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Opinion U.S. ambassador to Ukraine is recalled after becoming a political target

Rudy Giuliani, an attorney for President Trump. (Charles Krupa/AP)

The Trump administration has recalled the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine abruptly and ahead of her scheduled departure, after she became a target of political attacks by conservative media outlets and Donald Trump Jr. Democrats see her early departure under pressure as the unfair targeting of a career Foreign Service officer by Team Trump.

According to an internal State Department management notice that I obtained, U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch will leave her post permanently on May 20, with no replacement in place and no nominations to fill that position. “We expect the Department to appoint a long-term Chargé d’Affaires to lead the mission until a new Chief of Mission is nominated and confirmed,” said the notice, which was sent to all mission personnel at the U.S. Embassy in Kiev. Incoming Deputy Chief of Mission Kristina Kvien plans to arrive in Kiev on May 28, and Joseph Pennington will continue to serve as chargé d’affaires and acting deputy chief through the transition period, the notice said.

A State Department spokesman told me, “Yovanovitch is concluding her three-year diplomatic assignment in Kiev in 2019 as planned.” One senior administration official told me that she had been previously scheduled to depart at the beginning of July and that her new May departure was a change in that plan. Another administration official said that Yovanovitch was given a choice whether to stay until July or leave early and she chose to leave early, due to the ongoing political attacks. Yovanovitch did not respond to a direct request for comment.

“Her confirmed departure date in May aligns with the presidential transition in Ukraine,” the State Department spokesperson said. The senior administration official told me that’s true but irrelevant because the State Department doesn’t rotate ambassadors to align with political transitions in host countries.

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The House Democratic leadership thinks that Yovanovitch’s early departure under pressure is a clear sign that the White House is responding to calls from Trump allies, Trump family members and conservative media sites that have accused Yovanovitch, without firm evidence, of being part of a conspiracy that involves anti-corruption probes in Ukraine and efforts by the Trump team to investigate ties between Ukrainian officials and the Hillary Clinton campaign.

“Ambassador Yovanovitch is a dedicated public servant and a diplomat of the highest caliber who has represented the United States under both Republican and Democratic administrations. The White House’s outrageous decision to recall her is a political hit job and the latest in this Administration’s campaign against career State Department personnel,” said a statement released Tuesday morning by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.). “It’s clear that this decision was politically motivated, as allies of President Trump had joined foreign actors in lobbying for the Ambassador’s dismissal.”

On March 24, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that Yovanovitch was a “joker,” and he linked to an article in the Daily Wire headlined “Calls Grow To Remove Obama’s U.S. Ambassador To Ukraine.” That article is a roundup of conservative media figures leveling thinly sourced allegations against Yovanovitch on Fox News. Former federal prosecutor Joe diGenova said on Fox that she had “bad mouthed the President of the United States to Ukrainian officials.” Fox News’ Laura Ingraham reported that former congressmen Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to say that Yovanovitch “reportedly demonstrated clear anti-Trump bias.”

Four days before Don Jr.’s tweet, the Hill’s John Solomon published an interview with Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko, who alleged that Yovanovitch had given him a “do not prosecute list,” ostensibly to protect Obama-Clinton allies, back in 2016. The State Department told Solomon that that allegation was “an outright fabrication.”

Lutsenko also told Solomon that he would open up an investigation into allegations that the Ukrainian government helped the Clinton campaign in 2016, perhaps by providing information on corrupt payments from the administration of then-President Viktor Yanukovych to former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Last week, the New York Times reported that Lutsenko has met with President Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani multiple times in New York this year. Lutsenko also told Solomon that he was reopening an investigation into Burisma Holdings, an energy company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch that for a time had Hunter Biden, son of Joe Biden, on its board.

Solomon wrote a column on April 1 drawing connections between Biden’s work to fight corruption in Ukraine as vice president and his son’s interest in Burisma. The allegation is that Biden pressured Kiev to fire Lutsenko’s predecessor in an effort to stop the Burisma probe. Initially, Lutsenko had cleared Burisma of any wrongdoing, but he told Solomon that he had reopened the investigation.

The Times also reported that the case had been reopened. “Some see [Lutsenko’s] decision as an effort to curry favor with the Trump administration,” the Times reported. On Tuesday, Bloomberg quoted Lutsenko’s own spokesperson saying that the case had not been reopened.

Biden has said he never discussed Burisma or his son’s business with Ukrainian officials. Bloomberg also reported that the case against Burisma had been shelved at least a year before Biden called for the firing of the general prosecutor at the time, which undermines the theory that he was trying to influence that investigation. The Biden campaign declined to comment. Trump campaign spokeswoman Erin Perrine doubled down on the accusation that Biden tried to intervene in Ukraine on behalf of his son and Burisma, sending me a statement Tuesday accusing Biden of “blackmailing a foreign government to drop an investigation.”

As for Ambassador Yovanovitch, several officials told me that she was indeed involved in and strongly supportive of Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts. But there’s no public evidence that she was directly involved in anything related to Burisma, Manafort or providing information to the Clinton campaign that would help it against the Trump campaign.

The clear and coordinated effort to smear a sitting U.S. ambassador has now resulted in her early departure under attack after 33 years of service to administrations in both parties. But that’s just the beginning of the larger effort to create a cacophony of allegations by the Trump team and its allies to highlight Ukraine to attack Biden, help Manafort and re-litigate the 2016 election.

Read more:

Melinda Haring: Ukraine just showed us how a foreign power can play Trump to its own ends

Max Boot: Let’s not lose sight of the real scandal: Trump was elected with Russia’s help

Henry Olsen: Old fissures reemerge in Ukraine. That’s a big problem.