Trump impeachment hearings: 3 key takeaways from Yovanovitch's testimony

 

The impeachment investigation into President Trump continued Friday with testimony from Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who Trump recalled earlier this year. Yovanovitch is a longtime diplomat, having been appointed by President George W. Bush as ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and then Armenia and as ambassador to Ukraine by President Barack Obama. Although Yovanovitch didn’t have direct knowledge of Trump’s phone calls with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, she was firm in her belief that Trump’s pressuring of Zelensky for investigations that would benefit his reelection campaign was improper. Her testimony drew Trump’s ire in a way Wednesday’s testimony did not.

Witness intimidation during testimony

Roughly an hour into Friday morning’s hearing, Trump went after Yovanovitch on Twitter.

“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” wrote Trump. “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.”

As a foreign service officer, Yovanovitch was posted in Somalia early in her career, at a period when the East African nation was in turmoil from a civil war that began in 1991. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., read the tweet to the former ambassador during her testimony and gave her an opportunity to respond.

“I don’t think I have such powers, not in Mogadishu, Somalia, and not in other places,” Yovanovitch said. “I actually think that where I’ve served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made things better for the U.S. as well as for the countries that I’ve served in.

“Ukraine, for example, where there are huge challenges, including on the issue that we’re discussing today of corruption, huge challenges, but they’ve made a lot of progress since 2014, including in the years that I was there,” she added. “I think, in part, I mean the Ukrainian people get the most credit for that, but a part of that credit goes to the work of the United States and to me as the ambassador in Ukraine.” 

“We saw today witness intimidation in real time by the president of the United States,” Schiff told reporters during a hearing recess. “Once again going after this dedicated and respected career public servant in an effort not only to chill her but to chill others who may come forward. We take this kind of witness intimidation and obstruction of inquiry very seriously.”

“Expect witness tampering to be an article of impeachment,” wrote Rep. Justin Amash, an independent from Michigan who left the Republican Party in July, in a retweet of Trump’s comments.

Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., a member of Republican leadership in the House, said the tweet “was wrong,” adding that Yovanovitch “clearly is somebody who’s been a public servant to the United States for decades and I don’t think the president should have done that.”

The White House denied Trump was engaging in intimidation.

“The tweet was not witness intimidation, it was simply the President’s opinion, which he is entitled to,” said press secretary Stephanie Grisham in a statement originally to NBC News. “This is not a trial, it is a partisan political process — or to put it more accurately, a totally illegitimate, charade stacked against the President. There is less due process in this hearing than any such event in the history of our country. It’s a true disgrace.”

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Vote Tallies are displayed as House members vote on a resolution on impeachment procedure to move forward into the next phase of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Oct. 31, 2019. The resolution passed 232-196. The resolution will authorize the next stage of impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, including establishing the format for open hearings, giving the House Committee on the Judiciary the final recommendation on impeachment, and allowing President Trump and his lawyers to attend events and question witnesses. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
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Diplomat added significant ballast to the allegation Trump was trying to extort Ukraine into ginning up bad news about Biden. The impeachment inquiry against Donald Trump has heard some extraordinary testimony over the last month. From the first mention of Trump’s desired “deliverable” from Ukraine, successive layers of witnesses and documents have added to an indictment of the president’s conduct that only gets heavier, as Trump howls his defenses to the wind. On Tuesday, things got even worse for Trump – much worse, as many saw it. For almost 10 hours, William Taylor, a former military officer and career diplomat with the rank of ambassador under the last four presidents, spoke with congressional investigators about how the Trump administration has been conducting a two-track foreign policy in Ukraine, where Taylor is in charge of the US embassy. We don’t yet know most of what was said. The current public record of the closed-door testimony comprises only a copy of Taylor’s 15-page opening statement – and the spectacle of the ashen faces of members of Congress as they filed out from the hearing. “This testimony is a sea change,” congressman Stephen Lynch told reporters. In his testimony, Taylor explained his discovery of an “irregular, informal policy channel” by which the Trump administration was pursuing objectives in Ukraine “running contrary to the goals of longstanding US policy”. What the “informal channel” wanted – and briefly obtained, Taylor said – was for the Ukrainian president to agree to go on CNN to announce an investigation of Joe Biden, whom Trump sees, perhaps mistakenly, as a top 2020 threat. The Trump administration held up “much-needed military assistance” to Ukraine in an effort to extract the Ukrainian statement, Taylor said. “More Ukrainians would undoubtedly die without the US assistance,” he noted. In a process scrambled so far by misleading Trump tweets and relying in part on anonymous witnesses, the testimony of Taylor, a Vietnam veteran respected in both parties with 50 years of public service behind him, landed as a potential game-changer. It was just the kind of testimony that seemed to answer even the most stubborn demands of Trump loyalists such as Senator Lindsey Graham for additional, definitive proof that Trump was turning the broad power of his office to his own narrow devices. “If you could show me that, you know, Trump actually was engaging in a quid pro quo, outside the phone call, that would be very disturbing,” Graham said at the weekend. The senator denied in a Fox News appearance Tuesday that Taylor had delivered such evidence. But Taylor added significant ballast to the allegation that Trump was attempting to extort Ukraine into ginning up bad news about Biden. What Taylor added was a careful stitchwork of detail, describing who was working to extort the Ukrainians, how they were going about it, how their aims clashed with stated US policy, how the Ukrainians responded, and what people said to him about it at the time. Taylor made clear he has the memos and other records to back up his story. And he exposed the slapstick clumsiness of the Trump flunkies working the “informal channel” – notably Gordon Sondland, the hotelier and Trump mega-donor turned ambassador. “Ambassador Sondland tried to explain to me that President Trump is a businessman,” Taylor testified. “When a businessman is about to sign a check to someone who owes him something, he said, the businessman asks that person to pay up before signing the check.” But “the explanation made no sense”, Taylor argued. “The Ukrainians did not ‘owe’ President Trump anything, and holding up security assistance for domestic political gain was ‘crazy’.” Reaction to Taylor’s testimony generally fell between shock and dumbfoundedness. “I cannot overstate how damaging this Ambassador Taylor testimony is to Trump,” tweeted Neal Katyal, the former acting solicitor general. “Taylor’s statement is a completely devastating document,” wrote Susan Hennessey, the executive director of the Lawfare site. “I know they will find a way but it’s just impossible to imagine how Republicans in Congress will be able to defend this. It is well beyond what most assumed was the worst-case scenario.” The White House issued a statement Tuesday night impugning Taylor, a Trump appointee, as part of a cadre of “radical unelected bureaucrats waging war on the constitution”. But the taller the evidence against him, the smaller Trump’s protests seemed. Democratic senator Amy Klobuchar, a presidential candidate, challenged Republicans to take a stand. “After Diplomat Taylor’s testimony you can no longer question whether this happened,” she tweeted. “The question is if you choose to follow the law or be part of the cover-up.” Trump huddled Tuesday night with members of his legal team, the Wall Street Journal reported, and he urged congressional Republicans to do more to rebut the impeachment inquiry. But there were reportedly no talking points, and no one knew quite what they were supposed to say, or whom to take that direction from. Notably absent from the meeting of Trump’s advisors was Rudy Giuliani, whom Taylor describes as running the shadow operation in Ukraine. “The official foreign policy of the United States was undercut by the irregular efforts led by Mr Giuliani,” Taylor said. He described a seemingly free hand for Giuliani, whose foreign clients include or have included Ukraine-based antagonists of current and former US officials, to open and close diplomatic channels and to direct US policy as he pleased. One of the weightiest impacts of Taylor’s testimony might have to do with the senior US officials it names. Taylor took his concerns about Trump’s alleged attempt to extort Ukraine, he said, to both national security adviser John Bolton and to secretary of state Mike Pompeo. Bolton, who has since resigned, reacted with outrage and frustration. Pompeo, who is eyeing a US Senate bid in his home state of Kansas, apparently greeted Taylor’s warning with silence. “This is not the story of corruption in Ukraine,” tweeted the political strategist David Axelrod. “It’s the story of corruption at the highest levels of the US government. It’s the story of extortion, with US military aid to a besieged ally held hostage to the president’s personal political project.” Trump’s critics say the story is plain: that the president twisted the immense powers of his office to personal ends, in betrayal of constitution and country. When it comes time to prove it, Taylor’s testimony is likely to be front and center.
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WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24: Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) walks with her press secretary, Connor Joseph, to a House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol where formal impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump were announced by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi September 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. Spanberger is one of seven freshman members of the House with national intelligence or military backgrounds who recently spoke out in an opinion piece calling for an investigation of Trump. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 24: Reporters and congressional staff members wait outside a House Democratic caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol where formal impeachment proceedings against U.S. President Donald Trump were announced by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi September 24, 2019 in Washington, DC. Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry after allegations that President Donald Trump sought to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate leading Democratic presidential contender, former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, which was the subject of a reported whistle-blower complaint that the Trump administration has withheld from Congress. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 24: Reporters crowd around Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., as he leaves the House Democrats caucus meeting in the Capitol on impeachment of President Trump on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - SEPTEMBER 24: Rep. Al Green, D-Texas, arrives for the House Democrats caucus meeting in the Capitol on impeachment of President Trump on Tuesday, Sept. 24, 2019. (Photo By Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
Protesters with Kremlin Annex with a light sign that reads "NO ONE IS ABOVE THE LAW" call to impeach President Donald Trump in Lafayette Square Park in front of the White House in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 26, 2019. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 13: U.S. Representative Jim Jordan (R-OH) and other lawmakers speak to the media after the House Intelligence Committee held an impeachment hearing with acting U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, William B. Taylor and State Department deputy assistant secretary, George Kent in the Longworth House Office Building on Wednesday November 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
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Trump disparaged Yovanovitch in a July 25 phone call with Zelensky, referring to her as “the woman” and saying, “She’s going to go through some things,” according to a memo on the call released by the White House. Yovanovitch explained Friday how the revelation of that transcript affected her.

“I was shocked, absolutely shocked, and devastated, frankly,” Yovanovitch said. “I was shocked and devastated that I would feature in a phone call between two heads of state in such a manner, where President Trump said that I was ‘bad news’ to another head of state.

“A person who saw me reading the transcript said that the color drained from my face, I think I even had a physical reaction,” she added. “Even now words kind of fail me.”

A ‘chilling effect’ and a Georgetown post

During her testimony, Yovanovitch put forth an impassioned defense of U.S. foreign service personnel and said that her removal had a “chilling effect” on her colleagues because they would now be unsure if the administration would back them in implementing U.S. policy where it might conflict with the personal interests of the president or his allies. 

“Our Ukraine policy has been thrown into disarray, and shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want,” said Yovanovitch during her opening statement. “After these events, what foreign official, corrupt or not, could be blamed for wondering whether the ambassador represents the president’s views? And what U.S. ambassador could be blamed for harboring the fear that they cannot count on our government to support them as they implement stated U.S. policy and defend U.S. interests?”

Republicans attempted to minimize the impact of Trump recalling Yovanovitch from her post. They emphasized that ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president and pointed out that Yovanovitch still enjoyed the support of her colleagues and kept her foreign service rank and salary while serving a fellowship at Georgetown University. But she also had been the object of attacks by numerous Trump allies, including his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, his son Donald Trump Jr. and Fox News host Sean Hannity.

“Why was it necessary to smear my reputation?” she asked.

Rep. Mike Quigley, D-Ill., later joked about the Republican line of argument, saying, “It’s like a Hallmark movie! You ended up at Georgetown, it’s all OK!”

GOP tactics

Ranking member Devin Nunes, R-Calif., used part of his opening statement to read a memo on Trump’s first call with Zelensky, which the White House released just before testimony began. While the edited transcript didn’t include Trump asking for an investigation, it did show Zelensky asking Trump to attend his inauguration and Trump referencing his time running Miss Universe. The original summary of the call released by the White House shortly after it took place in April said Trump urged Zelensky to fight corruption, but the White House memo released Friday morning did not.

Nunes mocked the witness, a tactic he also used against the first two public witnesses on Wednesday, saying, “Ambassador, I congratulate you, you’ve been down in the secret deposition meeting rooms. You’ve graduated for your performance today.”

After recess for a House vote, Nunes was given 45 minutes to speak and to question Yovanovitch. When he tried to yield some of his time to another Republican, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, Schiff ruled the move out of order; according to the rules established in advance, only the top Democrat and Republican, and their respective staff counsels, could use that block of time. Schiff’s ruling was portrayed in some right-wing media as “gagging” Stefanik, the only woman among the Republican Intelligence Committee members.

The Republicans also pursued their effort to unmask the anonymous whistleblower whose complaint inspired the inquiry. Democrats have said they want to protect the person’s identity, in part because his or her lawyer told Yahoo News the person has been receiving death threats. Schiff has also said that the whistleblower’s appearance is probably unnecessary, since other witnesses have covered the same events in their testimony. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, jabbed at Schiff by entering a number of September articles about how the chairman had said the whistleblower would likely testify soon. Later, Stefanik used her allotted time to read quotes from Schiff talking about the whistleblower potentially testifying. In response, Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., read quotes from Trump comparing the source of the original information about his phone call to a spy and suggesting that he or she should be executed like “we used to do in the old days.”

What’s next

David Holmes — the State Department aide who overheard Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, talking to Trump during a phone call in a restaurant in Kyiv — is testifying behind closed doors in the impeachment inquiry Friday. Mark Sandy, the deputy associate director of the Office of Management and Budget, a White House agency that coordinates federal government spending, is due to testify in private on Saturday.

Public hearings continue next week, with testimony scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday.

  • Tuesday, Nov. 19: Jennifer Williams, Vice President Mike Pence’s special adviser on European and Russian affairs; Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, Ukraine expert on the White House’s National Security Council; Kurt Volker, former U.S. special envoy to Ukraine; and Tim Morrison, former senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council.

  • Wednesday, Nov. 20: Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union; Laura Cooper, a top Pentagon official with oversight into Ukraine policy; and David Hale, U.S. under secretary of state for political affairs.

  • Thursday, Nov. 21: Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council official who says she was ousted because of unfounded allegations about her floated by Rudy Giuliani.

Cover thumbnail photo: Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

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