Report

State Department Misled Congress on Ouster of Ukraine Ambassador

A new trove of State Department emails sheds fresh light on events surrounding the impeachment inquiry.

Marie Yovanovitch testifies in the House impeachment inquiry.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on Nov. 15. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A newly released trove of documents shows that the State Department misled top lawmakers about why U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was removed from her post in May, undercutting the department’s official narrative on one of the issues to emerge from the impeachment inquiry.

In April, months before U.S. President Donald Trump’s policy maneuvering over Ukraine blew up into a full-fledged impeachment investigation, two senior Democratic congressmen pressed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to publicly defend Yovanovitch from a series of unsubstantiated attacks against her by Ukrainian political figures and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. The lawmakers, Reps. Eliot Engel and Steny Hoyer, urged Pompeo in a private letter to publicly defend Yovanovitch from the attacks—which quickly gained traction in the right-wing press—“given her focus on anti-corruption efforts,” and to make clear U.S. diplomats abroad “will not be subjected to any politically motivated attacks.”

Yovanovitch, a seasoned career diplomat, became one of the key witnesses in the historic impeachment probe that centers on whether Trump improperly withheld military aid from Ukraine unless it agreed to investigate one of his Democratic political rivals. In public and private testimony in recent weeks, Yovanovitch testified that she was asked in March to extend her tour in Ukraine through 2020. But only two months later, she testified, she was abruptly removed from her post following a concerted smear campaign by “people with clearly questionable motives” who were likely angered by her push on anti-corruption reform initiatives in Ukraine.

But that’s not the story the State Department painted for the Democratic lawmakers. In mid-June—two months after Engel and Hoyer sent their letter, and weeks after Yovanovitch was removed from her post—a senior State Department official wrote brief letters to Hoyer and Engel saying that the ambassador “was due to complete her three-year diplomatic assignment in Kyiv this summer” and that she left her post on May 20, “which aligns with the presidential transition in Ukraine.” The letter made no mention of her being asked to extend her post into 2020. It is not common practice for the State Department to switch its ambassadors based on a new foreign leader coming into office. 

Hoyer is the House majority leader, and Engel is the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. 

Hoyer criticized the State Department’s letter. “The State Department’s reply that the Ambassador’s assignment was due to be complete is outrageous,” he said in a statement to Foreign Policy. “The Administration’s attempt to mislead Congress about her removal should not be overlooked.”

The State Department did not respond to several requests for comment for this story. 

The president has the authority to remove ambassadors from their posts at any time and for any reason, and Yovanovitch’s case is not central to the legal questions that lawmakers are debating in the impeachment inquiry. But Democrats point to it as an example of how Giuliani and his associates undercut the Trump administration’s own stated policy on Ukraine, allegedly to support the president’s personal political goals and not those of U.S. foreign policy. 

The letters were sent separately to Engel and Hoyer, using the same language, from Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Mary Elizabeth Taylor on June 11. They were part of 100 pages of documents the State Department released on Friday evening in response to a lawsuit from American Oversight, an ethics watchdog organization that has targeted the Trump administration with open records requests. 

The documents add new details to senior State Department officials’ involvement in Yovanovitch’s case, including records that show Pompeo had several phone calls with Giuliani in late March, as the smear campaign against the ambassador gained steam and before she was recalled. 

The newly released documents show Taylor emailing other State Department officials after receiving Hoyer and Engel’s letter, urging them to have the response “tasked and turned around quickly.”

The documents provide no additional details on why it took two months for Taylor to respond. 

Pompeo has been accused by former senior diplomats of not doing enough to support Yovanovitch and other State Department officials compelled to testify in the impeachment probe. Despite the president disparaging Yovanovitch on Twitter, some senior State Department officials, including Sullivan and his expected replacement, Stephen Biegun, have praised Yovanovitch as a capable foreign service officer and said she was unfairly subjected to a smear campaign. 

But Pompeo has largely stayed silent on the matter. He has criticized the impeachment process and insisted that Trump did not act improperly. He has also praised U.S. policy on Ukraine under Trump, including the decision to provide lethal military aid to the country as it fought Russian-backed separatists—something the previous administration did not do.

“I know precisely what American policy was with respect to Ukraine,” Pompeo told reporters during a press conference in Brussels on Nov. 20. “I was working on it and I am terribly proud of what we accomplished.”

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

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