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Former ambassador testifies she felt threatened by Trump’s comments about her

The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine testified that she was the target of a shadow campaign to orchestrate her removal that involved President Trump’s personal attorney and Ukrainian officials suspected of fostering corruption, according to a transcript of her testimony released Monday by House impeachment investigators.

In one of the most gripping passages of her testimony, which took place Oct. 11, Marie Yovanovitch said that she remained worried that she would be a target of retaliation by Trump, who referred to her in his July 25 phone call with Ukraine’s president as “bad news” and someone who was “going to go through some things.”

“I was very concerned” upon reading Trump’s words when the rough transcript of the call was released, Yovanovitch testified. “I still am.” Asked whether she felt threatened, she replied, “Yes.”

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)

The transcript of Yovanovitch’s testimony is the first in a wave of witness statements scheduled to be released in the coming days, opening a new phase of the impeachment inquiry that is also expected to include public questioning of Yovanovitch and other key figures.

Yovanovitch’s deposition describes the involvement of Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, in the early stages of what became a coordinated campaign to coerce the new leader of Ukraine to investigate Trump’s political opponents.

Read the testimony of former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch

Yovanovitch’s account was augmented by the separate release of the impeachment deposition of Michael McKinley, a former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo who resigned his position last month in protest over how Yovanovitch and others caught up in the Ukraine scandal were being treated.

Both transcripts provide fresh insights into the hostility Yovanovitch faced while serving in the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and the fallout among career officials at the State Department when it became clear that Pompeo had no intention of intervening to protect the ambassador or issue a public statement supporting her. McKinley also testified he was concerned the State Department was being dragged into an attempted shakedown of a sovereign country.

The testimony of the two career State Department officials also describes indignities that would once have seemed unthinkable in the U.S. Foreign Service.

At one point, Yovanovitch said, she was advised by a colleague to turn to Twitter to improve her standing with the president before it was too late. The advice came from the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, Gordon Sondland, who became embroiled in Trump’s attempt to pressure Ukraine for political dirt after Yovanovitch’s ouster.

“You need to go big or go home,” Sondland told Yovanovitch, she recalled in her testimony. “You need to, you know, tweet out there that you support the president and that [claims that she was disloyal] are lies.” Yovanovitch said she felt it was not appropriate for someone in her position to write such a tweet.

In an exchange with reporters at the White House on Monday, Trump said he does not really know Yovanovitch and that, despite his statements about her to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, “I’m sure she’s a very fine woman.”

The casual nature of Trump’s comment about an ambassador whose career he effectively ended stands in contrast to the sense of disbelief that emerged from both transcripts.

“You’re going to think that I’m in­cred­ibly naive,” Yovanovitch said of the sequence of events before and after her May ouster, “but I couldn’t imagine all of the things that have happened over the last five or seven months — I just couldn’t imagine it.”

Yovanovitch was among the first in a series of witnesses who have appeared before the impeachment inquiry over the past two months, in closed-door hearings that have produced damaging revelations about Trump’s effort to extract political favors from the Ukrainian government.

Read the testimony of Michael McKinley, former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo

That effort culminated in the July 25 call in which Trump pushed Zelensky to pursue investigations of former vice president Joe Biden and his family and help substantiate conspiratorial claims about Ukrainian interference in the 2016 U.S. election.

Yovanovitch said that late last year she began to hear cryptic warnings from Ukrainian officials in touch with her staff that Giuliani was in talks with Ukraine’s then-prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, “and that they had plans, and that they were going to, you know, do things, including to me.”

Lutsenko was chafing at U.S. pressure to crack down on Ukraine’s notorious corruption problems and help recover more than $40 billion that had been embezzled by senior officials in the previous administration. Yovanovitch was one of the main conduits of a stream of messages expressing dissatisfaction with Lutsenko, and she testified that he and Giuliani began “looking to hurt me” through false allegations.

At the same time, Lutsenko was desperately seeking help from Yovanovitch in arranging high-level meetings for him with members of Trump’s Cabinet, trips to Washington that he possibly hoped would lead to a Trump endorsement of Ukraine’s then-president, Petro Poroshenko, who was trailing in his race against Zelensky.

The Lutsenko-Giuliani “partnership,” she testified, ran counter to U.S. anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, and Lutsenko “clearly wanted to work around the system,” she said. Within weeks, she faced a smear campaign that appeared orchestrated by Giuliani and Lutsenko and accused her of undermining Trump’s agenda with Ukraine and giving Lutsenko a “do-not-prosecute” list aimed at protecting corrupt officials.

Yovanovitch vehemently denied the allegations, and Lutsenko later recanted the latter claim.

Yovanovitch testified that Giuliani’s animus toward her was also driven by the embassy’s decision during her tenure to deny a U.S. visa to another Ukrainian prosecutor, Viktor Shokin.

Consular staffers at the embassy blocked the application because of Shokin’s “known corrupt activities,” Yovanovitch testified. “And the next thing we knew, Mayor Giuliani was calling the White House” to inform Trump loyalists that Yovanovitch was denying entry to a Ukrainian who could provide Trump “information about corruption at the embassy, including my corruption.”

Yovanovitch frequently appealed to State Department officials in Washington for help fending off these attacks on her integrity, but the department’s response under Pompeo was muted. At one point, she said, either Pompeo or another senior official contacted Fox News host Sean Hannity to ask the network to suspend its criticism of the ambassador. She testified that a brief reprieve followed.

Ultimately, the most direct warning about the hostility toward Yovanovitch came not from U.S. officials but from a high-ranking Ukrainian concerned that his country was also about to be victimized. In February, Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, told Yovanovitch that he had been contacted by Giuliani and that the president’s attorney was working closely with two Ukrainian American businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, on efforts to dig up dirt on Biden that were troubling to officials in the new Ukraine government, she said.

Avakov said that for Kyiv to be drawn “into U.S. domestic politics was a dangerous place for Ukraine to be,” Yovanovitch testified. He also warned her that the Giuliani-led group appeared determined to force her out and “told me I really need to watch my back,” she said.

Two months later, Yovanovitch said, she was summoned abruptly back to Washington and told that while she had done nothing wrong, Trump had “lost confidence” in her and that her position as ambassador was untenable.

Parnas and Fruman were arrested last month at Dulles International Airport and charged with U.S. campaign finance violations. They have pleaded not guilty. On Monday, an attorney for Parnas told Reuters that Parnas is now prepared to comply with requests for records and testimony from congressional investigators.

Officials with the Office of Management and Budget were scheduled to testify before the House impeachment probe this week about OMB’s involvement in withholding military aid and other aid from Ukraine, but the witnesses have so far refused to appear.

Former national security adviser John Bolton has also been asked to testify this week, but he and his former deputy, Charles Kupperman, have indicated that they are awaiting a court ruling on whether to comply with a House subpoena or abide by White House demands that they not testify.

A federal judge on Monday agreed to Kupperman’s request that final arguments in the case be held on Dec. 10.

Yovanovitch remains with the State Department, though she now holds a fellowship position at Georgetown University. After her removal, Trump empowered a trio of other officials — Sondland, special representative to Ukraine Kurt Volker and Energy Secretary Rick Perry — to assert control over the U.S.-Ukraine relationship in coordination with Giuliani.

Sondland and Volker led an effort in the ensuing months to secure a commitment from Zelensky to investigate an energy company that had employed Biden’s son Hunter as a board member.

As leverage, the Trump administration withheld a planned White House meeting that Zelensky had sought as a signal of U.S.-Ukraine solidarity in the face of Russian aggression in eastern Ukraine. Later, in July, the administration also halted the flow of hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. security assistance to help Ukraine defend itself.

The State Department’s lack of support for Yovanovitch infuriated senior leaders including McKinley, who testified that he urged department officials to issue a public statement in support of the ambassador.

McKinley said that he raised the idea directly with Pompeo on Sept. 26 after the release of the Trump-Zelensky transcript but that Pompeo did not respond to the suggestion. Two days later, McKinley emailed other senior officials proposing a “strong and immediate statement of support for Ambassador Yovanovitch’s professionalism and courage.”

A few hours later, one of the recipients of McKinley’s email, a State Department spokesman, called to say that Pompeo had rejected the idea, citing a desire to protect Yovanovitch from “undue attention.”

McKinley resigned 12 days later.

Rachael Bade, Julie Tate, Mike DeBonis, Shane Harris and John Hudson contributed to this report.