Ousted ambassador calm, collected as Trump fires off tweets belittling her
Washington – The box of white tissues stood by, two seats to Maria Yovanovitch’s right, as she told the world about being “shocked, appalled, devastated” that the president had badmouthed her after firing her as ambassador to Ukraine. But Yovanovitch stayed a picture of soft-spoken reserve, even as her former boss disparaged her again, in real time, during her solo testimony in the House’s impeachment proceedings.
“It’s very intimidating,” she said of President Donald Trump’s tweet, which was displayed on screens in the hearing room.
Whatever the president’s intent, the moment seemed consistent with Yovanovitch’s account that she was “kneecapped” by a smear campaign, then ousted, as Trump and his allies pushed Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden and his son.
It was also hard not to notice that Trump, who has an extensive history of putting down women who challenge him, had abstained from attacking a pair of tweedy male diplomats who had told a similar story Wednesday. But when Yovanovitch, who usually goes by Masha, sat at the same witness table and relayed her experience, Trump fired off a tweet that weaponized her three-decade record of diplomatic postings.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” Trump wrote in part, referencing Somalia, the first of her 13 assignments.
Yovanovitch, 60, shrugged and smiled. “Well,” she said. “I don’t think I have such powers, not in Mogadishu and some other places.”
By the end of the day, the dark-suited career diplomat and daughter of immigrants who fled the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany had her own Twitter hashtag and her version of a mic drop moment.
It was far from the first time Yovanovitch felt threatened by Trump and his associates, according to her testimony. But Democrats conducting impeachment proceedings against the nation’s 45th president said his tweets amounted to evidence of witness intimidation, potentially for a separate article of impeachment. Republicans, too, were stunned by Trump’s tweet and declined to defend it, if they were willing to talk about it at all.
“The president’s going to defend himself,” said Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y.
The House’s No. 3 Republican said Trump had been “wrong.”
Yovanovitch “clearly is somebody who’s been a public servant to the United States for decades and I don’t think the president should have done that,” said Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo.
For her part, Yovanovitch offered chilling detail about the lead-up to her firing, in which she said she felt pressured to put out public shows of support for Trump and got none in return. She said she was told during a 1 a.m. phone call from a State Department official to return to the United States “on the next plane” because of concerns from “up the street,” which she believed to mean the White House. She said Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told her the president had lost confidence in her. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Sullivan said, “was no longer able to protect” her from attacks led by Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
But months after her firing, Yovanovitch said she felt alarmed again as she read a transcript of Trump’s July 25th phone call. On it, he asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for the “favor” of the investigations. Trump also made clear that Yovanovitch, though gone, was very much on his mind.
“The woman,” Trump said, according to a rough transcript released by the White House, “she’s going to go through some things.”
“It was a terrible moment,” Yovanovitch recalled Friday. Someone who watched her read the White House’s rough transcript told her “that the color drained from my face. I think I even had a physical reaction.”
It sounded, she said, “like a threat.”
In private testimony, she had grown emotional retelling the story and at one point agreed to take a break.
That didn’t happen Friday, so there was no need for tissues. But Yovanovitch made clear she was still unnerved by the ordeal. It’s hard to believe, she said, “the president would talk to any ambassador like that to a foreign head of state, and it was me.”
Watching from the rows reserved for the public were some women from Long Island who had taken the train to Washington to see the proceedings firsthand. When Yovanovitch was done, Schiff delivered a stemwinder of a closing statement, telling her, “You were viewed as an obstacle that had to go.”
He gaveled the proceedings, which had stretched over six hours, to a close. Republicans shouted for his attention but Schiff walked out.
Members of the public jumped to their feet and applauded Yovanovitch as she, her lawyers and others in her retinue stood. Yovanovich heard the hoots and looked over her shoulder. Then she smiled and headed out a side door, her turn in the public eye complete.
“It touched my soul, the way Schiff just ended it,” said Ann Orton, of Northport, New York, a retired teacher who took the train to the hearings with two friends. “I wanted to cheer.”
Her friend, Cathy Benjamin of Bay Shore, said it was Yovanovitch who had moved her.
“Having to testify in front of the world to Congress,” she said. “What courage.”
By the end of the day, someone had removed the box of tissues from the witness table.