Former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch said during a recent deposition to Congress that she knew she served at President Trump’s pleasure but still expressed anger and disbelief when he fired her after what she believed was a smear campaign by Ukrainian officials.
“Although I understand, everyone understands, that I served at the pleasure of the president, I was nevertheless incredulous that the U.S. Government chose to remove an ambassador based, as far as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives,” she said during her October 11 closed-door testimony as part of the impeachment inquiry.
“To make matters worse, all of this occurred during an especially challenging time in bilateral relations with a newly elected Ukrainian President. This was precisely the time when continuity at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine was most needed,” she added.
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) in a recent interview claimed it was an “abuse of power to remove an ambassador for political reasons because you don’t like what they’re doing.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell: "It's an abuse of power to remove an ambassador for political reasons because you don't like what they're doing." pic.twitter.com/15EzI9Pon6
— The Hill (@thehill) November 7, 2019
But another diplomat who also testified as part of the impeachment inquiry, Ambassador Michael McKinley, said that the president has “every right” to remove an ambassador “whatever the rationale.”
“When you’re working overseas, every President has the right to remove an Ambassador they don’t have confidence in. And this is standard, and it’s part of Department practice ever since I’ve come in. So, whatever the rationale, Presidents have the right to remove ambassadors and select other envoys for the post in question,” he said.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky actually said during the call with Trump that he had also recalled his ambassador to the U.S. back to Ukraine:
We are ready to open a new page on cooperation in relations between the United States and Ukraine. For that purpose, I just recalled our ambassador from United States and he will be replaced by a very competent and very experienced ambassador who will work hard on making sure that our two nations are getting closer. I would also like and hope to see him having your trust and your confidence and have personal relations with you so we can cooperate even more so.
Transcript Reveals New Anti-Corruption Ukrainian President Did Not Like Her
Yovanovitch’s testimony showed that her relationship with several Ukrainian leaders — including the new president — was less than positive.
She said some Ukrainian officials were angered by her anti-corruption stance but could not explain why Ukraine’s new president, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, did not like her either.
Zelensky told Trump during their July 25 phone call, “It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100%. Her attitude towards me was far from the best as she admired the previous President and she was on his side. She would not accept me as a new President well enough.”
Yovanovitch said she was surprised to read that in the transcript of the phone call. “I thought he liked me,” she said.
Transcript Reveals Former Chief Prosecutor Did Not Like Her
She also acknowledged during the testimony that she did not have a good relationship with Yuriy Lutsenko, Ukraine’s then-chief prosecutor. She testified that she was not aware how sour the relationship had become until a March 2019 Hill article that said Lutsenko alleged she had given him a “do not prosecute” list.
“I wasn’t aware until I read that article of how sour the relationship was,” she said.
She claimed that he did not like her because she and the U.S. embassy were too effective at helping Ukrainians fight against corruption and that that was “not in his interest.” She also said he could have been “personally angry” with her that they did not have a closer relationship and that she was not facilitating trips for him to the U.S. with cabinet members.
“There was, frankly, nothing to talk about because he wasn’t a good partner for us,” she said.
She also believed that communication between Rudy Giuliani and Lutsenko had something to do with her firing.
She said the Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov had told her in February 2019 that they were communicating. She said after the Hill article, she never reached out to Lutsenko because she “didn’t really think there was any point.” She said the last meeting she had with him was in Fall 2018.
She also acknowledged that there may be some truth to Lutsenko’s claim she gave him a “do not prosecute” list.
Asked if she ever urged him “not to prosecute” individuals or entities, she responded, “Conversations about, ‘You need to be sure that, you know, there is a real case that is not politically motivated, that this isn’t just harassment and pressure — so those conversations, you know, certainty took place.”
She said that names were “probably” used, including the Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine (NABU) Director Artem Sytnyk, who, according to the Hill, attempted to influence the 2016 vote in favor of Hillary Clinton.
When the Republican counsel asked Yovanovitch if it is possible Lutsenko took that name as an example of somebody not to prosecute, she responded, “I can’t really speak for his motivations or what was in his mind.”
Transcript Reveals She Also Called for the Firing of the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor
She also admitted that she had called for the firing of Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky in a March 5 speech, which rankled Ukrainian officials.
“One of the things I said is that it was inappropriate, or words to that effect, for somebody who had engaged in those kinds of activities to still be in his job,” she said.
Asked whether that was taken as calling for Kholodnitsky’s ouster, she responded in the affirmative, “Uh-huh.”
She acknowledged facing blowback for her call, which she said was after allegations that Kholodnytsky had been coaching witnesses on how to obstruct justice.
“There was there was a lot of criticism,” she said. “Kholodnitsky himself, as you can imagine, was not happy with that. There were you know, there was other criticism in kind of pro-Poroshenko, pro-administration media and so forth.”
She said she did not coordinate her call for his firing with Washington but gave “more of a heads-up.”
Transcript Shows She Was ‘Upset,’ ‘Shocked’ over Her Firing
After she was recalled back to Washington, Yovanovitch said Acting Assistant Secretary of European and Eurasian Affairs Phil Reeker informed her on April 29, 2019, that Trump has wanted her to leave since July 2018, and that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had tried to protect her but was longer able to do that. She said they did not discuss why, but the “general assumption” was that it had something to do with what Lutsenko had told Giuliani.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I think there was just a general assumption that it must have had to do with the information that Mr. Lutsenko provided to Mr. Giuliani.”
She also said she “expressed anger” and spoke to Deputy Secretary John Sullivan, demanding to know why she was fired.
“The deputy secretary said that, you know, he was sorry this was all happening, that the president had lost confidence, and I would need to depart my post. That, you know, he had, you know, I said, ‘What have I done wrong?’ And he said, ‘You’ve done nothing wrong.’ And he said that he had had to speak to ambassadors who had been recalled for cause before and this was not that,” she said.
“I was upset. And I, you know, I wanted an explanation because this is rather unusual. But he could not offer one beyond the fact that the president had made a decision. And it is the president’s to make, as we know. I did ask him though, you know, what does this mean for our foreign policy? What does it mean for our position on anticorruption? What message are we sending to the Ukrainians, to the world?” she said.
“How were we going to explain this? And what are we going to say, you know, not only to the people at U.S. Embassy Kyiv, but more broadly to the State Department? And I told him I thought that this was a dangerous precedent, that as far as I could tell, since I didn’t have any other explanation, that private interests and people who don’t like a particular American ambassador could combine to, you know, find somebody who was more suitable for their interests,” she said.
Transcript Shows Trump Was Concerned about Corruption in Ukraine
Yovanovitch also acknowledged that Trump had a “deep-rooted” concern about corruption in Ukraine.
The Republican counsel asked her, “Was it a source of discussion at the embassy that the president was not confident in Ukraine’s ability to move past their corruption issues? Were you aware of the President’s deep-rooted [concern] about Ukraine’s business environment?”
“Yes,” she responded. “I mean, he shared that concern.”
“The administration had concerns about corruption in Ukraine, correct?” he asked.
“We all did.”
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