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Yovanovitch describes weakened State Department, questions ‘smear’ campaign

Marie Yovanovitch, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until she was abruptly recalled in May of this year, testified publicly as part of the impeachment inquiry on Friday. As Yovanovitch answered questions about why President Trump had dismissed her, Trump took to Twitter to launch new attacks against her. Lisa Desjardins, Nick Schifrin and Yamiche Alcindor join Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It's been a dramatic day at the U.S. Capitol.

    In the second public hearing in the impeachment inquiry into President Trump, the witness was Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. Mr. Trump derided her in his July phone call with Ukraine's president that is now at the center of this investigation.

    Many of today's questions focused on how and why he fired her. In a first, Mr. Trump resorted to Twitter to attack her while she was testifying.

    There is a lot to unpack from this day.

    And here to look at it all, Yamiche Alcindor is at the White House. Our Lisa Desjardins was in the committee hearing room. She us joins us now in our studio, along with Nick Schifrin, who is also at the table.

    Hello to all of you. There is a lot to unpack.

    Lisa, I'm going to start with you.

    The day pretty much started — here we have a career diplomat, and they went right to the firing, how it happened, what happened, how she felt about it when it happened, and she talked about feeling threatened.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    I think the Democrats here were trying to show real damage.

    And Ambassador Yovanovitch, for anyone who watched the hearing, she was very consistent in her testimony. She was trying to provide direct answers. She didn't get very emotional, except occasionally.

    But the words, she said, described the emotion she went through as first she was ousted and as the president attacked her on Twitter.

    Let's listen to some of what she said.

  • Marie Yovanovitch:

    I was shocked and devastated that I would feature in a phone call between two heads of state in such a manner, where President Trump said that I was bad news to another world leader, and that I would be going through some things.

    So I was — it was a terrible moment. A person who saw me actually reading the transcript said that the color drained from my face. I think I even had a physical reaction.

    I think, you know, even now, words kind of fail me.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That, of course, is the call between President Trump, the man she was — she had been serving, and President Zelensky, the man she was trying to sort of help his country with.

    And she never said she expected to be in that call. Also, Judy, she was asked how her family is coping with this. And that was sort of a very heavy moment, where you could almost feel her bracing herself. And she said quietly she doesn't want to talk about that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, that was something that came through on the television screen as we were watching.

    So, Yamiche, meantime, at the White House, the president was paying attention. Tell us about that.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president was ready to defend himself in real time.

    But defending himself meant in this case attacking Ambassador Yovanovitch as she was testifying publicly in this impeachment inquiry.

    I want to read to you some of the tweets that the president sent out, because they are, in some ways, quite remarkable.

    Here are two tweets that he sent out: Everywhere Maria 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 U.S. president's absolute right to appoint ambassadors."

    He went on to say: "With all of that, however, I have done far more for Ukraine" than O," referring to President Obama."

    Now I have to fact-check here. The president is saying that it was the president of Ukraine who actually had an issue with Marie Yovanovitch, when, in fact, on that July 25 phone call, the president of Ukraine says very clearly: "Thank you, Mr. President. Thank you, President Trump, for being the first person to bring up that Marie Yovanovitch was a bad ambassador."

    So it was President Trump who initially said the Marie Yovanovitch had a problem and that he did not like the work that she was doing. And then the president of Ukraine essentially says, I agree with you.

    So while the president was lashing out at the ambassador, he was also misleading the American public in these tweets.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Yamiche, we know that not long after the president did tweet those criticisms of her, the ambassador was asked about it by Chairman Adam Schiff.

    Let's watch that.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif.:

    Would you like to respond to the president's attack that everywhere you went turned bad?

  • Marie Yovanovitch:

    I mean, I don't think I have such, not in Mogadishu, Somalia, and not in other places.

    I actually think that where I have served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made things better for the U.S., as well as for countries that I served in.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    Notwithstanding the fact that, as you testified earlier, the president implicitly threatened you in that call record, and now the president, in real time, is attacking you, what effect do you think that has on other witnesses' willingness to come forward and expose wrongdoing?

  • Marie Yovanovitch:

    It's very intimidating.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    It's designed to intimidate, is it not?

  • Marie Yovanovitch:

    I mean, I can't speak to what the president is trying to do, but I think the effect is to be intimidating.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Yamiche, that brought a round of reaction and conversation about whether the president was trying to intimidate a witness.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Democrats say that the president was essentially trying to witness-tamper here and that he was trying to intimidate Ambassador Yovanovitch with his tweets.

    At the White House, the president was specifically questioned about that. Here's what he said:

  • President Donald Trump:

    And I'll tell you about what tampering is. Tampering is when a guy like shifty Schiff doesn't let us have lawyers. Tampering is when Schiff doesn't let us have witnesses, doesn't let us speak. I have been watching today.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The president is saying that Republicans didn't have a chance to have lawyers speak within that public hearing.

    But, in fact, a Republican lawyer was questioning Ambassador Yovanovitch throughout the day, as was the Democratic lawyer, along with lawmakers. So the president there was lashing out and unloading at Ambassador Yovanovitch.

    He also made the point he essentially has free speech, that he, as an American, can say whatever he wants to say. But there are a lot of people are looking at the president saying his words have more weight than the average American. His Twitter account has some 50 million to 60 million people who are following him.

    So when he attacks Ambassador Yovanovitch, there are people who are worried that she will possibly be attacked or possibly be criticized by even more people. And, of course, Ambassador Yovanovitch said that this is very, very painful for her.

    But the president is essentially saying, I can say whatever I want to say.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick, let's go back into the hearing room, because there were a number of things that were brought up today.

    But one of them, related to all this, was what Ambassador Yovanovitch had to say about the effect of all this on people who work at the State Department.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, what she called as the smear campaign against her, the effect of the campaign that started really last year, but really took place or accelerated earlier this year, Ukrainian officials inventing facts because they wanted her gone, facts then repeated on FOX News, in The Hill newspaper, by Rudy Giuliani, by Donald J. Trump Jr., leading the president to lose confidence in her, and then the State Department bringing her home early.

    And she said she, I'm not the only one who's going through this. She called it a part of a campaign against Foreign Service professionals. And they said — she said that those Foreign Service professionals were being denigrated, being undermined.

    And it's not only the people in the State Department. She said the State Department itself was visibly unraveling.

  • Marie Yovanovitch:

    The crisis has moved from the impact on individuals to an impact on the institution itself. The State Department is being hollowed out from within, at a competitive and complex time on the world stage.

    This is not a time to undercut our diplomats. What I'd like to say is, while I obviously don't dispute that the president has the right to withdraw an ambassador at any time, for any reason, but what I do wonder is, why it was necessary to smear my reputation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Ambassador Yovanovitch blamed Secretary of State Pompeo, senior officials for not defending her from that smear campaign.

    And said the impact was U.S. ambassadors no longer having the faith that the U.S. government would defend them for doing their jobs, extraordinarily serious charges against the man who is still her boss, Secretary of State Pompeo.

    There's no on-the-record response from the State Department to what she said, but political appointees in the State Department say they are continuing their job, they're not feeling this. But Foreign Service officers I talk to say they're definitely feeling that this is not a good moment for them inside the State Department.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, meantime, Lisa, Republicans on the Intelligence Committee not happy at all about these impeachment proceedings.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Yes.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    What — step back for us. What are they trying to accomplish, from their point of view? And do they think they're doing it?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    They went into this week saying they wanted to do a few specific things.

    One of them, they wanted to show that Ukraine is generally a corrupt country and that President Trump has long been concerned about that corruption. That came up a few times today, but I don't think that really was an overall message that they hit home so much. It's something that they will come back to.

    They also have wanted to make the point that there really was Ukrainian interference in the president's campaign, something Nick has talked about a lot as well.

    Again, that's something that I think they mentioned. But, to me, Judy, their most — more successful moments were in pointing out what Ambassador Yovanovitch could not say, that she could not directly connect the president to some of these things that the Democrats are saying were the problems.

    Here's an exchange from Representative Chris Stewart of Utah, in which he really gets this idea of, what do you know about possible impeachable offenses? Let's listen.

  • Rep. Chris Stewart, R-Utah:

    Do you have any information regarding the president of the United States accepting any bribes?

  • Marie Yovanovitch:

    No.

  • Rep. Chris Stewart:

    Do you have any information regarding any criminal activity that the president of the United States has been involved with at all?

  • Marie Yovanovitch:

    No.

  • Rep. Chris Stewart:

    Thank you. Thank you for answering that directly.

    The American people know this is nonsense. The American people know this is unfair. And I have a prediction regarding this. I think that public support for impeachment is actually going to be less when these hearings are over than it is when the hearings began, because finally the American people are going to be able to see the evidence.

    And they're going to be able to make their own determination regarding that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And, of course, when he talks about the American people, for Republicans, they're thinking a lot about the Republican base and Trump voters.

    Those are the folks who think this is unfair.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, of course, another part of the Republican strategy here, Nick, is bringing up the connection to Joe Biden, his son Hunter Biden, who served on the board of this Ukrainian energy company.

    Fill us in on how that went.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right.

    The two lines of attack that Lisa just mentioned are Ukraine criticized candidate Trump in 2016 and Ukraine is corrupt, and those two things are the reason that President Trump should be skeptical of the new Ukrainian government. That's the logic there, so first criticism in 2016.

    We heard Representative Jim Jordan goes through quite a few Ukrainian officials who criticized candidate Trump. Ambassador Yovanovitch said, that doesn't mean the Ukrainian government undermined U.S. elections. And she reminded the committee that it was Russia that attacked in 2016.

    And then corruption. And the focus, of course, was Burisma, the largest energy company in Ukraine, so corrupt, after 2014, it was the first company that the British investigated for corruption.

    Hunter Biden, Joe Biden's son, was on the board of that company while Vice President Biden was dealing with Ukrainian officials. And earlier this week, we heard from another State Department official, George Kent, said he approached Biden's office, saying, hey, I'm concerned about this.

    And we heard Representative John Ratcliffe, Republican of Texas, ask about that again today.

  • Rep. John Ratcliffe, R-Texas:

    Did you ever — do you agree with that?

  • Marie Yovanovitch:

    Yes.

  • Rep. John Ratcliffe:

    That it was a legitimate concern to raise?

  • Marie Yovanovitch:

    I think that it could raise the appearance of a conflict of interests.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Republicans want to keep the focus on corruption, of course, Judy, and they're going to use Hunter Biden and Burisma to do that.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to Yamiche.

    Early in the day, separately, the White House did finally release something they were going — they said they were going to, and that is a transcript — or the memo describing the first phone conversation between President Trump and President Zelensky.

    What did we learn from that?

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Just as this second public hearing with Ambassador Yovanovitch was getting under way, the White House released a memo, not a transcript, but a memo, of a call between President Trump and President Zelensky, the president of Ukraine.

    It was their first call in April. And in that call, President Trump was essentially congratulating President Zelensky, saying, it's really great that you were elected. I'm looking forward to having you at the White House.

    They do not talk about Joe Biden. They don't talk about Burisma, which is the board of — or the energy company that Hunter Biden was on the board of.

    But it's important to note that Joe Biden was not yet running for president. So the former vice president had not yet entered the race.

    The second thing to note is, the White House put out a readout of the calls, basically a short note of the call, to reporters in April. And it said that — in that call, that President Trump and the president of Ukraine had discussed routing out corruption, except that, today, the call memo does not say anything about corruption.

    When I pressed the White House on that discrepancy, they said, well, actually, the National Security Council is the one in charge of putting up those readouts, so, really, you should go talk to them.

    That's significant, because Ambassador — because Army Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman, who said he had an issue and was concerned about the president bringing up the Bidens in the July call, is one of the people that would be involved in getting that readout ready.

    So what you have is essentially some people thinking that the White House is now blaming someone who had a concern about that July 25 call for not having the first call, the April call, be an accurate portrayal of what was discussed.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So interesting.

    Lisa, we talked a moment ago about what the Republicans were trying to accomplish. What are the Democrats trying to accomplish? And do they think they are doing that?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    They want to make the point that the president was setting up a system where corruption itself could blossom.

    And they wanted to establish a connection, essentially, between the president and Rudy Giuliani and what was happening in Ukraine, a big part of that connection, a man named Gordon Sondland, the ambassador to the European Union we have talked about before, also a man who donated — and this is important to remember — a million dollars to the Trump inaugural.

    So, listen to this line of questioning from Chairman Schiff to Ambassador Yovanovitch about this idea that her ouster was the first step in bringing in potential corruption, that these forces at work by Giuliani needed her out of the way to gain personally.

    Here's the question.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    But what if the president could put someone else in place that wasn't a career diplomat? What if he could put in place, say, a substantial donor to his inaugural?

    What if he could put in place someone with no diplomatic experience at all? What if he put in place someone whose portfolio doesn't even include Ukraine? Might that person be willing to work with Rudy Giuliani in pursuit of these investigations?

  • Marie Yovanovitch:

    Yes, maybe.

  • Rep. Adam Schiff:

    Well, that's exactly what happened, wasn't it?

  • Marie Yovanovitch:

    Yes.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    It's extraordinary to hear her say that. That's basically associating Gordon Sondland with kind of this idea that there were personal interests at stake.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And we're going to hear from Gordon Sondland next week.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    That's right, I believe on Wednesday…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    He's coming to testify.

    Yamiche, finally, back to you.

    The hearing ended this afternoon, but then the committee continued behind closed doors. Give us a quick sense of what's come out of that. I know a little information has come out, and then what we should look for in the week ahead.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    David Holmes is an aide to William Taylor, who is the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine, who overheard Gordon Sondland, the E.U. ambassador, speaking to President Trump.

    He told lawmakers just a few moments ago that the reason why he could overhear that call is because Gordon Sondland had the cell phone far away from his ear because President Trump was speaking so loudly.

    And what he heard was President Trump essentially saying he wanted to have investigations into the Bidens. That aide, David Holmes, also told William Taylor that President Trump cared more about the investigations of the Bidens and his 2020 campaign than anything else that was going on in Ukraine.

    So that's significant. And, next week, we're going to see more depositions and possibly — and also more public hearings.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hearings that continue Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

    Yamiche Alcindor, a long day for you, Lisa Desjardins here at the table with me, Nick Schifrin, thank you all. Thank you all.

    I saw that stretch.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Get ready.

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