Trump impeachment: For someone supposedly not even watching, president's 'intimidating' intervention loomed large

A witness who has found herself under fire in hostile world capitals appeared surprised to find herself on the receiving end of a direct personal attack from the president of the United States

Andrew Feinberg
Capitol Hill, Washington DC
Friday 15 November 2019 21:47 GMT
Trump impeachment: Key moments from testimony of Marie Yovanovitch

As Friday's House Intelligence Committee hearing began, White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham wanted to put the question of whether President Trump would be watching to rest.

"The President will be watching Congressman Nunes' opening statement, but the rest of the day he will be working hard for the American people."

If one were to take Grisham at her world, it would mean that Trump wasn't watching when Marie Yovanovitch, a career foreign service officer and the United States' former ambassador to Ukraine, delivered a powerful opening statement warning that America's Ukraine policy "has been thrown into disarray," thanks in part to the smear campaign orchestrated by Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani which led to her removal.

"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, adding later that letting foreign service professionals be attacked by outside interests "will cause real harm, if it hasn't already".

It would also mean that Trump didn't see Yovanovitch describe how the colour had drained from her face upon learning about how during a phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky, he had promised Zelensky that she "was going to go through some things".

Nor would he have seen her describe his words as "a vague threat".

"I didn't know what to think but I was very concerned ... 'She's gonna go through some things,' it doesn't sound good. It sounded like a threat," she said.

"I did ... I didn't know exactly, it's not a very precise phrase... it didn't feel like I was uh... I really don't know how to answer the question any further except to say that it kind of felt like a vague threat and so I wondered what that meant. It concerned me."

But despite Grisham's promise to the contrary, Trump was watching, and at 10.01am, the sound of reporters' phones buzzing could be heard over Democratic staff counsel Daniel Goldman's questions as the president took to Twitter to respond.

"Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. 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 US President's absolute right to appoint ambassadors," he tweeted.

When Goldman's 45 minute question period expired roughly 30 minutes later, House Intelligence Committee Chair Adam Schiff asked Yovanovitch to respond to Trump's tweet, which he then read aloud.

Of the claim that bad things had followed her from posting to posting, Yovanovitch said: "I don't think I have such powers, not in Mogadishu in Somalia, not in other places. I actually believe where I served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made things better for the US as well as for the countries that I've served in."

Though Yovanovitch, who has found herself under fire in hostile world capitals, is no stranger to tense situations, she appeared surprised to find herself on the receiving end of a direct personal attack from the president of the United States.

Asked about how Mr Trump's attacks might be interpreted by others in the US State Department, Yovanovitch was blunt in her assessment of his words' effect.

"I think the effect is to be intimidating," she said.

Schiff then took the opportunity to respond to Trump directly: "Some of us take witness intimidation very seriously."

It was a moment that seemed to be par for the course in the age of Mr Trump's reality television-infused, Twitter-driven presidency, demonstrating both the power and pitfalls of social media.

But the response from Democrats showed that Trump's response to Yovanovitch's testimony was more an example of the latter than anything else.

"When Trump cannot block witnesses from testifying, he practices witness tampering, heckling and intimidation," Democrat Jamie Raskin told The Independent in a statement. "As the GOP keeps saying, he's entitled to his own foreign policy – and that foreign policy is based on serving his corrupt schemes."

Raja Krishnamoorthi, another Democrat, said: "The President reminded us this morning of his penchant for tweeting and ... intimidating witnesses, I think it reminded us of the reason we're here."

Krishnamoorthi said Trump's tweet falls into "a totally separate and more serious category of wrongdoing", adding later that the juxtaposition of Trump's potentially offending tweet on the same day that his longtime confidante Roger Stone was convicted of intimidating a congressional witness was "a very interesting development".

When it was his turn to question Yovanovitch, California Democrat Eric Swalwell called Trump's tweet "disgusting".

"He smeared you in Ukraine ...he is smearing you right now as you are testifying," he said.

When Swalwell asked Yovanovitch if the president's smears would stop her from fighting corruption, she responded calmly but defiantly.

"I will continue with my work," she said.

Former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch says 'colour drained' from her face when hearing Trump's 'threat'

State Department veterans from previous administrations also praised Yovanovitch and her response to Trump's attack.

Bruce Brown, who served as Deputy Assistant Secretary for Senate Affairs under former president George W Bush, told The Independent that Trump's remarks were "stupid".

Brown helped prepare Yovanovitch for confirmation to serve as the US ambassador to Armenia, and also shepherded her successor, Ambassador William Taylor through his Senate confirmation when Mr Bush nominated him to be ambassador to Ukraine.

He called both veteran diplomats "pros", and said Yovanovitch "was a star [foreign service officer] in both [Republican] and [Democratic] administrations".

"If she had done a poor job in previous assignments she would never have been promoted to the senior level let alone be a three-time ambassador," he said.

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Joel Rubin said Yovanovitch's response to Trump's tweet was "great".

Five of the biggest congressional hearings in US history

"'I don't think I have that power' is elegant and poignant," said Rubin, who served in the role from 2014 to 2015. Her response "made it clear how silly that tweet was," he added.

While some Republicans were lukewarm in their response to Trump's tweet about Yovanovitch, and some commentators and Democrats said it was a textbook case of witness intimidation, Chris Stewart of Utah told The Independent that he didn't think it would have much effect.

"I don't think this witness is going to be intimidated by a president's tweets," he said. "I frankly think it'd be insulting to her to suggest she'd be intimidated by that – she's faced much more than that before."

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