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7 takeaways from Marie Yovanovitch’s and Michael McKinley’s Ukraine testimony

President Trump on Nov. 4 downplayed his relationship with former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch after her closed-door testimony was released. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)

We got our first glimpse of full closed-door testimony in the House’s impeachment inquiry on Monday. After getting piecemeal information about previous witnesses, the House released full transcripts from the depositions of former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and former top State Department aide Michael McKinley, who recently resigned in protest.

Transcript: Marie Yovanovitch's testimony

Transcript: Michael McKinley’s testimony

There is perhaps nothing earth-shattering in the two documents, but they do fill out the picture of a concerted effort by Trump allies to remove Yovanovitch — and a State Department willing to go only so far to defend her.

1. An ominous allusion to Yovanovitch’s ‘security’

In perhaps the most intriguing passage — and one that will require more inquiry — Yovanovitch says she was told she needed to return from Ukraine in late April because of concerns about her “security.”

She said she spoke at 1 a.m. Ukraine time with Director General of the Foreign Service Carol Perez, who told her to catch the next flight home.

“She said that there was a lot of concern for me, that I needed to be on the next plane home to Washington,” Yovanovitch said. “And I was like, what? What happened? And she said, I don’t know, but this is about your security. You need to come home immediately. You need to come home on the next plane.”

Yovanovitch was pressed on what Perez meant about her “security,” but Perez didn’t seem to know much:

YOVANOVITCH: And I said, physical security? I mean, is there something going on here in the Ukraine? Because sometimes Washington has intel or something else that we don’t necessarily know. And she said, no, I didn’t get that impression, but you need to come back immediately. And, I mean, I argued with her. I told her I thought it was really unfair that she was pulling me out of post without any explanation, I mean, really none, and so summarily.
Q: She didn’t give you an explanation for why it had to be so soon?
YOVANOVITCH: She said it was for my security, that this was for my well-being, people were concerned.
Q: What did you understand that to mean?
YOVANOVITCH: I didn’t know because she didn’t say, but my assumption was that, you know, something had happened, some conversations or something, and that, you know, now it was important that I had to leave immediately because I didn’t really know.

It would seem the investigations might inquire where Perez got this impression. Saying someone is under political duress is one thing; saying it’s a matter of their “security” is another.

2. She said she felt ‘threatened’ by Trump

Yovanovitch said that when she saw the transcript of the phone call between Trump and Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump said of Yovanovitch, “She’s going to go through some things,” she felt threatened:

Q: What did you understand that to mean?
YOVANOVITCH: I didn’t know what it meant. I was very concerned. I still am.
Q: Did you feel threatened?

3. Another Ukraine official expressed concerns about being roped into U.S. politics

The official is Ukrainian Interior Minister Arsen Avakov. Yovanovitch says he told her this in February:

Q: What were his concerns as expressed to you?
YOVANOVITCH: He thought it was — so he thought it was very dangerous, that Ukraine, since its independence, has had bipartisan support from both Democrats and Republicans all these years, and that to start kind of getting into U.S. politics, into U.S. domestic politics, was a dangerous place for Ukraine to be.

Yovanovitch said Avakov specifically cited former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort’s “black ledger” and unsubstantiated allegations about Ukrainian interference in the U.S. election and Joe Biden.

We already know that top Ukrainian defense official Oleksandr Danyliuk expressed concern to Yovanovitch’s replacement, William B. Taylor, about Zelensky being used as a “pawn” for Trump’s reelection campaign, according to Taylor’s testimony. There was also a May meeting in which Zelensky and top aides spent much of three hours trying to figure out how to navigate their tough position and avoid becoming wrapped up in U.S. politics, according to the Associated Press.

It seems the concern was quite widespread, and it began even earlier than previously known.

4. Sondland told Yovanovitch to tweet support of Trump

Yovanovitch says Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland urged her to tweet her support of President Trump to help save her job.

“He hadn’t been aware of” the campaign against her, Yovanovitch said, adding that “he said, you know, you need to go big or go home. You need to, you know, tweet out there that you support the president, and that all these are lies and everything else.”

Asked whether Sondland’s suggestion was as explicit as that, Yovanovitch added, “I mean, he may not have used the words ‘support President Trump,’ but he said, 'You know the President — well, maybe you don’t know him personally, but you know, you know the sorts of things that he likes. You know, go out there battling aggressively and, you know, praise him or support him.”

Yovanovitch said she didn’t heed the suggestion because “It was advice that I did not see how I could implement in my role as an Ambassador, and as a Foreign Service officer.”

This is merely the latest example of the politicization of certain elements of the Foreign Service — and the fact that people around Trump know the ticket to his good graces is personal praise.

5. McKinley resigned in part because he thought the State Department was being used for a political mission

McKinley has spent nearly 40 years working in foreign service and indicated he felt that what was happening around him was undermining the mission of American diplomats. This was the gist of reporting around his testimony in October, but this is the first time we’re hearing the former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo say it on the record:

In terms of supporting our values, we’re also the front line in promoting issues of human rights, democracy, and cooperation internationally. In this context, frankly, to see the emerging information on the engagement of our missions to procure negative political information for domestic purposes, combined with the failure I saw in the building to provide support for our professional cadre in a particularly trying time, I think the combination was a pretty good reason to decide enough, that I had—I had no longer a useful role to play.

Later, a questioner asked whether it was fair to say he resigned in part because he couldn’t be blind to using the State Department to dig up dirt on a political opponent.

“That is fair,” he said, adding: “And if I can underscore, in 37 years in the Foreign Service and different parts of the globe and working on many controversial issues, working 10 years back in Washington, I had never seen that.”

6. Pompeo put the brakes on a public statement in support of Yovanovitch

We don’t know why Pompeo stopped it, but McKinley said Pompeo’s determination not to issue a statement supporting Yovanovitch after the release of the Ukraine call transcript contributed to his decision to resign. It underscores the serious divide between political officials at the State Department like Pompeo and career officials like McKinley. Being a bridge between those two worlds was McKinley’s job, and he felt he couldn’t do it effectively after he tried, and failed, to stand up for Yovanovitch in the face of Trump’s attacks. He noted dismay among State Department employees “that there was no reaction from anybody in the career Foreign Service at senior ranks to do something more public in support of our colleagues. ”

McKinley asked Yovanovitch whether she wanted a statement of support, testifying it would be “the appropriate thing” to do after Trump said she was “bad news” in the now-public Ukraine call transcript. He testified that she said, “Yes, I would welcome it.” And he got four other senior officials on board. Then Pompeo intervened to stop it. From the transcript:

Q: What happened next?
A: Probably a couple hours later [State Department spokesperson] Morgan [Ortagus] reached out to me by phone and told me that the Secretary had decided that it was better not to release a statement at this time and that it would be in part to protect Ambassador Yovanovitch not draw undue attention to her.

McKinley said he had three conversations with Pompeo about this (even though Pompeo has publicly denied they talked about this). McKinley said he received silence every time and eventually decided to resign about a month early. And he made sure to let Pompeo know: “And in presenting my resignation, I made clear that I was looking to leave the Department, I wasn’t looking to create any news story out of it, but that he should be aware that, of course, part of the reason, people were very aware that I was concerned about what I saw as the lack of public support for Department employees,” he testified.

7. McKinley took issue with Pompeo’s letter to Congress refusing to cooperate with the impeachment inquiry

At the very least, McKinley didn’t think Pompeo was supporting State Department personnel in this inquiry the way Pompeo claimed he was.

Let’s back up for a minute. Very early in the impeachment inquiry, Pompeo told the Democratic heads of the investigatory committees that State Department officials wouldn’t be cooperating (obviously, that didn’t hold). McKinley didn’t read the letter, but another senior colleague, George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine, did. Kent wrote a memo that McKinley did read and said it was pretty rough on Pompeo. It “includes allegations of intimidation and bullying and questions accuracy—I don’t know whether I used the word—and raises questions about whether there are lies in statements, you know. And then I said: ‘And this is why we really need to do something forcefully for our colleagues in the Foreign Service. And I also mentioned, frankly, the legal fees concern that I had.’ ”

He later testified it is “correct” that Kent felt concerned that he and others asked to testify in the impeachment inquiry were being bullied by the State Department. Kent has testified he was told to “lay low” on Ukraine policy and let Trump’s political appointees handle it.

McKinley is an ancillary witness to the central allegations against Trump, that the president politicized U.S. foreign policy for personal gain. He did not oversee Ukraine issues and wasn’t on the July call with Ukraine’s president. But overall, his testimony indicates he thought Trump’s political allies were politicizing the State Department in a way that would be consistent with the allegations facing the president.