It’s obvious that before she testified at his 2019 impeachment hearing, Donald Trump didn’t really know who Marie Yovanovitch was. She’d been his ambassador to Ukraine, originally appointed under the Obama administration, but Ukraine was clearly a foggy concept to Trump, who had once informed the president of that nation that he knew Ukraine was “corrupt” because a guest at Mar-a-Lago had told him so. In his infamous July 25 telephone call with that president’s successor, Volodymyr Zelensky, after Yovanovitch had been removed from her post, Trump referred to her only as “the former ambassador from the United States, the woman,” stating that she was “bad news” and was “going to go through some things.” As Yovanovitch recounts in her memoir, Lessons From the Edge, she found these remarks distressing and ominous coming from the most powerful man in the world, and understandably so. What her concerns probably keep her from detecting, though, is that Trump couldn’t remember her name, and most likely soon forgot about her entirely. Later, on the day of Yovanovitch’s testimony, he told reporters, “I just don’t know her. She may be a wonderful woman.”
Yovanovitch met Trump only once, and spent most of his presidency overseas, so Lessons From the Edge is not an account of Trump World. Technically, she worked for Trump, as all ambassadors serve at the pleasure of the president, but her perspective comes from the periphery of American politics during the Trump years. A career public servant who’d worked in the Foreign Service for more than 30 years, Yovanovitch thinks of herself as a “disciplined rules-follower” whose primary mission on her various posts was to improve the conditions for other rules-followers, that is, to foster civil society in such precarious places as Somalia, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia. This, she argues, advances the interests of the United States by reducing regional instability and developing reliable new trading partners.
Like Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill—National Security Council officials who also testified to Congress about the Trump-Ukraine scandal—Yovanovitch came to represent what Trump World calls the “deep state,” high-level government workers who obstructed the Trump agenda, despite the fact that most of the time it was hard to tell what that agenda was. This was not an entirely unfounded belief, as the 2018 publication of an anonymous New York Times op-ed, “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration,” indicated. The author of the op-ed, and A Warning, a book expanding on it published the following year, was Miles Taylor, then deputy chief of staff for the Department of Homeland Security. Taylor characterized himself and others in the administration as champions of “the Steady State,” “reasonable professionals” who supported some of Trump’s policy goals, such as tax cuts for the rich, while deliberately thwarting his more impulsive edicts—particularly when it came to foreign policy—if they deemed them “deleterious.” They didn’t always succeed, as when they attempted to prevent him from abandoning the Kurdish allies who helped the U.S. battle ISIS in Syria.
Among the many people who joined the Trump administration in this qualified spirit was John Bolton, who in his own memoir of that time, 2020’s The Room Where it Happened, described himself and such figures as former national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis as “the axis of adults” in the Trump White House. Bolton got some of what he wanted—in particular, U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal—but he had to work around a president for whom he had no respect and who manifestly didn’t know what he was doing. After only a year in office, Bolton was fired and publicly derided by Trump as McMaster had been before him. It was Bolton who instructed Hill (whom he’d hired) to notify the chief lawyer for the National Security Council in July 2019 of the efforts of Gordon Sondland (a Trump donor appointed ambassador to the European Union) and acting White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney to pressure Ukraine into investigating Burisma, the Ukrainian energy firm that had Hunter Biden on its board, as well as baseless charges that Ukraine had somehow interfered in the 2016 presidential election. “I am not part of whatever drug deal Sondland and Mulvaney are cooking up,” Bolton told Hill to tell the White House lawyers. Hill also testified that Bolton referred to Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney and the driving force behind the pressure campaign, as “a hand grenade.”
But Bolton famously refused to testify himself, reserving his criticisms of Trump for his book, published months after the Senate had acquitted the president. It was a shrewd political move, with an eye toward potential future appointments, because it’s one thing to trash your former boss in a fat tome few people will read, and another to offer evidence against him in a televised trial. Likewise, Taylor only revealed that he was the author of A Warning after positioning himself as a leader of Republicans trying to wrest their party from Trump’s control. Hill, Vindman, and Yovanovitch, by contrast, are another breed. Unlike Hill, Yovanovitch was not a high-level policy adviser, and unlike Vindman, she never served in the military, but as Lessons From the Edge attests, she nevertheless had a strong sense of duty and the chain of command. The book never mentions her own political orientation, and in her opening statement during her testimony, she stressed that she and her fellow State Department staffers “are professionals, public servants who by vocation and training pursue the policies of the president, regardless of who holds that office or what party they affiliate with.”
Lessons From the Edge is an exemplary diplomatic memoir, exhibiting a real gift for storytelling despite Yovanovitch’s straight-arrow personality. Not for her the self-delusion and moral equivocation that make Shakespearean characters out of such Trump World veterans as William Barr. Then—bam!—Yovanovitch falls down a rabbit hole of Trumpian misinformation and corruption, a hole largely dug by Giuliani, who perceived her as an impediment to his scheme to drum up fake scandals about Democrats by working his contacts among the sketchier elements of Ukraine’s leadership. (He was also pissed because he felt humiliated when her embassy denied a visa to a spectacularly crooked Ukrainian former prosecutor he wanted to meet with in the U.S.) It was clearly Giuliani who filled Trump’s head, however temporarily, with the notion that she was “bad news,” standing between him and a treasure trove of dirt he could use against his political opponents.
Over and over again, Yovanovitch expresses astonishment that “private interests” were able to commandeer American foreign policy and get a U.S. ambassador dismissed for reasons that even the State Department itself admitted were baseless. Even worse, the State Department refused to issue the wholehearted defense of her that would have been automatic in the past. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was too afraid of alienating Trump, and the department itself had been hollowed out by the administration’s habit of leaving positions there vacant when the previous holder left. Why staff up a department whose ethos made no sense to Trump World?
That’s the impression left by Lessons From the Edge: that Yovanovitch—as well as Hill and Vindman—inhabits a different ethical universe not only from Trump but from nearly everyone else who sold their souls to work in his White House. All three were immigrants from families who viewed the U.S. as a place that enabled them to achieve what they couldn’t in their homelands. As a result, they understand America as a set of principles as much as a land or a source of sentimental patriotic identity. This may make them naïve in the eyes of some, but as Yovanovitch persuasively argues, it is people like them who stand between American democracy and the autocratic forces Trump represents.
As far as Trump was concerned, when he won the 2016 election, the United States became an extension of the Trump Organization, an entity whose sole purpose is the enrichment and glorification of Trump himself. He understood everyone who worked for the government to be his employees, people who owed him their loyalty, which is what he demanded from James Comey, shocking the FBI director. People like Yovanovitch, who has devoted her life to a set of principles and the rules that embody them, are unfathomable to him. She might as well be working for the fairies, or art, or some other insubstantial fancy. Trump’s shriveled moral vocabulary seems to consist of little more than “very good” (anything conventionally “successful” and supportive of Trump) or “very bad” (anything against Trump), with no other way of understanding those words. When Giuliani devised his smear campaign against Yovanovitch, he made sure that in addition to all the confusing-to-Trump charges of corrupt behavior in Ukraine, it would also falsely accuse her of bad-mouthing the president.
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Yovanovitch drops enough details about the previous despots and grifters she worked with in Somalia, Kyrgyzstan, and Armenia to suggest that she recognizes Trump as one of their type. “In the authoritarian states in which I had served I had seen leaders who confused the national interest with their own interests,” she writes, “but I had never thought that I would see this at home. It was devastating.” Yet despite her brief, harrowing sojourn through the alternate dimension of Trump World, Yovanovitch retains her optimism. It’s not just that her testimony—composed, articulate, powerful—made her something of a star who received a standing ovation from the patrons of a jazz club she visited a few days later and who now makes appearances on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert to discuss Vladimir Putin and the invasion of Ukraine. She points to the aftermath of the 2020 election as a demonstration that thanks to thousands of other public servants like herself,
our institutions may have been shaken but they stood firm. Upstanding men and women did the right thing. Election officials all over America performed their jobs showing neither fear nor favor. Republican Department of Justice officials refused to countenance fabricated cases of election fraud brought by the Trump campaign. Honest judges, appointed by both Republicans and Democrats, ruled according to the merits of these cases, not party loyalty.
If this is the deep state at work, let’s hope that its roots run very deep indeed.