Testifying in defiance of President Donald Trump’s ban, former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch told House impeachment investigators on Friday that Trump himself had pressured the State Department to oust her from her post and get her out of the country.
Yovanovitch, who was abruptly recalled as the US envoy to Ukraine in May, appeared for a closed-door deposition on Friday, despite Trump’s position that his administration would not cooperate with the investigation.
The Democratic chairmen of the three House committees leading the probe discovered that the State Department on Thursday had directed Yovanovitch not to testify, they said in a statement.
They then issued a subpoena for the former ambassador’s scheduled testimony and she complied.
Yovanovitch, in her opening statement obtained by several news agencies, said she was “incredulous that the US government chose to remove an ambassador based, as best as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives”.
The impeachment enquiry focuses on whether Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine as part of a pressure campaign to force the country’s officials to open an investigation into a gas company linked to Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. There has been no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
Democrats were hoping to determine if Yovanovitch’s removal was related to a pressure campaign, or particularly, her unwillingness to take part.
A former diplomat who spoke to Yovanovitch shortly after she was removed from her post told the Associated Press on Friday that Yovanovitch had refused to participate in “all this offline, personal, informal stuff” and had made clear to those pushing for investigations that the US government had formal ways to request them.
Yovanovitch, according to a copy of her opening statement, said she had been told by a senior State Department official about “a concerted campaign against me”.
The official had told her that the president had pushed for her removal since the middle of last year, even though the department believed “I had done nothing wrong”, she said in the prepared statement.
Yovanovitch also expressed alarm over damage to American diplomacy under Trump and warned about “private interests” circumventing “professional diplomats for their own gain, not the public good”.
Trump has maintained he did nothing wrong in his dealings with Ukraine and has labelled the impeachment probe “garbage”.
‘Campaign’ for removal
In the months leading up to Yovanovitch’s removal, Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his associates aided in an apparent campaign to have her recalled.
Giuliani had accused Yovanovitch of blocking efforts to persuade Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. The former mayor also provided information to both Trump and the State Department about Yovanovitch, who he suggested was biased against the president.
On Friday, Giuliani said he took those actions “in my role as a defence lawyer” for Trump.
A day earlier, US prosecutors arrested two Florida businessmen tied to Giuliani, charging them with campaign finance violations.
According to an indictment, the businessmen had lobbied a US congressman in 2018 for help ousting Yovanovitch. The indictment also alleges that the men leveraged a flurry of GOP political donations to force Yovanovitch’s removal, an effort prosecutors say was aided by laundered foreign money.
In her statement, Yovanovitch said she did not know Giuliani’s motives for attacking her but that his associates “may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine”.
Yovanovitch is a career diplomat who previously served as a US ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. She has remained on the State Department payroll as a fellow at Georgetown University since she was recalled.
During Trump’s July 25 call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, which has been at the centre of the impeachment probe, the US president said Yovanovitch “was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news”.
Zelensky agreed with Trump that she was a “bad ambassador”.
The conversation occurred after Trump had withheld nearly $400m in congressionally approved security aid to Ukraine.
US President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani pushed for the removal of Yovanovitch.
On Thursday, 10 Democratic senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding an explanation for Yovanovitch’s removal before the end of her three-year assignment.
“In particular, her early recall raises questions about whether you put the personal interests of the president above the department’s career personnel or US foreign policy,” they wrote.