As a leading female diplomat, a political target of the president’s allies and a figure at the center of the Ukraine drama, Yovanovitch has crucial knowledge to impart when she testifies at Friday’s impeachment hearing. She also enters the spotlight as the latest woman who has refused to acquiesce to Trump in the face of personal and gender-specific attacks.
The story of Yovanovitch’s removal as Ukraine ambassador reflects some of the most complicated gender and political dynamics of Trump’s presidency. Now the impeachment probe is magnifying those dynamics as the first woman to publicly testify prepares to confront Trump’s fiercest congressional defenders, nearly all men, about a campaign by other male allies of the president to force her from her post. The symbolism of that conflict underscores the significance of the historic probe, which was initiated by the female speaker of the House — Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — and made possible by female voters who helped deliver the House to Democrats in the last election.
“Seeing someone like Masha Yovanovitch come forward is going to be an extremely difficult moment for Trump,” said Nancy McEldowney, a former ambassador to Bulgaria who served as director of the Foreign Service Institute and now teaches at Georgetown University, where Yovanovitch is a senior fellow.
“What I suspect the world will see when she walks into that hearing room is an individual who is not tall physically but really is a towering figure of integrity, inner strength and unswerving devotion to public service and telling the truth,” McEldowney said.
In what has emerged as a key episode for impeachment investigators, Yovanovitch was recalled early to Washington from the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv in May after facing an onslaught of attacks from right-wing media. With encouragement from Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani — but with no evidence — conspiracy theorists painted her as an enemy of the president who used her power to covertly undermine him and assist Democrats.
In an Oct. 11 deposition on Capitol Hill, Yovanovitch said she was told that the decision “was coming from President Trump” and that if she was not “physically out of Ukraine, that there would be, you know, some sort of public either tweet or something else from the White House” against her.
“I was upset,” she told lawmakers that day. “I wanted an explanation because this is rather unusual.”
She described her removal as “a dangerous precedent . . . that private interests and people who don’t like a particular American ambassador could combine to, you know, find somebody who was more suitable for their interests.”
Other career diplomats who pushed the State Department to defend Yovanovitch said they were met with silence. P. Michael McKinley, a senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, resigned in part because of the department’s unwillingness to support its personnel.
“The disparagement of a career diplomat doing her job was unacceptable to me,” he told lawmakers in a deposition on Oct. 16.
The sudden and unexplained removal of a respected ambassador, followed by the revelation of Trump’s July 25 comments about Yovanovitch to Zelensky, sent shock waves through the foreign policy world.
McEldowney said the diplomatic community is “intensely focused” on the unfolding saga.
“What happened to Masha is a cautionary tale for everyone in the diplomatic corps and frankly all the way across the federal service,” she said Thursday in a phone interview, referring to Yovanovitch. “All public servants are now looking at this and asking: Have the rules changed? Has the ground shifted so fundamentally that telling the truth gets you punished?”
Yovanovitch, a 33-year veteran of the State Department, has vocally rejected attacks on her patriotism from the right wing.
Born in Canada, she moved to Connecticut as a child and became a U.S. citizen at 18.
“My parents fled communist and Nazi regimes,” she told lawmakers. “Having seen, firsthand, the war and poverty and displacement common to totalitarian regimes, they valued the freedom and democracy the U.S. offers and that the United States represents. And they raised me to cherish those values.”
The emotional weight of her experience is evident from the deposition transcript. Describing her recall to Washington, under questioning from Democrats, Yovanovitch suddenly stopped herself mid-sentence. A Democratic lawyer for the House Intelligence Committee, Daniel S. Goldman, asked, “Do you want to take a minute?”
“Yeah, just a minute. I’m just going to exit it for one minute,” Yovanovitch said as the session went off the record.
After that, Goldman thanked Yovanovitch for her “honest recollection and answers.”
“We understand this is a difficult and emotional topic,” he said.
Yovanovitch will testify two days after William B. Taylor Jr., the acting ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, deputy assistant secretary of state. The two men spoke at the first public impeachment hearing and received acclamation for their confidence and composure, as well as certain personal attributes, such as Taylor’s baritone voice and Kent’s patterned bow tie.
Jenna Ben-Yehuda, president and chief executive of the Truman National Security Project, said Kent and Taylor represent archetypal senior State Department officials — the “white man in a bow tie,” the “man in his early 70s with a gravelly voice who went to West Point.”
She said she would be watching closely to see how lawmakers and the media respond to Yovanovitch.
“I’m a little worried about that coming in,” Ben-Yehuda said Thursday in a phone interview. “She is very well respected but will not have the same physical presence. . . . I’m hopeful that folks will not take the easy road out and use gendered language in talking about her.”
Trump has often used gender-specific language to attack women he perceives as threatening. Women who criticize him are “nasty.” He called adult-film star Stormy Daniels, who alleged an affair with Trump, “Horseface” last year. After then-Fox News host Megyn Kelly, during a 2015 presidential primary debate, posed a question about his language toward women, he said she had “blood coming out of her wherever.”
These attacks are shown to have contributed to women’s dislike of Trump and, for some, a motivation to turn out for Democrats at the polls.
Ben-Yehuda, who founded the Women’s Foreign Policy Network, said Yovanovitch’s testimony is an “important pin” in the timeline that “started with the Women’s March and continued with the #MeToo movement,” two mass social responses to the Trump era. “Women are on the march and will not be silenced, and I think Masha will provide another important example of courage at this important moment in our history,” she said.
Yovanovitch will face an Intelligence Committee with only four women — three Democrats and one Republican — out of 22 members. Female voices accounted for a little over 20 minutes of Wednesday’s roughly five-hour hearing with Taylor and Kent.
The aggressive approach of some Republican lawmakers could raise the potential for conflict. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) served as a leading interlocutor for the GOP on Wednesday, using a rapid-fire questioning style to try to embarrass or throw off the witnesses.
The lone Republican woman on the committee, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), has emerged as an important voice for her party against the impeachment probe and its leaders.
On Wednesday, about 30 minutes into the hearing, she interrupted Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) with a parliamentary inquiry and point of order that made her the first woman to speak.
“Will you be prohibiting witnesses from answering members’ questions as you have in the closed-door depositions?” Stefanik asked Schiff pointedly.
“As the gentlewoman should know,” Schiff said, “if she was present for the depositions —”
“Which I was,” she said, cutting him off.
“For some of them,” he said.
“Correct,” she said, as he continued.
Later in the hearing, Stefanik opened her five minutes of question time by summarizing the GOP message on the alleged quid pro quo. Trump is accused of withholding military aid to pressure Zelensky into launching investigations of his political opponents, including potential 2020 rival and former vice president Joe Biden.
“For the millions of Americans viewing today, the two most important facts are the following,” Stefanik said. “Number one, Ukraine received the aid. Number two, there was, in fact, no investigation into Biden.”
Yovanovitch’s appearance will lay the foundation for several other female witnesses to testify next week. Of the 15 people who had given depositions in the inquiry as of Thursday, five were women, and four are scheduled to appear in public hearings.
Fiona Hill, who is the former senior director for Europe and Russia at the National Security Council and is scheduled to testify next Thursday, was accused by the ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, of reacting emotionally to events in the Ukraine saga. Hill’s attorney later tweeted that Sondland “fabricated communications” and used “tired and offensive gender stereotypes” about Hill in his testimony.
Stefanik, 35, faced her own episode of possible sexism when the attorney for another witness, Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, asked her to identify herself during a deposition. “First off, I don’t know who you are,” the attorney said.
Later, he apologized, and Stefanik said, “I get asked this a lot.”
“Oh, that’s good,” the attorney said, according to the transcript.
“No, it’s not good,” Stefanik said. “But I will continue my line of questioning.”