On Friday, Republican defenders of President Donald Trump had an apparent plan to address the testimony of Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, before the House Intelligence Committee in its impeachment inquiry. Discrediting Yovanovitch was out of the question; member after Republican member praised the ambassador and thanked her for her 33 years of foreign service, which was abruptly ended this past May when she was forced out of her post following what she described as “a smear campaign” orchestrated by the president’s attorney Rudy Giuliani.
So while Yovanovitch was an “exemplary” public servant in the words of Republican Rep. Mike Conaway, “tough as nails” and “smart as hell” in the words of Republican Rep. Will Hurd, and Americans were “lucky to have her” serving them in the words of Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik, the intended message was that the president, as president, was totally within his rights to have her removed—for whatever reason—and therefore there was nothing to investigate. It was a matter of routine executive discretion, unconnected to whatever schemes of bribery and extortion Democrats might wish to claim unfolded after she’d left her post.
And, like current Ukraine chargé d’affaires William Taylor and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent in the previous round of hearings, Yovanovitch unhesitatingly agreed that an ambassador serves at the president’s pleasure. Any rule-following, nonpartisan State Department official would be bound to say the same.
Midway through the hearing, though, that plan was blown to shreds with one presidential tweet. “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” Trump said. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go?”
With that, the subject turned from the president’s official authority to his actual behavior. Republicans would have to explain not merely why Trump had decided to fire the smart, tough, exemplary ambassador, but why the president was still trashing her. They did not have an answer.
Speaking to reporters after the hearing, Republicans repeatedly shrugged off questions about whether they agreed with the decision to recall Yovanovitch and the president’s characterization of her. “That’s the president’s call,” Rep. Jim Jordan, who has become in essence the House Republicans’ lead defense attorney on impeachment, told reporters. When asked repeatedly whether he thought Yovanovitch should have been removed, or to evince any opinion on the decision, Jordan reiterated, “The president can have whom he desires doing diplomatic work for the country.” When Jordan asked if he agreed or disagreed with Yovanovitch’s characterization that she had been the victim of a “smear campaign,” he was silent. The best argument that Rep. Lee Zeldin could come up with to explain the tweet was that “President Trump is right to want to defend himself.”
Stefanik’s effort was a little more elegant. “These hearings are not about tweets,” she said. “They are about impeachment of the president of the United States. This is a constitutional matter. You can disagree or dislike the tweet, but we are here to talk about impeachment.” For her part, Stefanik acknowledged she disliked the tweet.
Again, none of the president’s defenders seemed willing to go after Yovanovitch personally in the way the president they’re defending has. During the morning’s first break, after Trump sent out his tweet, one of the president’s fiercest advocates, Rep. Mark Meadows, expressed to reporters his own admiration for how Yovanovitch performed in her previous deposition.* “I’m not here to criticize her,” Meadows said. “Actually, I enjoyed sitting seven hours in a deposition with her and felt like she would be able to speak very frankly to her time as ambassador.”
Republican members also would not touch the substance of the president’s claims—made during the now infamous July 25 call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which he requested investigations of Joe and Hunter Biden—that “the former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news.” They certainly didn’t want to go near Trump’s ominous and cryptic warning in that call that “she’ s going to go through some things.”
Democrats on the committee were all too happy to ask what Yovanovitch had thought when she first read that portion of the call, which was blown up on large TV screens in the committee room. Yovanovitch testified that she was worried about hearing the most powerful man on the planet issue such a “vague threat.”
“I didn’t know what to think, but I was very concerned,” Yovanovitch testified. “It didn’t sound good.”
Even after she became the target of the president—and his son, and his lawyer, and Fox News, and an allegedly corrupt Ukrainian prosecutor who fed Giuliani what he later admitted was false dirt on her—Yovanovitch was considered to have been a model ambassador, according to previous testimony. During her own powerful opening statement, Yovanovitch laid out 33 years of service that included a description of the dangers she faced as a foreign service member in Mogadishu and the former Soviet Union, repeatedly finding herself in the crossfire of actual guns. She also described how, the same night that she received the phone call in April that would ultimately result in her leaving Kyiv on the “next plane,” apparently on Trump’s orders, her embassy was offering an award in honor of the late Ukrainian anti-corruption activist Kateryna Handziuk.
“She very tragically died, because she was attacked by acid and several months later died a very painful death,” Yovanovitch said of Handziuk. “This is not a tabletop exercise there, lives are in the balance. So we wanted to bring attention to this, we held an event, we gave her father who was still mourning her the award.”
For their part, Democrats on the committee painted a picture of a good ambassador who was pushed out of the way by malign actors because they thought she might present an impediment to their push for Ukrainian investigations of the president’s political enemies. “You were viewed as an obstacle that had to go, not just by Giuliani, but by the president of the United States,” Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said as he adjourned the meeting. “And if people had any doubt about it, they should do what the president asks: read the transcript [of the July 25 call]. And what they’ll see in that transcript. The president praises the corrupt, he praises the corrupt, [former prosecutor general of Ukraine Yuriy] Lutsenko, he condemns the just, you, and then he asks for an investigation of the Bidens. There is no camouflaging that corrupt intent.”
Again, Yovanovitch’s performance made this an easy story to sell. There were a lot of people on Capitol Hill on Friday who wanted to hear it; the hearings are being held in the House Ways and Means Committee hearing room, to fit the larger audience, and the line to get into the hearing room stretched for hours. Among those who did make it in were 24 students from D.C.’s School for Ethics and Global Leadership, who sat in the first few rows after waking up at 4 in the morning to be first in line.
“She’s doing her best to answer questions that very much serve narratives, but also serve to find the truth,” Lara Yellin, a 17-year-old School for Ethics student from New York, said. “I think she’s doing a really good job of demonstrating her integrity.”
“She was fighting for the American people and American policy,” Yellin added.
Indeed, when the hearing ended and Yovanovitch began to exit, the gallery broke into a rousing and surprising standing ovation.
As Schiff stated during Friday’s hearing, Yovanovitch’s loss of her ambassadorship is the “beginning of this story.” It was only after she was forced out that the campaign to try to pressure Ukrainians to open investigations of the Bidens and the 2016 election, allegedly using the withholding of nearly $400 million of military aid as leverage, began in earnest.
“The fact that they failed in this solicitation of bribery doesn’t make it any less bribery,” Schiff argued. “Doesn’t make it any less immoral or corrupt. It just means it was unsuccessful.”
What comes next week is direct testimony from the man with whom the president apparently sought to replace Yovanovitch as his point person on Ukrainian policy, Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, who is due to testify on Wednesday. Sondland has already admitted to telling Ukrainians that military aid was dependent on announcing the opening of investigations, though he has not yet testified the extent to which Trump or White House chief of staff Mick Mulvaney may have directly ordered him to do this.
Based on what Republicans were saying on Friday, they intend to use next week’s proceedings to throw both Sondland and Giuliani directly into the path of oncoming traffic. To reporters during the break, Meadows suggested that Sondland and Giuliani might have been freelancing the apparent bribery scheme. “Is he working at the direction of the president? It depends on what part of it,” Meadows said of Sondland. Rep. Doug Lamborn of Colorado, meanwhile, suggested that Giuliani might have been “a loose cannon.”
“[If] he was off on his own mission doing things that people didn’t know about kind of like a loose cannon, then that’s a Rudy Giuliani thing that’s [not] a President Trump thing,” Lamborn said.
On Friday it was impossible to trash the witness on the stand because of her obvious character and decades of public service. Trump’s defenders on the Hill will hope to have an easier target—in Sondland, the president’s own ambassadorial choice and million-dollar inaugural donor—next week.
Correction, Nov. 16, 2019: This piece originally misstated that Rep. Mark Meadows expressed his admiration for Yovanovitch to reporters before Trump sent his tweet attacking her. Meadows actually said this after the tweet was sent.