In public testimony at the House impeachment hearings, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch said she felt threatened when she read how President Donald Trump talked about her to his Ukrainian counterpart on a July 25 call.
“It sounded like a threat,” she told the House Intelligence Committee Friday during the second open hearing of the impeachment inquiry.
Yovanovitch, who was recalled from her position earlier this year, also testified that she was the target of a “campaign of disinformation” that involved Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and included “unofficial back channels.”
Democrats are seeking to build a case that Trump sought to withhold military assistance and an Oval Office meeting until Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky announced investigations into former vice president Joe Biden and his son, as well as a theory that Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 presidential election to hurt Trump.
A key issue is a controversial July call between the two presidents.
Trump in the call suggested the ambassador was bad at her job and said, “well, she’s going to go through some things.”
“I didn’t know what to think, but I was very concerned,” Yovanovitch said.
“What were you concerned about?” asked a Democratic attorney.
“It didn’t sound good. It sounded like a threat,” she said.
“Did you feel threatened?” asked the attorney.
“I did,” she said, later adding: “It felt like a vague threat, so I wondered what that meant … It concerned me.”
On the call, Trump also praised a former Ukrainian prosecutor who had led a smear campaign that led to Yovanovitch losing her job.
“I was shocked … and devastated, frankly,” Yovanovitch said of her reaction when she read the rough transcript, calling it “a terrible moment.”
“I even had a physical reaction; even now, words kind of fail me,” she added.
The hearing began with the top lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee offering dueling opening statements, highlighting the parties’ vastly different views of the Ukraine saga.
Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., praised Yovanovitch as “tough on corruption” in Ukraine – “too tough on corruption for some, and her principled stances made her enemies.”
“The woman known for fighting corruption … the woman ruthlessly smeared and driven from her post, the president does nothing but disparage – or worse, threaten,” Schiff said. “That tells you a lot about the president’s priorities and intentions,”
Rep. Devin Nunes of California, the committee’s top Republican, accused Democrats of acting like “some kind of strange cult” seeking to “fulfill their Watergate fantasies.”
He steered attention toward several theories alleging Ukrainian interference in the 2016 presidential election and corrupt actions by Hunter Biden, the son of the former vice president.
Then Nunes read the rough transcript of an April call between Trump and Zelensky in which Trump congratulated him on winning the presidential election. The White House released the rough transcript as Friday’s hearing began in an effort to counter revelations from the controversial July call.
“It’s unfortunate that today and for most of the next we will continue engaging in the Democrats’ day-long TV spectacles instead of the problems we were all sent to Washington to address,” Nunes said.
Yovanovitch – who has served as a career Foreign Service officer for 33 years under six U.S. presidents – began her public testimony with a defense of a nonpartisan diplomatic service which she said is being hollowed out and demoralized by lack of support and leadership at the State Department.
Yovanovitch, who was recalled from her post as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in May, said her experience should “concern everyone,” because it will lead foreign officials to doubt American representatives abroad and form a playbook for attacking others who challenge corrupt and entrenched interests.
“Our Ukraine policy has been thrown into disarray, and shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want,” she said. “After these events, what foreign official, corrupt or not, could be blamed for wondering whether the ambassador represents the president’s views?”
Yovanovitch noted that Foreign Service officers often face difficult and dangerous jobs abroad. She described service in a U.S. embassy that came under gunfire in Uzbekistan and being caught in a crossfire during an attempted coup in Russia in 1993.
She used her moment on national TV to decry falling support for American diplomats serving abroad to implement U.S. policy. While she did not mention Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in her opening remarks, she decried State Department leadership for its silence in the wake of her recall from Ukraine.
“The State Department is being hollowed out from within at a competitive and complex time on the world stage,” she said.
As Yovanovitch testified, Trump took to Twitter to criticize her.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” his Twitter feed said. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassador.”
Schiff read aloud Trump’s tweets attacking Yovanovitch that the president had just posted and asked her to react to them.
Yovanovitch listened, her face stoic, as Schiff read the president’s words blaming her for things going badly in places where she served.
“Well I, I don’t think I have such powers,” she said. “I actually think where I’ve served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made things better for the U.S. and the countries I served in.”
Yovanovitch said when the president tweets about her, it’s “very intimidating.”
Schiff responded, “It’s designed to intimidate.”