5 Takeaways From the Trove of Impeachment Testimony Released Monday
From allegations that the State Department bullied and intimidated diplomats called to testify to an ambassador who was pressed to send a tweet praising Trump to save her job, here’s what you need to know.
The U.S. House of Representatives committees overseeing the impeachment probe into President Donald Trump released hundreds of pages of testimony on Monday from two senior diplomats that shed new light on how the State Department was ensnared in Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate a political rival.
The testimony from Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, and Michael McKinley, a former senior advisor to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was revealed as Democratic lawmakers sought to move to a more public phase of the probe, following a vote last Thursday that allowed for public hearings and the release of witness testimonies. Here are five key takeaways.
The State Department did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this story.
1. Yovanovitch said her bosses feared a Trump tweet.
In late March, Yovanovitch came under fire from conservative commentators in the United States, who accused her of having an anti-Trump bias, including one of the president’s sons, who described her as a “joker.” In Ukraine, a senior official accused her of handing him a list of people not to prosecute. This was happening as Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, was involved in his own effort to pressure the Ukrainian government to investigate the 2016 U.S. presidential election and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. Giuliani said he was involved in a campaign to oust Yovanovitch from her job amid the allegations, though no evidence has come to light to back up either claim. Yovanovitch testified that the attacks made it difficult to be a credible ambassador and that she had asked for Pompeo to back her up by issuing a statement of support.
No public statement was ever issued by the secretary of state out of fear that it could be later undermined by a tweet from the president, Yovanovitch said. “What I was told was that there was concern that the rug would be pulled out from under the State Department if they put out something publicly,” Yovanovitch said. McKinley corroborated this in his testimony, saying his efforts to get senior officials, including Pompeo, to release statements of public support for Yovanovitch were rejected.
Getting caught in the crosshairs of a contradictory tweet from Trump has become a familiar fear for many officials in Washington. When she was informed that she was going to be recalled to Washington ahead of schedule, Yovanovitch was told by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan that although she had lost the confidence of the president, she had done nothing wrong and that they wanted to make sure she was physically out of Ukraine in case she became the subject of a Trump tweet.
Yovanovitch also testified that she had asked U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland for advice on what to do when attacks against her began to appear in conservative media. Sondland—who was part of Giuliani’s back channel on Ukraine—advised that she tweet in support of the president as a way to shore up her position.
2. Sean Hannity shaped U.S. foreign policy, too.
Fox News host Sean Hannity was among the conservative media figures who attacked Yovanovitch this year. When unfounded allegations about Yovanovitch denouncing the president and instructing Ukrainian officials on whom not to prosecute for corruption first emerged, the State Department dismissed them as an “outright fabrication.” But since then, State has largely avoided issuing statements about Yovanovitch or the allegations against her. Yovanovitch told impeachment investigators that she was told that the secretary of state or another senior official had planned to call Hannity to ask whether there was any basis for his allegations. Although she never received a readout of the conversation, Yovanovitch said the call did take place, underscoring how powerful a voice Hannity is in the Trump administration.
3. Yovanovitch felt threatened.
Yovanovitch was advised to “watch [her] back” by Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov before she was removed from her post. Avakov told her in February that two Soviet-born businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, were working with Giuliani and wanted to see a different ambassador in the post, possibly because of their business interests in Ukraine. Yovanovitch said she was puzzled by this as one of the primary responsibilities of any U.S. ambassador is to promote American business interests. “If legitimate business comes to us, you know, that’s what we do, we promote U.S business,” Yovanovitch said in her testimony. Avakov also told the ambassador that he had avoided meeting with Giuliani as he feared that it could harm Ukraine’s interests if it were embroiled in partisan politics in Washington.
During his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump described Yovanovitch as “bad news” and said she would “go through some things.” Yovanovitch told lawmakers that she felt threatened on reading this. “I just simply don’t know what this could mean, but it does not leave me in a comfortable position,” she said, adding that she was concerned about her employment and pension. While she said she didn’t personally fear for her safety, her friends had expressed concern.
4. Pompeo’s former senior advisor had “never seen” anything like it.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, asked McKinley if one of the reasons he resigned was due to the Trump administration’s efforts to dig up dirt on Biden, a potential 2020 Democratic presidential rival of Trump’s, whose son sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Mckinley responded: “That is fair. And if I can underscore, in 37 years in the foreign service and different parts of the globe and working on many controversial issues, working 10 years back in Washington, I had never seen that.”
5. Bullying, intimidation, and “inaccuracies” in the State Department’s correspondence with Congress.
McKinley, a career foreign service officer, resigned from his post as senior advisor to Pompeo last month, just a week before he testified. In his testimony, McKinley said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent had sent him a memo that appeared to suggest a State Department lawyer was bullying and intimidating officials called to testify before the House. They didn’t specify who beyond Kent was being bullied and intimidated or specifically over what issues. The State Department did not respond to a request for comment seeking clarification.
Kent, who was also compelled to testify, expressed concerns in the memo that the department was not responding adequately to Congress’s request for documents in enough time and that there were inaccuracies in an Oct. 1 letter that Pompeo sent Congress about cooperating with the impeachment probe. Neither McKinley nor the members of Congress questioning him elaborated on what the inaccuracies were.
The memo “includes allegations of intimidation and bullying and questions accuracy—I don’t know whether I used the word—and raises questions about whether there are lies in statements,” McKinley said.
McKinley said he took the memo very seriously and passed it along to other senior officials at the department, including Sullivan, the undersecretary of state for political affairs, and the legal advisor. He said he didn’t receive a response. “I mean, literally, not one word was said to me about it,” he told the House panel.
Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack