Report

Trump Blasts Own Ambassador in Call With Ukrainian President

The U.S. president said he wanted to keep Kyiv honest. So why did he fire his ambassador after she called out corruption?

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with an aide during a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25.
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks with an aide during a meeting on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Current and former U.S. officials said that they were stunned by a memo of a July 25 phone call in which U.S. President Donald Trump, speaking to his Ukrainian counterpart, blasted his former ambassador to Ukraine as “bad news” and even suggested he might take further action against her.

The memo, which is not a verbatim transcript, was released today amid a growing scandal over Trump’s and his lawyer Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian president to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential Democratic rival in the 2020 presidential race.

The Trump administration recalled U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, a career foreign service officer, from Kyiv in May after she came under attack from the conservative media in the United States and from a Ukrainian official who met with Giuliani on multiple occasions as Giuliani sought to find partisan dirt against the Democrats in Ukraine.

Yet a number of U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, say Yovanovitch was only following consistent U.S. policy, which was to pressure Ukraine to deal with its endemic corruption—exactly what Trump says now that he was trying to do by raising the issue with President Volodymyr Zelensky. One former senior administration official described it as “sickening that a U.S. President would bad-mouth and threaten retaliation against a lifelong civil servant for her commitment to doing the job she was asked to do for her country.”

“Every ambassador of the United States that I know has had to push the issue of corruption,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. 

“Without U.S. support over the last five years, I don’t think we’d have such positive moves on anti-corruption reform,” said Andrii Borovyk, the executive director of Transparency International Ukraine. 

According to an account of the phone call released Wednesday by the White House, Trump and Zelensky discussed Yovanovitch in their July call. “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 wanted to let you know that,” Trump told Zelensky. Trump added, referring to Yovanovitch: “Well, she’s going to go through some things. I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General [William] Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it.”

Zelensky, who toes a political high wire as he tries not to disrupt bipartisan support for Ukraine, appeared to agree with Trump, according to the note released by the White House, which is not a transcript but a memorandum of the conversation based off the notes and recollections of officials who were in attendance. 

“It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100%,” Zelensky said. “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.”

In May, Trump recalled Yovanovitch two months ahead of her scheduled departure as ambassador to Ukraine. A seasoned career diplomat who had served under both Republican and Democratic administrations, Yovanovitch was outspoken about Ukraine’s need to tackle corruption. The need for Ukraine to tackle political graft has been a mainstay of U.S. policy dating back almost to the country’s independence from the Soviet Union.

Yovanovitch’s scrutiny of the issue put noses out of joint in Kyiv as Ukraine headed toward presidential elections in which corruption was a key issue. Zelensky, a former comedian, was swept to power this spring on a promise to clean up the country Transparency International has found to be one of the most corrupt in Europe.

Ahead of the release of the memo, Trump and Giuliani cloaked their defense in the language of anti-corruption efforts. 

“It’s very important to talk about corruption,” the president said on Monday morning, when asked about the phone call. “Why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?” On Twitter, Giuliani, who spearheaded efforts to find dirt on Trump’s rivals in Ukraine, accused Democrats of enabling “pay-for-play,” in reference to unproven allegations about the business interests of Biden’s son. 

But anti-corruption reform does not appear to be what Trump had in mind during his conversation with Zelensky. Rather, the U.S. president zeroed in on one issue in particular: the activities of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian company. No evidence of wrongdoing by Hunter Biden has been found. 

Yovanovitch came to the attention of right-wing conspiracy theorists shortly after she gave a scathing speech in March, in which she called on the government to replace a senior anti-corruption official who had been accused of coaching suspects on how to avoid charges. Weeks later, Yovanovitch was assailed on two fronts by both Ukraine’s then-prosecutor general, Yuriy Lutsenko, as well as conservative commentators in the U.S. media and the president’s son Donald Trump Jr. 

In an interview with the Washington-based news site the Hill, Lutsenko—who met with Giuliani multiple times as the president’s personal lawyer sought potentially compromising information on Democratic rivals in Ukraine—said that the ambassador had handed him a list of people not to prosecute. The State Department described the claim as an “outright fabrication,” and Lutsenko himself later walked the statement back. 

Lutsenko’s statement coincided with assertions in the conservative media in the United States that Yovanovitch harbored anti-Trump sentiments. Current and former officials told Foreign Policy that claims made against Yovanovitch were unfounded. 

“I’ve known her for more than 25 years, and she was an exemplary representative of the American people,” said Pifer, the former ambassador to Ukraine.

When Yovanovitch was abruptly fired, the news was received in the diplomatic corps in Kyiv with a mixture of shock and distaste, two Western diplomats in Kyiv told Foreign Policy. Yovanovitch was seen as one of the most powerful voices in Kyiv on anti-corruption efforts.

In a joint statement, Democratic lawmakers described the decision to remove Yovanovitch as a “political hit job.” 

“It’s clear that this decision was politically motivated, as allies of President Trump had joined foreign actors in lobbying for the ambassador’s dismissal,” said Democratic Reps. Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, and Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a statement issued after news broke of Yovanovitch’s dismissal.

The State Department did not immediately respond to request for comment about Trump’s description of the former ambassador during his call with Zelensky. 

U.S. support for Ukraine as it fights Russian-backed rebels has remained a rare bright spot of bipartisan support in Washington, despite Trump’s apparent affinity for the Russian president. 

Institutional factors such as congressional oversight, bipartisan backing, and the work of key officials have allowed for a consistent U.S. policy toward Kyiv, which has at times been even more supportive under Trump than it was under former President Barack Obama. 

This checks and balances were seen at work when Trump recently reversed his decision to freeze U.S. aid to Ukraine after coming under scrutiny in Congress and the media. 

Ukraine has received consistent messaging from the United States “99.9 percent” of the time, said John Herbst, another former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who added that Trump’s effort to pressure Zelensky would be seen as the exception, not the rule. But in firing his ambassador, who was tough on corruption, Trump’s actions may have undermined, not bolstered, the U.S. anti-corruption line in Ukraine. 

As Zelensky arrived in the United States on Monday to attend the United Nations General Assembly, he found himself inadvertently party to one of the biggest scandals of the Trump presidency. 

Zelensky and Trump are meeting on the sidelines of the summit today. During a meeting with representatives of the Ukrainian community in the United States on Tuesday, Zelensky said he hoped to have a “meaningful, substantive meeting” with Trump and stressed that Ukraine needs the support of the United States. 

The Ukrainian president—a political novice—and his administration have thus far walked a fine line as they not to provoke Trump, while not getting dragged into partisan mud-slinging in Washington. 

Given years of U.S. support for rule of law in Ukraine, if Zelensky has succumbed to pressure from Trump “it would be a big disrespect to the U.S. taxpayers who have been supporting for 28 years rule of law reforms in Ukraine through different assistance programs,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, the director of the Kyiv-based New Europe Center think tank. 

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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