Marie Yovanovitch, the former US ambassador to Ukraine, is expected to tell the House Intelligence Committee in open session that she became the target of a political smear campaign by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and was recalled by Trump.
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Democrats in the House of Representatives are seeking to determine if the president abused his power of office by withholding military aid and support from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in exchange for politically-motivated investigations by Ukraine of Trump’s political rivals.
Yovanovitch’s testimony is the second public hearing of the inquiry. On Wednesday, the House Intelligence Committee heard from William Taylor, the top diplomat in Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary.
Trump denies any wrongdoing and has repeatedly said there was no “quid pro quo” (Latin for “favour for a favour”).
Democrats have started to use more colourful terms such as “bribery” and “extortion” to characterise Trump’s actions.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters on Thursday that multiple witnesses now have offered “devastating testimony” and “corroborated evidence of bribery”.
“The bribe is to grant or withhold military assistance in return for a public statement of a fake investigation into the elections. That’s bribery,” Pelosi said.
‘Shocked and surprised’
A career foreign service officer respected within the US State Department, Yovanovitch was recalled from Kyiv in May by Trump who spoke poorly of her in a now-infamous July 25 phone call with Ukraine President Zelenskyy.
“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, so I just want to let you know that,” Trump told Zelenskyy, according to the White House memo of the July call.
“Well, she’s going to go through some things,” Trump said.
Yovanovitch told House investigators in an interview behind closed doors in October that she was “shocked” and “very surprised” when she saw the president’s words in the memo of the Zelenskyy call.
“First of all, that I would feature repeatedly in a presidential phone call, but secondly that the president would speak about any ambassador in that way to a foreign counterpart,” Yovanovitch said, adding that she felt threatened by what the president implied, according to a transcript of her testimony.
An appointee of former President Barack Obama, Yovanovitch had been an advocate for the rule of law and urged the newly-elected Zelenskyy team to take steps to reform Ukraine’s oligarchy.
In a speech in March during the Ukrainian presidential campaign, Yovanovitch made news in Kyiv when she called for the removal of Ukraine’s anti-corruption prosecutor for failure to act.
The Giuliani factor
Federal prosecutors in New York have indicted two associates of Giuliani, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who both had business ties to Ukraine, on charges of violating US laws requiring full disclosure of money contributions to politicians, including Trump.
At a private dinner for big donors with Trump at the Trump Hotel in Washington in 2018, Parnas told the president that Yovanovitch was unfriendly to Trump and his interests, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday citing unnamed people familiar with the event.
Yuriy Lutsenko, the former top prosecutor of Ukraine, met with Giuliani several times, according to Yovanovitch who told the House she learned Lutsenko “was looking to hurt me” in the United States. Lutsenko began spreading “falsehoods” about her.
Meanwhile, Trump’s disparagement of Yovanovitch caused problems inside the State Department where career diplomats had become concerned about Giuliani’s unofficial side channel with Ukraine.
Michael McKinley, who was a senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, resigned in disgust after a 37-year diplomatic career when the US’s top diplomat repeatedly refused to publicly defend Yovanovitch.
McKinley told the House that he quit after seeing “the engagement of our missions to procure negative political information for domestic purposes, combined with the failure … to provide support for our professional cadre in a particularly trying time …”. He is scheduled to testify publicly next week.
Although Wednesday’s testimony did not offer any important surprises, Ambassador Taylor did offer a new piece of evidence that caught some off guard.
Taylor said a member of his staff overheard a July 26 phone call between Trump and US Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland, in which Trump asked about the investigations he wanted Zelenskyy to open.
Trump specifically wanted Zelenskyy to open an investigation of Burisma, a Ukrainian natural gas company that had hired former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter on its board of trustees.
Trump also wanted an investigation of unsubstantiated claims that it was Ukraine, not Russia, who hacked Democratic emails in the 2016 election.
Sondland, who was working with Giuliani at Trump’s direction, told him that Zelenskyy’s team was ready to proceed, according to the testimony.
At the White House on Wednesday, Trump told reporters he was not watching the impeachment proceedings. “I hear it’s a joke,” he said, although he sent a steady stream of tweets about the case.
He also denied knowing anything about the alleged July 26 phone call.