The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘You need people to work in the public good’: Four impeachment witnesses on the lessons they learned about American democracy

Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was abruptly recalled by the Trump administration.
Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was abruptly recalled by the Trump administration. (Susan Walsh/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

To mark Public Service Recognition Week, the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service assembled former federal foreign policy experts who gained fame by boldly and publicly confronting their superiors with facts.

Marie Yovanovitch, Fiona Hill, William B. Taylor Jr. and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman were, like most public servants, largely unknown. That was until the fall of 2019, when they were summoned to House hearings that led to the first of former president Donald Trump’s two impeachments, focused on his efforts to use foreign policy in Ukraine for personal purposes.

Yovanovitch is a former ambassador to Ukraine who was abruptly recalled by the Trump administration. Vindman was an Army lieutenant colonel serving on the National Security Council until being pushed out of Trump’s White House. Hill is a former National Security Council official, and Taylor, a veteran diplomat, twice led the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.

Through their principled testimony, these foreign policy experts personified the finest in public service, even as they were pilloried as “unelected bureaucrats” by Republicans for telling the truth.

Max Stier, the president and chief executive of the Partnership for Public Service, said the four were “the model of what we want in a professional public service.”

During a May 6 virtual panel discussion moderated by The Washington Post’s James Hohmann, they talked about rebuilding the nation’s democratic institution. Here are some of their comments, edited for length and clarity.

Yovanovitch on the state of American democracy: “This is perhaps the most important question we’re facing as a nation right now. I was an American who thought that our democracy was strong and enduring and forever. And frankly, I had this arrogant view that it didn’t require much work on our part to keep things going, that we had the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, et cetera. We’ve discovered over the years, not just in the last administration, there’s been an erosion and we have not been the guardians of our institutions, because at the end of the day, the Constitution, as beautiful as it is, it’s a piece of paper. You need people to work in the public good to provide services, to defend our nation, to advance our interests.

“But on the issue of how fragile our democracy is, I think we’ve discovered that it can be fragile. But when I look at January 6th, when I look at some of the other challenges that we faced in the last couple of years, in the end, we’ve come out okay. But I think these are wake-up calls that we need to be working together on to make sure we don’t go to that brink, to make sure that we are strengthening our institutions, strengthening our schools and leading the next generation with a stronger America. And that means a stronger democracy.”

Taylor on foreign policy: “The organizations in and outside government that formulate and then execute foreign policy work because people trust each other and there’s some transparency. The challenge of 2019 was that transparency was not there and the trust was not there. There was an irregular channel, and the irregular channel challenged that institution and the institution prevailed. It took some extraordinary actions by some people and some bravery, real bravery, by some people to stand up. But it takes work.”

Hill on government privatization: “The privatization of our public policy is the problem. [America’s founding] was a result of a revolution against a tyrannical overseas leader who, the king, at the time, was all about his own private power, his own private influence, his own private wealth. What we were seeing over the last several years, not just the last four years, we’ve had more private money getting into influence in our politics.”

Vindman on Trump administration abuses: “I think we came through a very, very difficult period, maybe in certain ways, an unprecedentedly difficult period recently. And the effects of that are going to be long-lasting both within the public service workforce and U.S. standing in the world. Clearly, the abuses of the last administration in certain ways, at least with regards to the majority of the population, poisoned the well on public service and the effect of good governance. And it’s going to take some time to undo some of that damage. . . . I see still a durable institution, but it requires a lot of work to undo the damage from the previous administration. We have not had a full accounting of all the abuses of the key leadership in the previous administration. . . . We’ve been through very, very difficult times — the Civil War, Great Depression, two world wars, the civil rights movement. These were extremely challenging and polarizing moments in U.S. history. And this will, in kind of the breadth of history, will end up joining that list, but will be one of many challenges that the United States overcomes. And we ideally will make sure that we harden our institutions against the range of abuse. It’s hard to do that against the president. And I don’t think our system was designed in any way to protect against abuse by the chief executive. But certainly we could make a lot of headway, but below that level with abuse within departments and agencies.”

Hohmann: “What did you learn during your career to prepare yourselves to speak truth to power when there was obviously great personal and professional risk?”

Yovanovitch: “I thought about my own belief system, what my values are, the values of the United States … thinking about the Constitution a lot and thinking about the oath that I swore not to an individual, not to the president, not to the secretary of state, but to the Constitution and to the American people. . . . You have to do what you think is right and you have to trust yourself.”

Taylor: “It was not hard because we just told the truth.”

Vindman: “I think everybody in the group definitely foresaw the consequences [and] it still was not hard. None of us were intimidated. We did what we thought was right. We were not going to be pushed around.”

Read more:

Female ambassadors object to Trump’s treatment of former envoy to Ukraine

Democrats call them public servants. Republicans say they’re ‘unelected bureaucrats.’

State Department faces its biggest crisis since Joseph McCarthy’s hysteria