Jurisprudence

Did Trump Goons Stalk Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch?

Marie Yovanovitch sits at a hearing room table with photographers behind her.
Former U.S. Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies on Capitol Hill on Nov. 15.
Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Two short months ago, former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch sat before the House Intelligence Committee for the second public hearing of the impeachment inquiry. One of the most senior women in the U.S. foreign service—a 33-year veteran who held two previous ambassadorships prior to being posted in Ukraine in 2016—Yovanovitch showed up to testify in direct defiance of the Trump administration’s directive against government officials taking part in the impeachment proceedings. Poised and reserved in the limelight, Yovanovitch—over several hours—described what it had been like to be targeted in the media by the president’s personal attorney and eldest son, summarily ousted from her position last April, and then name-checked by the president during his now-infamous July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky. In that call, the most powerful person in the world said of Yovanovitch, “the former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news” and “she’s going to go through some things.”

“It didn’t sound good,” Yovanovitch said when asked in November about learning of the president’s comments. “It sounded like a threat.” It sounded familiar. In a previous deposition, Yovanovitch described how Ukrainian officials had warned her that the president’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, had been in touch with a former Ukrainian prosecutor general, “and that they had plans, and that they were going to, you know, do things, including to me.” At the time of that October deposition, she understood “things” to mean her eventual ouster. She couldn’t have known, as was revealed in new documents turned over to the Intelligence Committee by indicted Giuliani associate Lev Parnas, that the “things” the president’s men had in mind might have been darker. According to Parnas’ WhatsApp exchanges, someone appears to have had the ambassador under physical and electronic surveillance last March, as Giuliani was making his moves against her position in Ukraine. Most ominously, the exchanges include cryptic messages that more could be done toward the ambassador for “a price.” It’s now an open question if the president’s goons had hired other goons to stalk a U.S. ambassador.

In her November testimony, Yovanovitch also described what it was like to be advised last April by the foreign service that she needed to leave Kyiv on the “next plane,” because they were worried for her “security.” Yovanovitch had been hosting an embassy event that same evening, honoring a Ukrainian anti-corruption activist who had died painfully, over many months, after someone attacked her with acid. And in real time, as Yovanovitch sat in the chamber offering testimony of her abrupt removal from Kyiv, Trump took to Twitter to denigrate and insult her again:

“It’s very intimidating,” she said of the real-time witness tampering. “I can’t speak to what the president is trying to do, but the effect is to be intimidating.”

Yovanovitch went on to testify that the State Department’s failure to defend her and others would deeply damage the institution. “This will soon cause real harm, if it hasn’t already,” she said. When the lengthy hearing ended, Yovanovitch moved to leave the room and the gallery broke into a spontaneous standing ovation.

The personal threat to Yovanovitch was apparently greater than previously known. Among the many stunning elements of the documents released Tuesday night were a series of breathtaking WhatsApp messages between Parnas and Robert F. Hyde, a Republican running for congress in Connecticut. Hyde was messaging Parnas last spring about Yovanovitch. “Fuck that bitch,” Hyde messaged Parnas on March 22, in response to a series of articles and tweets Parnas had sent him highlighting Giuliani’s then-underway media campaign against the ambassador. The next morning, Hyde continued: “Wow. Can’t believe Trum[p] hasn’t fired this bitch. I’ll get right in that.” Within a few hours, it appeared that Hyde had Yovanovitch under direct surveillance. He messaged Parnas: “She under heavy protection outside Kiev.” The exchange of articles continued, then two days later on March 25, Hyde sent Parnas a message saying, “what should I do with this?,” then “they are moving her tomorrow?,” then “The guys over they asked me what I would like to do and what is in it for them,” then “Wake up Yankees man,” and then “she talked to three people. Her phone is off. Computer is off.” The messages about her apparent whereabouts continued throughout the day. “The address I sent you checks out,” Hyde wrote. “It’s next to the embassy,” he continued. And then, ominously: “They are willing to help if we/you would like a price.” Hyde added: “Guess you can do anything in the Ukraine with money…what I was told.” Parnas responded at this point “LOL.” The next day, the updates picked up again. Hyde told Parnas on March 26: “If you want her out they need to make contact with security forces.” The day after that, he wrote: “It’s confirmed we have a person inside.”

What the hell was Hyde proposing be done to Yovanovitch and how could he have known when her phone was off? Was this part of a broader criminal conspiracy? Crucially, what was Giuliani’s knowledge of and connection to all this? Where was the money to pay for it coming from? Late Tuesday Yovanovitch’s attorney, Lawrence Robbins, called for an investigation. “Needless to say, the notion that American citizens and others were monitoring Ambassador Yovanovitch’s movements for unknown purposes is disturbing,” Robbins said.

We will hopefully learn more in the coming days about what Hyde was doing and who authorized it. Mother Jones reported on Tuesday that two months after his exchanges with Parnas, Hyde was taken into custody at Mar-a-Lago “under a state law that allows for involuntary confinement of people who might pose a risk to themselves.” He has been widely photographed with Trump and his family. On Tuesday evening, Hyde claimed that was “playing with” Parnas, because “I was kidding” is now a blanket defense to criminality in America.

The line from Hyde to Parnas to Giuliani to Trump is pretty clear. The tranche of documents also included an October email from Trump attorney Jay Sekulow authorizing former Trump attorney John Dowd to represent Parnas and saying he had discussed the issue with Trump and “The President consents.” Dowd had previously told Congress that Parnas and his business partner Igor Fruman had been working for Giuliani “in connection with his representation of President Trump.” The latest news demonstrates just how much more needs to be investigated to get to the bottom of Trump and his cronies’ actions in Ukraine. It also points to the peril of an impeachment trial whitewash that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has threatened in the past month.

But even considering the bigger impeachment picture, we can’t lose sight for a moment of what happened to Ukraine’s ambassador and what she had already been through for this country. Yovanovitch described in her House testimony her multiple tours of duty, including coming under attack at the embassy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, “by a gunman, who sprayed the Embassy building with gunfire” and being caught in crossfire between presidential and parliamentary forces during the 1993 attempted coup in Russia, which necessitated her to try “three times … without a helmet or body armor—to get into a vehicle to go to the Embassy.” Over three decades, Yovanovitch put her life and body on the line to protect the United States, as she testified “because it was our duty.” And yet last spring she was apparently being threatened by a U.S. citizen, a man working in direct coordination with an associate of the president’s attorney. Giuliani, meanwhile, worked toward her ouster and knew she was being removed even before she did. And all this came amid a growing sense on the part of the foreign service that Marie Yovanovitch was not safe in Ukraine. Having survived enemy fire, she was being threatened by Americans as she served the country. And her superiors at the State Department were unable or unwilling to help her. The Justice Department failed to care and this all still hasn’t had a proper investigation.

On Wednesday, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi named impeachment managers for Trump’s Senate trial in the shadow of a promise by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to try to prevent witnesses from testifying. If Republican senators go along with McConnell’s plans, it means they don’t want to know what happened to Yovanovitch, the details of which are increasingly horrifying. Yovanovitch was never a victim of this administration simply because she never allowed herself to be. She did her job admirably and then she testified. Nevertheless, she is persisting. That she was derided as a bitch, allegedly stalked like prey, and then threatened by the president himself are probably among the least frightening things that have happened in her storied career. But remember how you felt watching her testify. Because if we fail to get to the bottom of what happened to Marie Yovanovitch, she and good people like her won’t keep standing up for us forever.