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Ukraine Envoy Says She Was Told Trump Wanted Her Out Over Lack of Trust

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Ambassador Marie L. Yovanovitch was recalled from Ukraine after a long campaign against her by Rudolph Giuliani and his allies. Her boss told her she had “done nothing wrong.”

ImageMarie L. Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, center, arriving to testify in a closed hearing Friday on Capitol Hill.
CreditCreditJ. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The State Department’s request went in early March to Marie L. Yovanovitch, a longtime diplomat who had served six presidents: Would she extend her term as ambassador to Ukraine, scheduled to end in August, into 2020?

Less than two months later came another departmental communiqué: Get “on the next plane” to Washington. Her ambassadorship was over.

How and why Ms. Yovanovitch was removed from her job has emerged as a major focus of the impeachment inquiry being conducted by House Democrats. And in nearly nine hours of testimony behind closed doors on Capitol Hill on Friday, Ms. Yovanovitch said she was told after her recall that President Trump had lost trust in her and had been seeking her ouster since summer 2018 — even though, one of her bosses told her, she had “done nothing wrong.”

Her version of events added a new dimension to the tale of the campaign against her. It apparently began with a business proposition being pursued in Ukraine by two Americans who, according to an indictment against them unsealed on Thursday, wanted her gone, and who would later become partners with the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani in digging up political dirt in Ukraine for Mr. Trump.

From there it became part of the effort by Mr. Giuliani to undercut the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and push for damaging information about former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., a possible Democratic challenger to Mr. Trump in 2020.

In her prepared testimony to House investigators, Ms. Yovanovitch, 60, offered no new details about how Mr. Giuliani’s campaign against her was communicated to the president or how Mr. Trump communicated his demand that she be ordered home. But her opening remarks, provided to The New York Times, amounted to a scathing indictment to Congress of how the Trump administration’s foreign policy intersected with business and political considerations.

Americans abroad in search of personal gain or private influence — especially in a country like Ukraine with a long history of corruption and people eager to exploit them — threatened to undermine the work of loyal diplomats and the foreign policy goals of the United States, she said.

Her removal, she said, was a case in point.

“Although I understand 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 best as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives,” she said.

Ms. Yovanovitch’s testimony, which could help build momentum for the impeachment inquiry, captured the arc of her troubled tenure in Ukraine: how Mr. Giuliani and his allies mounted a campaign against her based on what she described as scurrilous lies, how the State Department capitulated to the president’s demands to recall her, and the upshot — losing an experienced ambassador in a pivotal country that is under threat from Russia and in the middle of a change in government.

More broadly, she portrayed the State Department as a whole as “attacked and hollowed out from within.” Unless it backs up its diplomats, especially in the face of false attacks by foreign interests, she said, more of them will leave and the wrong message will be transmitted around the world.

“Bad actors” in Ukraine and elsewhere will “see how easy it is to use fiction and innuendo to manipulate our system,” she warned. “The only interests that will be served are those of our strategic adversaries, like Russia.”

She had been removed from her post in Ukraine before the events most at the heart of the impeachment inquiry: whether Mr. Trump withheld White House meetings or military aid to Ukraine this summer to pressure its new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to investigate Mr. Biden and his younger son, Hunter Biden.

That Ms. Yovanovitch, who remains a State Department employee, showed up at all to testify was remarkable. In a letter this week, the White House counsel, Pat A. Cipollone, lashed out at the impeachment inquiry, saying government officials would not testify and that no documents would be provided. The White House did not respond to requests for comment on Friday.

Ms. Yovanovitch’s defiance of the administration’s directive against appearing before the impeachment proceeding raises the possibility that other government officials will follow suit. She called upon the State Department leaders and Congress to defend the institution, saying “I fear that not doing so will harm our nation’s interest, perhaps irreparably.”

The turnabout appeared to validate the tactics adopted by Democrats, who have issued rapid-fire subpoenas since they opened the inquiry two weeks ago and warned that any attempts by the administration to block their fact-finding will promptly become fodder for an article of impeachment charging Mr. Trump with obstructing Congress. When the State Department tried late Thursday to direct Ms. Yovanovitch not to appear, the Democrats promptly issued a subpoena and told her she had no choice but to appear.

At least one other State Department official is also expected to testify, despite the White House policy. Gordon D. Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union who was initially expected to testify this week but failed to show up, has now been rescheduled for next week. Mr. Sondland is close to Mr. Trump and could support the White House’s narrative that the administration’s policy in Ukraine has been driven by a focus on rooting out corruption.

What’s New in the Impeachment Case

Updated October 11, 2019

    • Marie Yovanovitch, the former American ambassador to Ukraine, told impeachment investigators in a closed-door interview that a top State Department official told her that President Trump had pushed for her removal even though the department believed she had “done nothing wrong.”
    • Ms. Yovanovitch said people associated with Rudy Giuliani, Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer, “may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”
    • Gordon Sondland, the American ambassador to the European Union, like Ms. Yovanovitch, agreed to comply with a House subpoena and testify, defying a State Department order not to appeal

Ms. Yovanovitch, a 33-year veteran of the foreign service, had held two previous ambassadorships when President Barack Obama appointed her as envoy to Ukraine in mid-2016. She was deeply steeped in the region and American policy.

But in 2018, she found herself targeted by two American businessmen, Lev Parnas, who was born in Ukraine and Igor Fruman, who was born in Belarus. Both came to play central roles in Mr. Giuliani’s efforts on behalf of Mr. Trump in Ukraine.

But at first, the two men were focused on their own business dealings. One possible reason for their opposition to Ms. Yovanovitch was that they perceived her to be standing in the way of a business plan they were promoting. Ms. Yovanovitch was a supporter of a reform-minded chief executive of Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state energy company. The two men were hoping to sell American liquefied natural gas to Naftogaz, but the chief executive, Andriy Kobolyev, had rejected their proposal.

American diplomats traditionally pay close attention to the energy industry in Ukraine, long a font of corruption and an avenue for Russia to influence Ukrainian politics. In that same vein, Ms. Yovanovitch had supported Mr. Kobolyev to curb back room deals.

Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman had a plan to replace Mr. Kobolyev: they suggested to another Naftogaz executive that using their political ties in the United States, they could install him in Mr. Kobolyev’s place if he accepted their business deal. Those negotiations were described by Dale Perry, an American energy executive and former business partner of a Naftogaz executive, who is familiar with the conversations.

The pair also had a plan to replace the ambassador. They tried to undermine her with the Ukrainian government and news media by spreading stories that she was an Obama holdover who disdained Mr. Trump, interviews show.

“I found it very troubling and disturbing that a couple of business people, and whoever they were working with, could claim to remove a U.S. ambassador,” Mr. Perry said.

Promising to help him raise $20,000 toward his re-election, they enlisted the help of Pete Sessions, who was then a Republican congressman from Texas then serving as the powerful head of the House Rules Committee, according to an indictment unsealed on Thursday charging Mr. Parnas, Mr. Fruman and two other men with violating campaign finance laws. Mr. Sessions sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claiming without evidence that the ambassador was disloyal to the president.

Ms. Yovanovitch also had repeated run-ins with Ukraine’s prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, over allegations of corruption with the prosecutor’s office. Mr. Lutsenko would also come to work closely with Mr. Giuliani on the effort to help Mr. Trump.

As they pursued their own agenda in Ukraine in 2018, Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman were also working more closely to dig up political dirt with Mr. Giuliani, with whom Mr. Parnas also had a separate business relationship.

As part of that effort, Mr. Giuliani seized on criticism of Ms. Yovanovitch as another way to suggest that she was disloyal to Mr. Trump and could have been part of an effort to undercut him from Ukraine during the 2016 campaign.

Mr. Giuliani helped encourage further stories in conservative news outlets critical of her early in 2019, even as the State Department was asking her to remain in Ukraine until next year.

Some State Department officials were distressed by the critical news reports. Philip Reeker, an acting assistant secretary of state, told an adviser to Mr. Pompeo in an email that in casting her as a “liberal outpost,” critics were pushing a “fake narrative” that “really is without merit or validation.”

By this March, the attacks against Ms. Yovanovitch were reverberating in the president’s own circle. Donald Trump Jr., the president’s oldest son, posted a link on social media to an item that described the ambassador as “an anti-Trump, Obama flunkey.” In his tweet, Mr. Trump called for fewer of “these jokers as ambassadors. “

Four days later, Mr. Giuiliani hand-delivered to Mr. Pompeo a packet of news articles and material critical of Ms. Yovanovitch. It included notes on an interview with a former prosecutor general of Ukraine, who had met with Mr. Giuliani. The former prosecutor claimed that Ms. Yovanovitch had blocked him from getting a visa to the United States and “is close to Mr. Biden.”

In late April, Ms. Yovanovitch received the message summoning her back to Washington to be told of her removal.

Mr. Fruman and Mr. Parnas were arrested Wednesday night at Dulles International Airport, on their way out of the country and charged with campaign finance violations, related in part to their dealings with Mr. Sessions. Prosecutors said they were working with at least one unnamed Ukrainian official who wanted to oust Ms. Yovanovitch.

Ms. Yovanovitch told House investigators that while she did not know Mr. Giuliani’s motives for attacking her, his associates “may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”

Her sudden removal left American diplomats in Kiev seething. They told reporters privately that Ms. Yovanovitch had been treated shabbily and that Mr. Giuliani’s freelancing diplomacy was undercutting their efforts to work with the new Ukrainian president’s administration.

Subpoenas and Requests for Evidence in the Trump Impeachment Inquiry

The status of the documents and witness testimony being collected by congressional investigators.

She recounted her conversation about her ouster with John Sullivan, the deputy secretary of state, at some length. While Ms. Yovanovitch was testifying, Mr. Trump nominated Mr. Sullivan to be the next ambassador to Russia. The timing appeared to be coincidental.

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