The former US ambassador to Ukraine whose abrupt ouster in May has become a focus of House impeachment investigators said Friday that her departure came as a direct result of pressure President Donald Trump placed on the State Department to remove her, according to her prepared remarks before Congress.
The account by Marie Yovanovitch depicts a career foreign service officer caught in a storm of unsubstantiated allegations pushed by the president's personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and a cast of former Ukrainian officials who viewed her as a threat to their financial and political interests.
She told lawmakers that she was forced to leave Kiev on "the next plane" this spring and subsequently removed from her post, with the State Department's No. 2 official telling her that, although she had done nothing wrong, the president had lost confidence in her and the agency had been under significant pressure to remove her since the summer of 2018.
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In explaining her departure, she acknowledged months of criticisms made by Giuliani, who had accused her of privately badmouthing the president and seeking to protect the interests of former vice president Joe Biden and his son who served on the board of Ukrainian energy company.
Yovanovitch denied those allegations and said she was "incredulous" that her superiors decided to remove her based on "unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives." She also took direct aim at Giuliani's associates whom she said could've been financially threatened by her anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine.
Neither the White House nor the State Department immediately responded to requests for comment.
The remarkable statements by a diplomat with more than 30 years in the foreign service came amid rising dissatisfaction inside the State Department at what is seen as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's failure to defend his subordinates who became targets in the Ukraine controversy. Michael McKinley, a career diplomat and senior adviser to Pompeo, resigned from his post this week as resentment in the building has grown.
Her testimony could also increase calls for the president's impeachment as Yovanovitch detailed her belief that under Trump's leadership US foreign policy has been compromised by self-interested actors who have badly demoralized and depleted America's diplomatic corps.
"Today, we see the State Department attacked and hollowed out from within," she said, warning that US adversaries such as Russia stand to benefit "when bad actors in countries beyond Ukraine see how easy it is to use fiction and innuendo to manipulate our system."
Yovanovitch is one of several current and former diplomats whom the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees have identified as witnesses in their probe into whether Trump leveraged US military aid and official diplomatic interaction to pressure Ukraine's president to investigate his political rivals.
She arrived Capitol Hill with a swagger uncommon for many witnesses who have appeared before the panels investigating Trump, appearing for her deposition past its scheduled start time and choosing to walk across the Capitol grounds with her legal team rather than driving up to one of the building's entrances.
According to House Democratic leaders, the State Department attempted to block Yovanovitch's testimony Thursday night, directing her not to attend the voluntary interview, in keeping with a White House letter earlier this week stating the administration would not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry.
The House Intelligence Committee responded with a subpoena Friday morning, panel leaders said, noting that "the illegitimate order from the Trump Administration not to cooperate has no force."
The exchange - along with an announcement earlier Friday by US ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland indicating he would appear for a deposition under subpoena next week - suggests that House Democrats may have to issue a series of summonses to interview government officials, particularly if doing so potentially jeopardizes witnesses' employment. With a subpoena in hand, officials who are otherwise willing to testify can circumvent the White House's stated prohibition on cooperating with the impeachment probe.
The White House issued talking points to congressional Republicans, saying "We are not concerned with any information Yovanovitch might share, because the President did nothing wrong." But in a potential warning to other officials considering to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry, the White House talking points say that because Yovanovitch did not appear with State Department lawyers counseling her about what she's permitted to say, "there is serious danger that she could breach her obligations as a current employee not to reveal such information without authorization."
"It raises serious questions," the talking points state, as to why House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, the Democrats' point man for their impeachment inquiry, "is willing to put career officials in such risky situations while bullying them with legally unfounded threats of obstruction charges."
Yovanovitch was expected to face questions about Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two Soviet-born associates of Giuliani's who were arrested Wednesday on charges of campaign finance violations. According to an indictment that federal prosecutors unsealed Thursday, the men were working for Ukrainian officials to remove Yovanovitch from her job.
Yovanovitch had made some enemies in Ukraine through her efforts to bolster the country's National Anti-Corruption Bureau, an institution launched in 2014 aimed at fighting endemic graft and corruption. The bureau particularly angered Ukraine's recently fired prosecutor, Yuriy Lutsenko, who has accused Yovanovitch of inappropriately interfering in Ukrainian politics, though he subsequently retracted one of his most inflammatory accusations that she provided him a "do not prosecute list."
In her testimony, Yovanovitch stressed that she never directed anyone to refrain "from investigating or prosecuting actual corruption," according to her prepared remarks.
US officials who worked closely with Yovanovitch said her swift ouster stunned career diplomats who had been planning high-level internal meetings for her that were scrapped because she would no longer be serving in the position. "They fired her in the most dishonorable way imaginable," said one former State Department official who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal processes.
Pompeo did not personally notify her of her removal, officials said. That job instead went to Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan, who Trump said on Friday would be nominated as US ambassador to Russia. In her prepared remarks, Yovanovitch said that Sullivan told her "I had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors for cause."
Sullivan did not respond to a request for comment.
The panels have issued subpoenas to the White House, Giuliani, his business associates Parnas and Fruman, and several Cabinet-level officials - including Pompeo and Secretary of Energy Secretary Rick Perry, Defense Secretary Mark Esper and the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, Russell Vought - requesting materials related to the administration's interactions with Ukraine.
Beyond Yovanovitch, the panels have recorded only one deposition to date - with former special US special envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker, who quit his post hours after he was requested to appear for a deposition. At his session earlier this month, Volker turned over a series of text messages he exchanged with Giuliani, a top aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and senior US diplomats including Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union.
Sondland's lawyers, Robert Luskin and Kwame Manley, said Friday that Sondland intends to comply with the subpoena and appear before the committees next Thursday, although he would not turn over the documents lawmakers have requested.
"By federal law and regulation, the State Department has sole authority to produce such documents, and Ambassador Sondland hopes the materials will be shared with the Committees in advance of his Thursday testimony," his lawyers said in a statement.
Volker's text messages pertain to the weeks before and after a July 25 call between Trump and Zelensky, in which the American president asked his Ukrainian counterpart to look into the purported involvement of Ukrainians in the 2016 US presidential election and the role that former vice president Joseph Biden's son Hunter Biden played on the board of a Ukrainian energy company, Burisma.
Democrats have seized on how Trump asked Zelensky to "do us a favour, though" when the Ukrainian president brought up the subject of military aid that had been withheld, according to a rough transcript of the call released by the White House. Democrats allege that is evidence of a quid pro quo and an abuse of office.
Zelensky won the Ukrainian presidential election in April of this year and took office on May 20, the same day as Yovanovitch was recalled.