The recent revelations about President Trump’s treatment of Ukraine catalogue a number of potentially serious misdeeds, including abuse of power, extortion of a foreign leader, violation of campaign finance laws and a conspiracy to cover up all of the above by storing records of phone conversations on a top-secret server in the White House.
But as investigations proceed and Americans consider these revelations, they should hold in mind another transgression: the president’s egregious mistreatment of one of the country’s most distinguished ambassadors. Even before the rough transcript of the call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was released, we knew that the administration had prematurely curtailed the appointment of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch following public attacks on her by the president’s eldest son and by his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani. Administration officials then falsely claimed that she was leaving her post “as planned.” Now, we also know that Trump went on to denigrate the ambassador in a phone call to a foreign leader, telling Zelensky that “the woman” was “bad news” and vaguely but ominously noting that “she’s going to go through some things.”
Presidents are entitled to have their own ambassadors in place and to expect those ambassadors to implement their policies. But the consequences of Trump’s apparent willingness to punish a top U.S. representative, and to disparage her in a conversation with a foreign government, should not be underestimated. Allowing this to stand would not only have a chilling effect on the entire diplomatic corps but also could undermine U.S. foreign policy more broadly.
Both of us served as assistant secretaries of state for European and Eurasian Affairs, as well as on the staff of the National Security Council, under Republican and Democratic presidents. We know the importance of having representatives abroad who serve the country regardless of which party happens to be in power at any given time. It was our honor to work for many years with many of them, and none was more professional, capable or nonpartisan than Yovanovitch, who loyally and diligently served administrations from both parties for several decades — including as ambassador in demanding posts such as Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Ukraine. We know her as professional, disciplined and dedicated.
It is impossible to know what “things” Trump was suggesting to Zelensky that the ambassador was going to go through, but it is impossible to conjure up any benign interpretation of those disturbing words. Yovanovitch, and all Foreign Service officers whose oath is to the country and the Constitution, deserve better.
Like the military, the Foreign Service is an institution imbued with a culture of sacrifice, professionalism and loyalty — both up through the chain of command to the country’s elected leaders and down to the most junior officers. America’s diplomats serve around the world, in pleasant posts and war zones. Sometimes they wear suits, and sometimes they wear body armor. And sometimes they don’t come home. Through it all, they serve the country by selflessly contributing their expertise in foreign languages, foreign cultures and getting things done.
It takes much time and effort to build a strong institution, but tearing it down can happen fast. Morale at the State Department is low, applications to join the Foreign Service are at the lowest level since 2008, and many senior officers have retired, resigned or been pushed out. These trends will only worsen if diplomats must live in fear that they will be cast aside for failing to support a president’s personal or partisan agenda. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — who prided himself on restoring “swagger” to the State Department and committed himself to reinvigorating it — should thus be asked to explain how his organization is going to function if its best people must live in fear of presidential denunciation and retribution for doing their jobs. Secretary of State Colin Powell, a retired four-star general, told many of the career Foreign Service officers who served there that they were his diplomatic “battalion commanders.” As a former Army officer himself, Pompeo should know better than others that leaders who denigrate and demean their troops do not win many battles.
What Yovanovitch was doing in Ukraine — along with her colleagues from the European Union, International Monetary Fund and other multilateral institutions — was the tireless, difficult work of pressing the Ukrainian government to fight corruption, push ahead with reforms and continue to resist Russia’s aggression. It was not her job to press the Ukrainians to focus on what Trump apparently wanted them to focus on, namely digging up information to further his political interests. That Trump was apparently willing to leverage U.S. military assistance — potentially leaving Ukraine vulnerable to military threats from Russia — to advance those political interests is shocking and deeply damaging. That he was apparently willing to throw a U.S. ambassador under the bus as part of that effort makes it even worse.