Marie Yovanovitch: A symbol of State Department resistance to Trump in impeachment inquiry

Bart Jansen and Deirdre Shesgreen


Published 3: 00 AM EST Nov 15, 2019

WASHINGTON – When Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, takes her turn in the House Democrats’ witness chair on Friday, her testimony will capture a key dynamic in the scandal: a revolt by career State Department officials against what they saw as President Donald Trump’s distorted, back-channel diplomacy.

Trump yanked Yovanovitch from her post in April, after his personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, targeted her with what other diplomats described as a “smear” campaign. Democrats believe Giuliani wanted Yovanovitch out because her anti-corruption work in Ukraine was an impediment to Trump’s efforts to pressure that country’s leader to investigate his political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son Hunter, who worked for the energy company Burisma Holdings.

“You can’t promote principled anti-corruption action without pissing off corrupt people,” George Kent, the State Department’s deputy assistant secretary for Europe and Eurasia, told the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday.

Career diplomats have acknowledged that presidents have the right to replace ambassadors at will, a prerogative Republican lawmakers have emphasized. But Yovanovitch’s removal struck a nerve inside the State Department and the White House because it reflected the power that Giuliani wielded despite being outside the government.

“There was no basis for her removal,” Fiona Hill, the Trump administration’s former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia, told the House inquiry in her deposition. “The accusations against her had no merit whatsoever. This was a mishmash of conspiracy theories that … I believe firmly to be baseless.”

Text messages on Ukraine: Visual timeline of messages in the Trump-Ukraine affair

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While Republicans may see Yovanovitch as part of a “Deep State” bureaucracy working against Trump from within the government, she has become a hero to career diplomats, who see themselves as nonpartisan civil servants. 

“We spent our careers working to represent the policies and values of the United States,” read an Oct. 22 letter signed by more than 400 former foreign service officers, civil servants and political appointees with the U.S. Agency for International Development. The letter, from officials who served in Republican and Democratic administrations, described their colleagues as being “under siege for their work as diplomats with the Department of State.” 

“… We are angered at the treatment of dedicated, experienced, and wise public servants like Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch; and we are distraught at the dangers inherent in the President’s cavalier (and quite possibly corrupt) approach to making foreign policy on impulse and personal interest rather than in response to national security concerns,” the letter says. “We are appalled that taxpayer funds for foreign aid may have been used to leverage foreign support for partisan political objectives.” 

Cameron Hume, a 40-year veteran of the foreign service and former ambassador to Algeria, South Africa and Indonesia, among other posts, said that while some career diplomats are angry about the way Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has handled the controversy, there’s also a sense of pride in the way career department professionals have come forward to give detailed accounts of events that raised their concerns.

“They’re trained listeners” and meticulous notetakers, Hume said. And while Pompeo has “permitted a culture of fear to grow (inside the State Department) … I think that a young generation of foreign service officers who will see with pride that their elders in this process, whether it’s Mr. Kent or Bill Taylor or Marie Yovanovitch, behaved with dignity and truth.”

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He said they have made it clear that they’re “not trying to go after anybody” but rather that they are trying to give an “impartial and truthful” account to the American public.

Kent said he became aware of Giuliani’s efforts “to smear” Yovanovitch and others at the U.S. embassy in Kyiv starting in 2018. The primary complaint, which Kent attributed to corrupt Ukrainian prosecutors, was that Yovanovitch gave the Ukrainians a list of people who should shielded from prosecuted. There is no evidence she did that.

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Kent ended his opening statement by listing Yovanovitch among foreign-born U.S. officials who served the country with distinction, from Marquis de Lafayette during the American Revolution through former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Besides Yovanovitch, other witnesses in the impeachment inquiry born overseas included Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman and Fiona Hill, a former National Security Council senior director for Europe and Russia.

“They all made the professional choice to serve the United States as public officials, helping shape our national security policy in particular, and we and our national security are the better for it,” Kent said. “That honorable tradition of transatlantic ties goes back to the very founding of our Republic.”

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