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news, so I just want to let you know that,” Trump said. He later added, about Yovanovitch: “Well, she’s going to go through some things.”
Asked what she interpreted Trump’s line saying she’d “go through some things” to mean, Yovanovitch said she didn’t really know. But asked if she felt “threatened” by Trump, she said yes. And she said she even wondered if Trump was hinting that the FBI had launched an investigation into her related to the bogus allegations Giuliani and Lutsenko had circulated.
“I just simply don’t know what this could mean,” Yovanovitch added, “but it does not leave me in a comfortable position.”
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