Politics

Ex-Ukraine ambassador testifies Trump pressured State Department to oust her

Leigh Ann Caldwell, Geoff Bennett, Adam Edelman and Rebecca Shabad
Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch (C) is surrounded by lawyers, aides and journalists as she arrives at the U.S. Capitol October 11, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Chip Somodevilla | Getty Images News | Getty Images

Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, told House impeachment investigators Friday that President Donald Trump personally pressured the State Department to remove her from her position, even though a top department official assured her that she had "done nothing wrong."

Yovanovitch said that after she was abruptly recalled from her post in the spring, the deputy secretary of state told her "the president had lost confidence in me," according to her prepared remarks obtained by NBC News.

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"He added that there had been a concerted campaign against me, and that the department had been under pressure from the president to remove me since the summer of 2018," Yovanovitch told lawmakers, according to her opening statement.

The career diplomat, who said she was informed of her ouster in April, said in her statement that she was "incredulous that the U.S. government chose to remove an ambassador based, as best as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives."

Yovanovitch appeared for her expected closed-door deposition before the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs Committees as part of those bodies' ongoing investigations into Trump's efforts to persuade Ukraine's new government to commit publicly to investigate corruption and the president's political opponents.

It had been unclear right up until Yovanovitch arrived whether she would appear because she still works for the State Department. The White House had vowed administration officials would not cooperate in the impeachment probe.

Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton, Washington D.C.'s nonvoting House delegate and a member of the Oversight Committee, said around noon that Yovanovitch had been testifying for about an hour. The interview is expected to last several hours more.

"She's acting like a true ambassador. She herself has been deeply involved and has been the object of false statements and she's clearing that up," Holmes Norton said after emerging from the room.

Holmes Norton added that "both sides are finding her very credible" and Yovanovitch had not given any indication that anyone attempted to prevent her from answering questions from lawmakers as expected Friday.

Asked about whether the former ambassador to Ukraine had spoken about Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, Holmes Norton said, "They're just getting — that is becoming very, very deep."

Yovanovitch had previously been scheduled to be deposed by the committees on Oct. 2, but the appearance was postponed.

In a letter to House Democrats last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pushed back against Democrats' request to interview five current and former State Department employees, including Yovanovitch.

Yovanovitch has emerged as a potentially key figure in the investigation by House Democrats.

In Trump's July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Trump referred to Yovanovitch as "bad news."

She departed Ukraine in May, months ahead of her scheduled departure, after coming under attack from right-wing media, who alleged she was hostile to the president. Her departure set off alarm bells among Democrats in Congress but the State Department said at the time her exit was planned.

According to the intelligence community whistleblower complaint at the heart of Democrats' impeachment inquiry, Yovanovitch's tenure was cut short because she had run afoul of the then-prosecutor general in Ukraine, Yuri Lutsenko, and Giuliani. Lutsenko at one point alleged she had given him a "do not prosecute" list. The State Department has said the assertion was an outright fabrication and Lutsenko himself later walked back his comments.

Yovanovitch, according to her prepared remarks, addressed Lutsenko's since-recanted allegation, telling lawmakers that she wanted to "categorically state that I have never myself or through others, directly or indirectly, ever directed, suggested, or in any other way asked for any government or government official in Ukraine (or elsewhere) to refrain from investigating or prosecuting actual corruption."

She added, "As Mr. Lutsenko, the former Ukrainian Prosecutor General has recently acknowledged, the notion that I created or disseminated a 'do not prosecute' list is completely false—a story that Mr. Lutsenko, himself, has since retracted."

She also called the notion that she was "disloyal" to Trump "fictitious," and said she did not know Giuliani's motives for attacking her.

"But individuals who have been named in the press as contacts of Mr. Giuliani may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine," she told House investigators, according to her statement.

Yovanovitch's former colleagues have described her as one of the State Department's most talented and conscientious diplomats, and that it would be totally out of character for her to engage in partisan politics.

During her tenure, Yovanovitch was outspoken in her calls for Ukraine to tackle corruption, a stance in keeping with U.S. policy over successive administrations.

After Yovanovitch gave a tough speech in March urging the government to sack a senior anti-corruption official, she came under fire from Lutsenko, conservative voices in the U.S. and the president's eldest son, Donald Trump Jr.

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Key Points
  • Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky has said there was no blackmail involved during a telephone call with President Trump that has set in motion an impeachment inquiry.