Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine whose ouster is the backstory of the impeachment inquiry, did something that the previous witnesses did not: She got President Donald Trump’s attention.
As he tweeted against her, Democrats quickly accused the president of trying to intimidate a witness in real time.
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Trump wrote, “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. 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.”
In a break from her dramatic testimony, commentators quickly seized on the implications of Trump’s tweet.
“That was a turning point in this hearing so far. She was already a sympathetic witness & the President’s tweet ripping her allowed Schiff to point it out real time characterizing it as witness tampering or intimidation — adding an article of impeachment real-time,” Fox News’ Bret Baier wrote.
Fox News commentator Ken Starr said that Trump “showed extraordinarily poor judgment” in his tweets. “So obviously this was quite injurious,” he said.
On CNN, John Dean, a star witness in the Watergate hearings more than 45 years ago, said, “It’s almost breathtaking that the president is live tweeting this and he’s tweeting intimidation.”
That sentiment was echoed by House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (D-CA), raising the prospect that it will only be added to the charges against Trump. He said that the president was “once again going after this dedicated and respected career public servant in an effort to not only chill her but to chill others as they come forward.”
At the hearing, Schiff read the tweets that Trump has just posted about Yovanovitch. She called them “very intimidating.”
In contrast to the first day of public testimony in the impeachment inquiry, which Republicans derided as boring and some pundits characterized as lacking pizzazz, Yovanovitch’s testimony offered a compelling narrative as she described how her foreign service career in a myriad of hot zones was ended by a campaign of conspiracy theories against her.
She did not have direct knowledge of what Trump did in his efforts to get the Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens, but as she spoke at Friday’s hearing, she gave viewers something different: a reason why they should care.
In a soft yet strident tone, Yovanovitch relayed a dramatic narrative of what happened to her — a “smear” campaign waged by Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, and from his son, Donald Trump Jr., and fomented by rightward media figures and Fox News hosts.
She recounted her compelling biography, in which her parents fled Nazi and Communist regimes, and personal experience as a diplomat, including an assignment in Mogadishu, Somalia. More importantly, she framed the successful “smear” campaign to get rid of her as a dire moment for U.S. foreign policy.
“Shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want,” Yovanovitch told the House Intelligence Committee, which is conducting the impeachment inquiry.
She explained how surprised she was to see Giuliani and others work to remove her — she said she was “kneecapped.” Given her priority on fighting corruption in Ukraine, she said, what shocked her was that they were aligned with figures who were at the root of it.
“Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old, corrupt rules sought to remove me,” she said. “What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them.”
She offered a vivid picture of the night, on April 25, that she learned of her ouster. She had been giving a Woman of Courage Award to the father of an anticorruption activist who was killed after being attacked with acid. That night, she got the call to immediately return to the U.S., with a State Department official telling her that they were concerned about her security and her reputation. It was a prelude to her removal the next month.
Another moment that will likely be replayed came as she was being questioned by the Democratic counsel to the committee, Daniel Goldman, who asked her about Trump’s references to her in his July 25 phone call with the president of Ukraine, Vollodymyr Zelensky. “She is going to go through some things,” Trump said.
By that time, Yovanovitch had been out of her job for months. On learning of Trump’s comment, she said, “It didn’t sound good,” adding that it felt “like a threat.”
On CBS News, Capitol Hill correspondent Nancy Cordes said, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything quite like this at a hearing in my 11 years of covering Capitol Hill. A U.S. ambassador with an unblemished record built over decades basically describing how she was taken down by forces here in the U.S., apparently with the backing of the President of the United States.”
Republicans focused on the fact that Yovanovitch served at the president’s discretion. And Rep. Devin Nunes (R-CA), the ranking member of the Intelligence Committee, argued that her testimony was irrelevant to the claims being made against the president. Others praised Yovanovitch’s service before they asked specific questions.
Some members seized on what Yovanovitch said about Hunter Biden’s work for Burisma, the Ukrainian gas company, while his father, Joe Biden, was vice president. She said that before her confirmation hearings in 2016, she was prepped in advance of her Senate confirmation that the question about Hunter Biden’s work could come up.
Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) said that “President Obama’s own State Department was so concerned about potential conflicts of interest from Hunter Biden’s role at Burisma that they raised it” at the time.
As they did on Wednesday for the first public impeachment hearing, the broadcast networks pre-empted regular programming to cover Yovanovitch’s testimony. NBC and CBS continued their coverage until about 2 PM ET, when they broke away from regular programming. ABC continued to carry the hearing for about another 20 minutes.
White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham issued a statement defending Trump’s tweet, pushing back on the idea that it was witness intimidation.
“It was simply the President’s opinion, which he is entitled to,” she said. “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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