Whether this is technically witness tampering, it’s undeniably appalling. Even on Fox News, Ken Starr called Trump’s attack on Yovanovitch during her testimony “extraordinarily poor judgment.”
What it shows — as does all of the former ambassador’s testimony, along with lots of other evidence we have seen — is that Trump has been running a thugocracy, one in which the president talks and acts like a Mafioso and so do the people who have the greatest influence over him.
There’s an irony here, which is that Yovanovitch’s story is tangential to the case for impeachment. Trump’s firing of her was disturbing, undermined U.S. interests and was despicable in many ways, but it wasn’t in and of itself impeachable. It doesn’t bear directly on the pressure campaign to strong-arm Ukraine into helping Trump’s reelection by launching a sham “investigation” of Joe and Hunter Biden.
Yovanovitch, a respected diplomat with decades of service to the United States, came to Ukraine determined to help the country fight corruption, as was U.S. policy through successive administrations. This garnered her enemies among people who were profiting from that corruption, including two of the country’s chief prosecutors, Viktor Shokin and Yuri Lutsenko, and Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch with reported connections to Russian organized crime.
The story of the smear campaign against Yovanovitch is complex, but it involves Shokin and Lutsenko feeding bogus information about her to Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and his recently arrested colleagues Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman (who are linked to Firtash), as well as to American right-wing media.
In their efforts to get Yovanovitch removed, the corrupt Ukrainians revealed an imperfect understanding of what motivates Trump. Lutsenko spread a bogus story that she had given him a list of people not to prosecute, an allegation widely dismissed as preposterous. This kind of thing could damage a person’s reputation in Ukraine, but no one thinks Trump actually cares about whether corrupt people are being prosecuted.
People who knew Trump better understood what would turn him against Yovanovitch: The allegation that she was insufficiently loyal to Donald Trump.
Which is why Joe diGenova — a Trump ally who is the lawyer for both Rudy’s goons Parnas and Fruman and for Firtash, the oligarch — went on Fox News in March and said that Yovanovitch “is known and reported by people there to have bad-mouthed the President” and “to have told Ukrainians not to listen to him or obey his policy, because he was going to be impeached.” He repeated this to Sean Hannity, and then the allegation quickly spread through conservative media.
DiGenova has never said where he learned Yovanovitch was supposedly “bad-mouthing” Trump. In her testimony, Yovanovitch was emphatic that it never happened. But Parnas worked the same angle; he recounts that at a gathering, he told Trump that Yovanovitch didn’t support him, and Trump reacted by saying she should be fired.
In addition, Parnas and Fruman directed huge contributions to then-Rep. Pete Sessions’s campaigns. On the same day that Parnas visited him in his Capitol Hill office, Sessions wrote to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo complaining that Yovanovitch was not loyal to Trump and should be fired.
So what we see is that the people who understand Trump knew exactly how to manipulate him. Knowing that he values personal loyalty far more than competence or the interests of the United States, all they had to do was keep telling him that Yovanovitch wasn’t loyal to him, and she’d be gone.
“How could our system fail like this?” Yovanovitch asked in her opening statement Friday. “How is it that foreign corrupt interests could manipulate our government?”
Thought she didn’t say it herself, the answer is two words: Donald Trump.
Corrupt interests (some foreign, some domestic) could manipulate our government because the president is himself corrupt. And insecure, and vindictive and someone who talks and acts like he’s running an organized crime family.
Stunningly, as Yovanovitch was calmly explaining how all this happened, Trump let everyone know what a thug he is, trying to intimidate her one more time. It’s probably too late for that, though; all he did was remind everyone who he is.