Impeachment hearings: 5 key takeaways from the second day of public hearings, highlighted by Trump smearing career diplomat in a tweet during her testimony
By LISA MASCARO, MARY CLARE JALONICK, ERIC TUCKER and JILL COLVIN
Nov 15, 2019 | 9:58 PM
Day two of public hearings in the House impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump featured a career diplomat with a soft voice and a powerful story.
Ousted U.S. Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch said she felt threatened by the president as she detailed the story of being abruptly recalled from her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Then the president attacked her with a tweet, which she said was intimidating.
Here are some key takeaways from Yovanovitch’s testimony:
Political is personal
This was no staid, bureaucratic tale told by a distant and removed narrator.
Yovanovitch’s account was, instead, deeply personal, layered with outrage over having been “kneecapped” by lies and her abrupt recall in a 1 a.m. phone call from a country she said was vital to U.S. interests.
After a “smear campaign” she said involved Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and was amplified by cable news hosts and the president’s oldest son, Donald, Jr., she was directed in April 2019 to come back to Washington on the next plane because she no longer had the confidence of the president.
“I remain disappointed that the (State) Department’s leadership and others have declined to acknowledge that the attacks against me and others are dangerously wrong,” Yovanovitch said.
She said professional public servants serve U.S. interests regardless of who occupies the White House, and she invoked the diplomats who were killed in the 2012 Benghazi attacks, tortured in captivity in Iran, and injured in mysterious attacks in Cuba.
“We honor these individuals. They represent each one of you here — and every American. These courageous individuals were attacked because they symbolized America,” she said.
While Republicans said Yovanovitch was in effect peripheral to the impeachment inquiry, she drew direct connections to the president.
Yovanovitch left no doubt that she interpreted some of the Trump’s cryptic comments about her — “she’s going to go through some things,” among them — in the most chilling way.
“It didn’t sound good,” she said. “It sounded like a threat.”
The effect of the president’s comments, she said, “is very intimidating” — not just for her, but for others who might be inclined to publicly attack corruption.
To which Democrat Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House intelligence committee, responded, “Well, I want to let you know, Ambassador, that some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously.”
Stefanik’s star rises
As members of the House questioned Yovanovitch, Republicans were working to highlight another woman in the room: GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York.
Conservative outlets seized on a moment in which Schiff refused to allow Republican Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House intelligence committee, to yield his time to Stefanik early in the hearing. But the attempt came during a portion of the hearing when rules explicitly stated that only Schiff, Nunes and committee lawyers were permitted to question Yovanovitch.
When Stefanik’s allotted time did come up, she used it in part to criticize Schiff and read news clips recounting his promise that the whistleblower would be allowed to testify before the committee. Republicans, led by Trump, celebrated Stefanik, the only Republican woman on the committee. Trump retweeted multiple clips of Stefanik asking questions of Yovanovitch.
Trump smears the witness
He would be too busy to watch, said the White House.
He’d tune into an opening statement delivered by Nunes, the top Republican on the panel, but spend the rest of the day “working hard for the American people,” Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham said.
Instead, Trump responded to the hearing in real time, castigating Yovanovitch by tweet as she testified about her poor treatment by Trump and his administration.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” tweeted Trump, pointing to the time she spent in war-torn Somalia and in Ukraine, where Trump said “the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her.”
....They call it “serving at the pleasure of the President.” The U.S. now has a very strong and powerful foreign policy, much different than proceeding administrations. It is called, quite simply, America First! With all of that, however, I have done FAR more for Ukraine than O.
He also defended his decision to pull her from her post, arguing the U.S. president has an “absolute right to appoint ambassadors” who serve “at the pleasure of the President.”
Schiff read Trump’s tweet to Yovanovitch and suggested it was part of a campaign of “witness intimidation.”
Yovanovitch described the president’s attacks as “very intimidating.”
‘Thank you for your service’
They thanked her for her “tremendous” public service. They said Georgetown University was lucky to have her. One even seemed to suggest she shouldn’t have to spend her day with them in the first place.
During hours of questioning, Republicans went out of their way to avoid impugning Yovanovitch’s character and mostly steered clear of challenging her decades-long career in diplomacy.
Rep. Brad Wenstrup appeared to commiserate with her exit from Ukraine by saying that, as an Army reserve surgeon summoned one 2005 afternoon to Iraq, “I understand that shocking feeling that can come with some abrupt change like that.”
The points Republicans did look to score generally centered on several themes: getting her to concede that a president can indeed have the ambassador that he chooses — a fact she acknowledged even while adding, “What I do wonder is why it was necessary to smear my reputation.”
And they sought to highlight the key events and discussions she was not part of.
Were you involved, Nunes asked at one point, in the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelenskiy or in the preparations for it? Yovanovitch replied she wasn’t.
How about, he asked, the deliberations over the “pause” in military aid to Ukraine as the U.S. reviewed the new president’s “commitment to corruption reforms”? Was she involved in that?
“For the delay?” she asked.
“For the pause,” Nunes pointedly replied.
“No,” Yovanovitch conceded, “I was not.”
Here is how the day unfolded
In chilling detail, Yovanovitch described to Trump impeachment investigators Friday how she felt threatened upon learning that President Trump had promised Ukraine’s leader she was “going to go through some things.”
Unwilling to stay silent during Yovanovitch’s testimony, Trump focused even greater national attention on the House hearing by becoming a participant. He tweeted fresh criticism of her, saying that things “turned bad” everywhere she served before he fired her — a comment that quickly was displayed on a video screen in the hearing room.
Rather than distract from the career diplomat’s testimony, Trump’s interference could provide more evidence against him in the probe. Democrat Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump’s attacks were intimidation, “part of a pattern to obstruct justice.” Others said they could be part of an article of impeachment.
Asked about the potential effect of a presidential threat on other officials or witnesses, Yovanovitch replied, “Well, it's very intimidating.”
When she saw in print what the president had said about her, she said, a friend told her all the color drained from her face. She was “shocked, appalled, devastated” at what was happening after a distinguished 30-year career in the U.S. Foreign Service.
Unabashed, Trump said when asked about it later, “I have the right to speak. I have freedom of speech.”
But not all Republicans thought it was wise. 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.”
The former ambassador was testifying on the second day of public impeachment hearings, 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.
More hearings are coming, with back-to-back sessions next week and lawmakers interviewing new witnesses behind closed doors.
Yovanovitch, a career diplomat who served for decades under both Republican and Democratic presidents and was first appointed by Ronald Reagan, was pushed from her post in Kyiv earlier this year amid intense criticism from Trump allies.
During a long day of testimony, she relayed her striking story of being “kneecapped,” recalled from Kyiv by Trump in a swiftly developing series of events that sounded alarms about a White House shadow foreign policy.
She 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.
The daughter of immigrants who fled the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, her career included three tours as an ambassador to some of the world’s tougher postings, before arriving in Ukraine in 2016. She was forced out last May.
In particular, Yovanovitch described Giuliani, Trump’s lawyer, as leading what William Taylor, now the top diplomat in Ukraine who testified earlier in the inquiry, called an “irregular channel” outside the diplomatic mainstream of U.S.-Ukraine relations.
She said 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.”
After Trump’s tweets pulled attention away from her statement, Schiff read the president’s comments aloud, said that “as we sit here testifying, the president is attacking you on Twitter,” and asked if that was a tactic 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.”
In a closed-door session later Friday, the panel heard from David Holmes, a State Department official in Kyiv who overheard Trump asking about investigations into his political rivals the day after Trump’s July 25 phone conversation with new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Holmes was at lunch in Kyiv with Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union, when Sondland called Trump. The conversation was loud enough to be overheard.
Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., said two other people heard the call as well and there were four people at the lunch. The Associated Press has already identified one of the other people who heard the call as Suriya Jayanti, a foreign service officer based in Kyiv.
In Trump’s phone call with Zelenskiy the previous day, he 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.
Democrats are relying on the testimony of officials close to the Ukraine matter to make their case as they consider whether the president’s behavior was impeachable.
Yovanovitch provides a key element, Schiff said, as someone whom Trump and Giuliani wanted out of the way for others more favorable to their interests in Ukraine, an energy-rich country that has long struggled with corruption.
It became clear, he said, “President Trump wanted her gone.”
The top Republican on the panel, Rep. Devin Nunes of California, bemoaned the hearings as a “daylong TV spectacle.”
Republicans complained that the ambassador, like other witnesses, can offer only hearsay testimony and only knows of Trump’s actions secondhand. They note 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.
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.”
Under questioning from Republicans, Yovanovitch 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.
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 White House has instructed officials not to comply with the probe, and most have been issued subpoenas to appear.
An administration budget official will meet privately with the panel privately Saturday. Part of the impeachment inquiry concerns the contention that military aid for Ukraine, which borders a hostile Russia, was being withheld through the White House budget office, pending Ukrainian agreement to investigate Biden and the 2016 U.S. election.