impeachment

Ex-Ukraine ambassador felt threatened by Trump

Depositions from Marie Yovanovitch and Michael McKinley were the first closed-door transcripts to be released by investigators.

Marie Yovanovitch

The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine described to House impeachment investigators a diplomatic corps under siege by President Donald Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, saying she felt threatened by Trump’s posture toward her, according to a transcript of her testimony released Monday.

Marie Yovanovitch said individuals whose goals and interests were not in line with those of the United States — and were instead motivated by politics — tried to smear her and orchestrated her removal as ambassador to Kyiv. Yovanovitch said she felt personally threatened by Trump’s suggestion to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during a July 25 phone call that she was “going to go through some things.”

“I was shocked. I mean, I was very surprised that President Trump would — first of all, that I would feature repeatedly in a presidential phone call, but secondly, that the president would speak about me or any ambassador in that way to a foreign counterpart,” Yovanovitch, who was recalled as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in May, told investigators.

Yovanovitch said she did not know what Trump meant, adding: “I was very concerned. I still am.”

She said she told Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan that it was a “dangerous precedent” that “private interests and people who don’t like a particular American ambassador could combine to, you know, find somebody who was more suitable for their interests.”

Another key witness in the House’s impeachment inquiry, former senior State Department adviser Michael McKinley, described sagging morale at the department as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other top officials refused to defend Yovanovitch from the politically motivated attacks.

Transcripts of Yovanovitch’s and McKinley’s interviews with impeachment investigators were released Monday, the first such documents made public by lawmakers leading the probe, which centers on Trump’s efforts to pressure Zelensky to investigate his political opponents.

Asked about the transcript on Monday, Trump sought to downplay the offensive he led against Yovanovitch even as he took another shot at her.

“I really don't know her,” Trump told reporters, adding, “The president of the Ukraine was not a fan of hers either.”

Yovanovitch and McKinley both described a deepening concern that U.S. foreign policy had been negatively impacted by individuals such as Giuliani who were seeking to boost Trump’s domestic political standing.

“I was disturbed by the implication that foreign governments were being approached to procure negative information on political opponents,” McKinley, who resigned in part because the State Department wouldn’t issue a statement of support for Yovanovitch, told investigators.

Their depositions capture the confusion and frustration among career foreign service officers over the unexpected recall and smear campaign against Yovanovitch by Trump and his allies, and efforts by political appointees to stifle any show of support for her as she came under attack.

“I was convinced that this would also have a serious impact on Foreign Service morale and the integrity of our work overseas,” added McKinley.

Yovanovitch attributed Trump’s lack of support for her to the relationship between Giuliani and Yuriy Lutsenko, the former prosecutor general in Ukraine, who was miffed at the United States’ anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, which were being led by Yovanovitch.

Sources familiar with several witnesses’ depositions previously told POLITICO that senior State Department officials stymied efforts by career, non-political officials to defend Yovanovitch from Trump’s attacks. Yovanovitch, according to the transcript of her testimony, backed up those claims, adding that Trump’s disdain for her “was as a result of the partnership, if that's the right word, between Mr. Lutsenko and Mr. Giuliani.”

Yovanovitch’s testimony underscored the influence Giuliani has had over Trump as the former New York City mayor has represented Trump in the most bruising legal fights of his presidency.

When asked if anyone at the State Department tried to push back on Giuliani’s efforts, which were inconsistent with U.S. policy toward Ukraine, Yovanovitch replied: “I don’t think they felt they could.”

Other witnesses, whose deposition transcripts have not yet been released, described Giuliani as the key to changing Trump’s philosophy on Ukraine policy.

Yovanovitch said the State Department’s silence on the smear campaign against her made it difficult to publicly push back against the people who were trying to take her down over her refusal to give in to the Trump-fueled, debunked theories about former Vice President Joe Biden and about Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

“I just didn’t see that there would be any advantage to publicly taking on a fight with those who were criticizing me in the United States,” she said of her reluctance to speak up.

Yovanovitch also testified that she detailed her concerns about Giuliani to David Hale, the under secretary of state for political affairs, encouraging him to make sure that Pompeo would issue a statement supporting her. She said Hale never got back to her and that such a statement was never issued — backing up testimony from senior State official Philip Reeker, who told investigators that Hale appeared to thwart a public show of support for the besieged ambassador.

Yovanovitch said she was told that senior State Department officials were hesitant about releasing a statement because it would be “undermined” by the president with “a tweet or something.”

McKinley indicated that he made the decision to resign in September, after Pompeo and other senior officials refused repeated entreaties to publicly back Yovanovitch. He said that decision, combined with the public release of a whistleblower complaint the same month detailing allegations that Trump was pressuring Ukraine to investigate his rivals, led to his abrupt departure last month. The White House’s release of a rough transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Zelensky fueled his decision further.

“When the transcript was released and, frankly, the information that just poured out every day from the media … it became clear to me that State Department officials, if not the State Department itself, were being drawn again into the domestic political arena in some way,” he said. “And I repeat: I feel that this is not the way we maintain the integrity of the work we do beyond our borders. We’re meant to project non-partisanship overseas.”

McKinley said the department’s failure to defend Yovanovitch — which officials told him was meant to protect her from unwanted scrutiny, but that Yovanovitch herself said she would welcome — had “a very significant effect on morale.” He called it “puzzling and baffling.”

Most of McKinley’s testimony was a reconstruction of high-level talks inside the State Department surrounding Yovanovitch’s removal, after the Trump-Zelensky call summary made clear that politics had become involved. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) said McKinley’s testimony was significant because it detailed what he described as an effort to use the State Department as an extension of Trump’s political goals.

“What is so striking about his testimony is the degree to which he sought to get the State Department to issue support for its own ambassador and how those repeated efforts were rebuffed,” Schiff told reporters.

McKinley’s testimony may also factor into Democrats’ consideration of an article of impeachment centering on obstruction of Congress. McKinley said that in conversations with George Kent, another senior State Department employee, he learned that officials were not informed of the details of impeachment investigators’ subpoena for documents until days after it was sent. He also said there were even deeper concerns that the department was not providing enough support for employees who were at risk of becoming embroiled in the congressional inquiry.

He said Kent crafted a memo to memorialize his interaction with department officials about responding to the congressional subpoena that Kent considered “bullying” and potentially filled with inaccuracies.

“The mere fact that somebody feels strongly enough about what they've heard and what they're sensing about what they're saying to somebody who's working on the impeachment inquiry that they need to write it down and have a record of what was said was significant enough,” McKinley said.

Caitlin Oprysko contributed to this report.