WASHINGTON — The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine felt “threatened” by President Trump’s remarks about her on a now-infamous phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in late July.
In fact, Marie Yovanovitch, who was abruptly pushed out of her role as America’s top diplomat to Ukraine, still feels “very concerned” by the actions of her former boss, and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
That’s just one of many startling revelations from the first two closed-door depositions from impeachment witnesses to be released on Monday, in what promises to be an avalanche of transcripts this week from House Democrats’ previously-secret depositions.
Yovanovitch’s testimony, along with top advisor to the Secretary of State, Michael McKinley, reveal in alarming detail how top State Department officials scrambled to accommodate Trump’s mercurial positions on Ukraine, and handle the intrusions of Giuliani and his associates.
Included in her 317-page testimony, Yovanovitch said:
- She was urged to praise Trump on Twitter by the U.S. ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland.
- She was told by a Ukrainian official that Giuliani’s role in Ukraine was “very dangerous,” and warned she should watch her back
- She suspected that Giuliani’s associates wanted her out of Ukraine so they could score lucrative new natural gas business deals
- She was slandered by Ukraine’s former top prosecutor, Yuri Lutsenko, who spread false rumors about her
- She said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or another top official called Fox News host Sean Hannity to try to tamp down the rumor campaign against her
- She learned that Giuliani called the White House to try and get another former top Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokhin, a U.S. visa, despite his “known corrupt activities”
- She was rushed back to the states, in part because The State Department didn’t want her abroad if Trump tweeted about her
- She began “wondering, is there an active investigation against me in the FBI?” after reading that Trump criticized her on his July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president
Yovanovitch’s abrupt ouster is one of the key events Democrats are investigating as part of Trump’s impeachment inquiry, which began after a whistleblower flagged concerns about the July phone call. Democrats are trying to determine whether Trump abused his office by pressuring Ukraine to investigate his Democratic political enemies in exchange for millions worth of vital military assistance.
McKinley expressed alarm over Yovanovitch’s treatment by the State Department — and said he grew even more worried about the department’s response to Congress’s attempts to investigate the Ukraine affair.
After the White House released a rough transcript of Trump’s call where he called Yovanovitch “bad news” and promised that “she's going to go through some things,” McKinley said he pushed for the State Department to release a statement backing up Yovanovitch.
While others internally supported that idea, Pompeo’s aide told McKinley that the secretary had “decided it was better not to release a statement at this time.”
McKinley testified that he quit the State Department over the Trump administration’s efforts to “procure negative political information for domestic purposes, combined with the failure I saw in the building to provide support for our professional cadre in a particularly trying time.” He also said he talked to Pompeo directly three times about his concerns — including on a phone call when he submitted his resignation.
That directly contradicts Pompeo, who told ABC News on Oct. 20 that he never heard McKinley “say a single thing about his concerns” with regards to Yovanovitch’s ouster.
In McKinley’s 37-year career in U.S. foreign service, he said, he “had never seen” such an effort by the U.S. to use the State Department to dig up dirt on a domestic political opponent — and that was part of why he decided to resign.
Things only got worse after McKinley submitted his resignation. A few days after he submitted his resignation, McKinley received a memo on Oct. 3 from Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent, who’d served as Yovanovitch’s top deputy in Ukraine, in which Kent detailed what he described to McKinley as foot-dragging efforts from the State Department in response to the House investigators’ requests for information as well as “inaccuracies” in what the State Department told Congress.
Kent told McKinley that “he felt that he was being bullied” by the State Department, and felt that a lawyer in the department “was trying to shut him up,” McKinley told investigators. McKinley passed along his concerns about what he saw as “bullying tactics” from the top of the State Department in an internal communication, but “didn't get any answer from anybody.”
Giuliani and his pals
Both officials expressed dismay over the power Trump's personal attorney appeared to enjoy over State Department officials, who seemed powerless to limit his off-the-books foray into U.S.-Ukrainian relations.
Giuliani made little secret of his calls to have Ukraine investigate Trump’s 2020 Democratic challenger Joe Biden, whose son Hunter served as a paid board member of a Ukrainian natural gas company called Burisma. No evidence of wrongdoing by Joe or Hunter Biden has yet emerged.
Yovanovitch said she first became aware of Giuliani’s interest in driving Ukraine policy as early as November or December 2018 — and was told by a top Ukrainian official to watch out for Giuliani’s associates.
Giuliani’s role in Ukraine was “very dangerous,” Ukraine’s Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov told Yovanovitch, according to her testimony.
Avakov “was very concerned, and told me I really needed to watch my back,” Yovanovitch said.
Avakov warned her in around February that two Giuliani associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were trying to set up meetings between Giuliani and Ukraine’s then-General Prosecutor Yuri Lutsenko in an attempt to get her removed from her position.
Parnas and Fruman wanted to score lucrative new business exporting American Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) to Ukraine, Yovanovitch said — and for some reason, they seemed to think it would be easier to do that if they could get a new American ambassador appointed.
That notion made little sense if Parnas and Fruman’s business interests were legitimate, Yovanovitch said: Her embassy would normally be all for supporting U.S. energy exports to Ukraine.
U.S. energy exports are “like apple pie, motherhood,” she said. “Obviously we would support exporting LNG to Ukraine at the U.S. embassy.”
Parnas and Fruman have since been indicted by prosecutors in the Southern District of New York for allegedly attempting to win influence among American politicians by making illegal GOP campaign donations, in part, as an attempt to have Yovanovitch fired on behalf of an unnamed Ukrainian politician.
Yovanovitch said Lutsenko was one of the Ukrainian officials who spread false negative statements about her.
In early 2019, she began looking for advice about how to handle the rumor campaign against her, and reached out to multiple U.S. officials including Trump’s EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland, a key player in the Ukraine scandal.
Sondland advised her to tweet praise to Trump.
“He said, you know, ‘You need to go big or go home,’” Yovanovitch said. “‘You need to, you know, tweet out there that you support the president, and that all these are lies and everything else.’”
Yovanovitch said she didn’t think she could do that.
“It was advice that I did not see how I could implement in my role as an Ambassador, and as a Foreign Service Officer.”
House Democrats signaled on Monday that they plan to soon release a transcript of Sondland’s interview with the impeachment inquiry, along with that of Trump’s special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker.
Yovanovitch said she was told that the decision to have her removed ultimately came straight from Trump — and that the State Department then hurried to have her whisked out of Ukraine to get ahead of a possible presidential tweet.
Trump has a rich history of firing top officials on Twitter with little or no warning.
“The reason they pulled me back is that they were worried that if I wasn’t, you know, physically out of Ukraine, that there would be, you know, some sort of public, either, tweet, or something else from the White House,” she said.
Cover: President Donald Trump joined by first lady Melania Trump speaks during an event to honor the 2019 World Series Champions, The Washington Nationals in the First Floor Portico of the White House on November 4, 2019 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA)(Sipa via AP Images)