The ousted US ambassador to Ukraine directly pushed back on Friday against allegations leveled by President Donald Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, while a tweet from the President attacking her during the hearing sparked a real-time response and new Democratic accusations of witness intimidation.
Trump tweeted as former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch’s testimony was underway that “everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” which prompted a response minutes later from House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff, a California Democrat, who allowed Yovanovitch to react to Trump’s latest criticisms. Schiff charged that the tweet was “designed to intimidate” her and other witnesses.
“Now the President in real time is attacking you,” Schiff said. “What effect do you think that has on other witnesses’ willingness to come forward and expose wrongdoing?”
“It’s very intimidating,” Yovanovitch said.
The real-time back-and-forth playing out both over Twitter and in the House hearing room added a new layer of intrigue to the second House impeachment hearing, in which Yovanovitch testified that she was removed from her post after a “campaign of disinformation” and being told the President had lost confidence in her.
The notion of presidential intimidation was already a theme of Yovanovitch’s testimony, who said she felt threatened when Trump said on his July 25 call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that she was “going to go through some things.”
“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 world leader and that I would be going through some things,” Yovanovitch said. “It was a terrible moment.”
While Yovanovitch’s testimony is not directly tied to the freezing of aid and dangling of a White House meeting amid a push for Ukraine to open investigations into Trump’s political opponents, Democrats say her removal marks the start of the shadow diplomacy campaign that sparked their impeachment inquiry into Trump and Ukraine.
Democrats raised the notion that the President’s tweet was another sign of witness intimidation — an offense that could wind up included in potential articles of impeachment against the President.
“It may be get to that,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn said when asked whether witness intimidation should be part of articles of impeachment.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, a California Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, said witness tampering “will be considered, if there’s evidence of that,” adding that he believed there was “strong evidence” of it.
But the President’s Republican defenders brushed off his tweet, blaming his frustration with Democrats.
“Look, the President has been frustrated with this relentless attack on him by the Democrats that started even before he was president. I think the American people can relate to the frustration,” said Ohio GOP Rep. Jim Jordan. “Democrats started in July 2016 with their crazy investigation and now they move into this, so I think that’s what drives that.”
He rejected the notion that Trump’s tweet amounts to witness tampering.
“The witness is testifying. She wouldn’t even know about the quote if Mr. Schiff hadn’t read the tweet,” Jordan said.
Rep. Lee Zeldin, a New York Republican who attended Friday’s hearing, said the tweet was intended “to ensure that the entire story is getting out there,” accusing Schiff of only reading part of the tweet to Yovanovitch.
One Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, however, said the President shouldn’t be attacking Yovanovitch.
“I disagree with the tweet,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican. “I think Ambassador Yovanovitch is a public servant, like many of our public servants in the foreign service.”
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham pushed back against accusations of witness intimidation.
“The tweet was not witness intimidation, it was simply the President’s opinion, which he is entitled to,” Grisham said in a statement. “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.”
Trump’s tweet included an accusation that Yovanovitch was to blame for problems in Somalia, which was her first foreign assignment, as well as claiming his “absolute right” to appoint ambassadors.
“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 US President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors,” Trump tweeted. “They call it ‘serving at the pleasure of the President.’ “
Asked at the hearing to respond to the tweet, Yovanovitch said, “I mean, I don’t think I have such powers, not in Mogadishu, Somalia, and not in other places.”
Democrats say Yovanovitch’s ouster, which Trump directed following a smear campaign from Giuliani and his associates, set the stage for the push for Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political rivals, according to Democratic aides.
“The question before us is not whether Donald Trump could recall an American ambassador with a stellar reputation for fighting corruption in Ukraine, but why would he want to?” Schiff said in his opening statement.
“The powers of the presidency are immense, but they are not absolute and cannot be used for a corrupt purpose,” added Schiff. “The American people expect their President to use the authority they grant him in the service of the nation, not to destroy others to advance his personal or political interests.”
Yovanovitch said that Giuliani’s accusations against her that led to her dismissal were false, including the notion that she had a “do not prosecute” list and that she had badmouthed the President to embassy officials. The effort, Yovanovitch said, showed that “foreign and corrupt interests apparently hijacked our Ukraine policy.”
“I do not understand Mr. Giuliani’s motives for attacking me, nor can I offer an opinion on whether he believed the allegations he spread about me,” Yovanovitch said. “Clearly, no one at the State Department did. What I can say is that Mr. Giuliani should have known those claims were suspect, coming as they reportedly did from individuals with questionable motives and with reason to believe that their political and financial ambitions would be stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”
Yovanovitch said later, “If our chief representative is kneecapped, it limits our effectiveness to safeguard the vital national security interests of the United States.”
Republicans argued that Trump was well within his rights to recall Yovanovitch from her post, saying the President has the power to appoint and remove ambassadors as he wishes. In their round of questioning, GOP staff counsel Steve Castor pursued a line of questioning to establish that Yovanovitch had no direct knowledge of the central issues at stake in the impeachment inquiry, which occurred after she was removed as ambassador.
“This seems more appropriate for the subcommittee on human resources at the foreign affairs committee,” said California Rep. Devin Nunes, the top Republican on the House Intelligence Committee. “If there’s issues with employment, disagreements with the administration — it would seem like this would be a more appropriate setting instead of an impeachment hearing where the ambassador is not a material fact witness to anything — any of the accusations that are being hurled at the president for this impeachment inquiry.”
Following the hearing, House impeachment investigators will hear from the US official who overheard a July phone call in which Trump asked the US Ambassador to the European Union about the Ukraine investigations. The aide to Bill Taylor, the top US diplomat in Ukraine, will testify behind closed doors after Taylor revealed the call in his testimony Wednesday.
Taylor testified Wednesday that his aide told him about the phone call between Trump and EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland after his closed-door deposition last month. On the call, Taylor said, Trump asked Sondland about the investigations, and Sondland “told President Trump that the Ukrainians were ready to move forward.”
The closed-door testimony of that Taylor aide, David Holmes, could offer Democrats tantalizing new evidence that connects Trump more directly to the push for Ukraine to open investigations that would benefit him politically.
Holmes gives Democrats a witness who overheard Trump talking directly to Sondland, which could help Democrats push back against the GOP criticisms that the impeachment case is based on hearsay and second-hand information.
Just as the Yovanovitch hearing was about to gavel in Friday morning, the White House released the rough transcript of Trump’s first call with Zelensky. The call, which occurred just after Zelensky’s victory in April, was largely congratulatory, and Trump does not discuss any investigations or efforts to fight corruption with Zelensky. Trump also said he’d like to invite Zelensky to the White House.
Nunes, who charged that the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry was a “farce,” read the rough transcript at the end of his opening statement.