....They call it “serving at the pleasure of the President.” The U.S. now has a very strong and powerful foreign policy, much different than proceeding administrations. It is called, quite simply, America First! With all of that, however, I have done FAR more for Ukraine than O.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 15, 2019
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” Trump said. “Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.”
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) decided to read the tweet aloud and give Yovanovitch a chance to respond. She said she found the effect of Trump’s words “very intimidating.”
Schiff responded: “I want to let you know, Ambassador, that some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously.”
Aside from the allegation that this amounts to witness intimidation, this is notably counter to the strategy the GOP employed this week, which was to focus less on attacking the witnesses and more on what they couldn’t attest to firsthand.
And during the hearing’s first break, two high-profile Republicans objected. “I disagree with the tweet,” said Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), who serves on the intelligence committee. “I think Ambassador Yovanovitch is a public servant, like many of our public servants in the Foreign Service.”
Rep. Liz Cheney (Wyo.) the third-ranking House Republican, said Yovanovitch “clearly is somebody who’s been a public servant to the United States for decades, and I don’t think the president should have done that.”
Kenneth Starr, whose investigation led to Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the 1990s, added on Fox News, “I must say that the president was not advised by counsel in deciding to do this tweet. Extraordinarily poor judgment.”
Trump later denied that he was trying to intimidate Yovanovitch with his tweet.
“I don’t think so at all,” he said, when a reporter asked whether his words could be intimidating.
Notably, though, no Republicans took up that thread or defended the tweets.
2. Trump as a one-man foreign policy wrecking crew
Over the course of her testimony, Yovanovitch painted a picture of a State Department and a U.S. foreign policy establishment held hostage by the whims of the president — most notably via his tweets.
She said that when she sought a statement of support from the State Department or Secretary of State Mike Pompeo after Donald Trump Jr. attacked her, she was told no because it could quickly be “undermined.”
“I was told there was a concern on the seventh floor” — where State Department leaders’ offices are — “that if a statement of support was issued … that it could be undermined,” Yovanovitch said.
Asked to clarify, she said it was feared “that the president might issue a tweet contradicting that.”
She also was asked about the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call between Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, in which Trump praised the recently removed Ukraine prosecutor general Yuri Lutsenko. She was asked whether it was the position of the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine that Lutsenko was corrupt, and she said repeatedly that it was.
Trump in the call twice praised Lutsenko, saying: “I heard you had a prosecutor who was very good, and he was shut down, and that’s really unfair. A lot of people are talking about that, the way they shut your very good prosecutor down, and you had some very bad people involved.”
It’s not exactly news that Trump’s whims can undermine other parts of the government. Yovanovitch basically describes a president who is completely disengaged from official U.S. policy toward top allies and whose tweets his subordinates live in fear of.
Lutsenko in March baselessly accused Yovanovitch of giving him a “do not prosecute” list. The State Department issued a statement defending her then, and Lutsenko later retracted the allegation. But even that statement was unattributed to any official, much less Pompeo or any senior officials. That suggested fear of Trump undermining his State Department was a mainstay.
3. A strong rebuke of Pompeo
Yovanovitch is still a State Department employee, despite being removed as ambassador. But she took a moment to pointedly rebuke the leaders of that department.
And it wasn’t difficult to see her true target: Pompeo.
Yovanovitch didn’t just accuse State Department leaders of failing to stand by her amid the smear campaign — which has been borne out in other testimony — she also said that they failed to maintain a robust Foreign Service.
“At the closed deposition [last month], I expressed grave concerns about the degradation of the Foreign Service over the past few years and the failure of State Department leadership to push back as foreign and corrupt interests apparently hijacked our Ukraine policy,” she said. “I remain disappointed that the department’s leadership and others have declined to acknowledge that the attacks against me and others are dangerously wrong.”
She added: “Moreover, the attacks are leading to a crisis in the State Department as the policy process is visibly unraveling, leadership vacancies go unfilled, and senior and mid-level officers ponder an uncertain future and head for the doors. The crisis has moved from the impact on individuals to an impact on the institution. The State Department is being hollowed out from within at a competitive and complex time on the world stage.”
Yovanovitch did not mention Pompeo by name, but it’s not difficult to connect the dots.
Top Pompeo aide Michael McKinley testified that he and other top officials lobbied for a statement in support of Yovanovitch in late September but was told that Pompeo decided against releasing such a statement — in part to “not draw undue attention to her.”
4. A gender-centric stunt
As The Post’s Elise Viebeck wrote ahead of Friday’s hearing, gender dynamics loomed large over the proceedings. And during the hearing’s first break, Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) declared that Democrats were trying to get Yovanovitch to “cry for the cameras.”
But arguably the most significant moment on that front was one that was manufactured by Republicans — and rather transparently so.
After returning from the first break, Nunes tried to yield time for questioning to Stefanik. But Schiff said Nunes couldn’t do that — that he could yield only to his counsel or ask questions himself. The Republican professed to be perplexed. “You’re gagging the young lady from New York?” Nunes said incredulously. The optics would seem to be pretty bad for Schiff; he was silencing the committee’s only female Republican, for apparently no reason except spite.
Except that’s hardly the case. The rules as voted on by the broader House last month were clear: The chairman, Schiff, and the ranking member, Nunes, each got 45-minute periods to either ask questions or yield to a staff member. (The resolution says: “Only the chair and ranking minority member, or a Permanent Select Committee employee if yielded to by the chair or ranking minority member, may question witnesses during such periods of questioning.”) Afterward, each member would get five minutes, during which they can yield to other members.
Stefanik still tried to use the moment for political hay, tweeting, “Once again, Adam B. Schiff flat out REFUSES to let duly elected Members of Congress ask questions to the witness, simply because we are Republicans.”
Once again, Adam Schiff flat out REFUSES to let duly elected Members of Congress ask questions to the witness, simply because we are Republicans. His behavior is unacceptable and he continues to abuse his Chairmanship. Watch 📺👇 pic.twitter.com/qm9Uj8tiHO— Elise Stefanik (@EliseStefanik) November 15, 2019
That is just not true — Schiff was acting firmly within the rules — and Nunes and Stefanik have to know that. It’s pretty apparent this was a stunt.