“Even if you listen to the very good conversation that I had — a very, very good, no-pressure, congenial conversation with the new president of Ukraine — he had some things that were not flattering to say about her. And that came out of the blue.”
— Trump, in a Fox News interview, Oct. 12, 2019
Trump keeps telling people to “read the transcript” of his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, insisting that the July 25 conversation did not include any impeachable conduct.
Trump also keeps saying that Zelensky voiced dissatisfaction with Marie Yovanovitch, a career U.S. diplomat who until recently was the American ambassador in Kyiv, on that phone call.
We read the transcript. Trump criticized Yovanovitch first, and Zelensky, seemingly under pressure, said he agreed.
Zelensky was elected April 21. Three days later, on April 24, Yovanovitch was told by a State Department official to get on the first plane back to Washington. She left the country permanently May 20, the day of Zelensky’s inauguration.
Yovanovitch was ambassador to Kyrgyzstan under President George W. Bush, ambassador to Armenia from 2008 to 2011 under Bush and President Barack Obama, and ambassador to Ukraine since August 2016.
In early March, the State Department asked to extend Yovanovitch’s term as Ukraine ambassador until 2020. But by the end of May, she was removed. During a meeting in Washington, Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan said that “the President had lost confidence in me and no longer wished me to serve as his ambassador,” Yovanovitch testified as part of the House impeachment inquiry.
Sullivan added that “there had been a concerted campaign against me, and that the Department had been under pressure from the President to remove me since the Summer of 2018,” Yovanovitch told lawmakers. “He also said that I had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors for cause.”
Let’s go through some of the backstory. A former prosecutor general of Ukraine, Yuri Lutsenko, alleged in a March 24 interview with the Hill that Yovanovitch had given him a “do not prosecute” list of Ukrainian individuals — an explosive claim. Yovanovitch and the State Department denied it. But days after the interview was published, Donald Trump Jr. attacked Yovanovitch on Twitter.
Lutsenko later recanted, but not before Trump referenced the unfounded allegation in a tweet. (An associate to Trump attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, Lev Parnas, arranged the interview between Lutsenko and the Hill, it was later revealed. Parnas has been indicted over other reasons.)
Yovanovitch testified to Congress that she first learned Giuliani had it out for her in late 2018: “Basically, it was people in the Ukrainian Government who said that Mr. Lutsenko, the former prosecutor general, was in communication with Mayor Giuliani, and that they had plans, and that they were going to, you know, do things, including to me.”
Lutsenko — an ally of former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who lost to Zelensky — had pledged to root out corruption in the prosecutor general’s office, prosecute the killers of innocent people during the 2014 Maidan revolution, and prosecute money-laundering cases to recover more than $40 billion stolen by a previous Ukrainian president and other officials, Yovanovitch testified. “None of those things were done. And we thought those were great goals, and we wanted him to encourage him to continue with those goals,” she recalled to Congress.
Lutsenko would also ask Yovanovitch to set up meetings for him with top U.S. officials, dangling the vague prospect of important information to share with them, she said. She declined to set up the meetings, she told lawmakers in the impeachment inquiry, and said Lutsenko could be charming but was also seen as corrupt.
Now let’s go back to Trump’s claim that Zelensky had negative things to say about Yovanovitch. It’s not the first time that Trump has made this claim. He told reporters Oct. 11: “If you remember the phone call I had with the president — the new president — he didn’t speak favorably. But I just don’t know her. She may be a wonderful woman.”
On Oct. 12, Trump said in a Fox News interview: “She may be a very fine person. I just don’t know. But even if you listen to the very good conversation that I had — a very, very good, no-pressure, congenial conversation with the new president of Ukraine — he had some things that were not flattering to say about her. And that came out of the blue.” (In this interview, Trump also called Yovanovitch “very partisan” and “a Clinton-type person,” but there’s no evidence for either claim.)
This is a totally warped retelling. The White House’s rough transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky makes clear that it was Trump, not Zelensky, who brought up Yovanovitch.
“The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that,” Trump says.
This came seemingly out of the blue. It was in the middle of two requests Trump made of Zelensky that are being investigated as part of the House impeachment inquiry. Trump asked the Ukrainian president to investigate a conspiracy theory involving a Democratic server, Ukraine and the cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike; then he threw in the criticism of Yovanovitch; then he asked Zelensky to investigate the Bidens.
As for Yovanovitch, Zelensky responded: “I would kindly ask you if you have any additional information that you can provide to us, it would be very helpful for the investigation to make sure that we administer justice in our country with regard to the Ambassador to the United States from Ukraine as far as I recall her name was Ivanovich. It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100%. Her attitude towards me was far from the best as she admired the previous President and she was on his side. She would not accept me as a new President well enough.”
Zelensky was inaugurated the day Yovanovitch left Ukraine for good. He told Trump on the phone, “It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100%.”
This doesn’t sound like a man nursing resentments or holding firm views. It seems more likely that Zelensky was riffing on Trump’s criticism of Yovanovitch during a sensitive portion of their phone call in which the U.S. president was making investigatory requests.
Asked about the phone call and Zelensky’s view of her, Yovanovitch testified to Congress that “until I read the, you know, the summary of the conversation of the July 25th call, I thought he liked me.”
“What I think is that he thought that that would be something pleasing for President Trump,” she added.
The Pinocchio Test
Trump keeps urging people to “read the transcript,” but in this case, doing so reveals the president’s habit of warping what Zelensky had to say about Yovanovitch.
Zelensky’s criticism of the U.S. ambassador wasn’t out of the blue, as Trump claimed. It was prompted by Trump himself. Zelensky noted that Trump was “the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador,” a line that sounds straight out of a hostage video.
We were on the fence between Three and Four Pinocchios. But we’ve yet to see any evidence that Yovanovitch was failing at her job or abetting bad actors, as Trump claimed. That, plus his incorrect attribution of Zelensky’s comments, merits Four Pinocchios for Trump.
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