WASHINGTON (CN) – Ousted U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, a central figure in the impeachment inquiry whose May dismissal outraged fellow diplomats, will tell the public for the first time Friday what she privately described as a “concerted campaign” by President Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani to discredit her.
When she met with lawmakers on the House Intelligence, Oversight and Foreign Affairs committees for a closed-door session on Nov. 4, Yovanovitch recounted the abrupt end of a three-decade career in the foreign service that had been set to go into early 2020.
The order for Yovanovitch to board the next plane to Washington came from John Sullivan, the deputy secretary of state. According to a now public transcript of Yovanovitch’s secret deposition, Sullivan relayed that Trump had “lost confidence in her.”
“He 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,” she said. “He also said that I done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors.”
Trump is quoted in the White House summary of his July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky that Yovanovich was “bad news.”
Yovanovitch said this impression could not have stemmed from her minimal interactions with Giuliani personally. Her suspicion was that the drive to oust her came from “individuals who have been named in the press contacts of Mr. Giuliani [who] may well have believed their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”
As ambassador, anti-corruption was a priority for Yovanovitch and she was frequently vocal about the need to crack down on criminal behavior in Ukraine. This stance appeared to earn her a fair share of enemies and eventually led to a curious series of events at the office of Ukraine’s top prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko.
In a March interview with Hill.TV, Lutsenko claimed that during his first meeting with Yovanovitch in Kiev, the ambassador handed him a “do-not-prosecute” list and requested he close a probe into the Ukrainian non-profit Anti-Corruption Action Organization, or AntAC, for allegedly mishandling some $4 million in funds.
In reality, the probe into AntAC was closed three months before Yovanovitch arrived in Ukraine for the first time in August 2016. But on air, Lutsenko defiantly said no one would tell Ukraine who to prosecute.
Going on to allege that AntAC was funded by liberal billionaire George Soros, Lutsenko also claimed AntAC was involved in an effort to assist Trump’s 2016 election opponent Hillary Clinton by leaking secret ledgers from Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort. The ledgers contained records of payments Manafort received from former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Trump seized upon the Hill’s interview, sharing the reporting on Twitter the same day, followed swiftly by right-wing and conservative news pundits. On March 22, Fox News host Laura Ingraham reported that Yovanovitch held on to her post despite Republican Representative Pete Sessions having written to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo a year earlier requesting the ambassador’s expulsion.
Yovanovitch in her closed-door testimony denied that she had bad-mouthed Trump or that she offered in 2016 to help either the Clinton campaign or the Obama administration “harm” Trump. Even if they had asked, she said, she would not have assisted them.
After Lutsenko’s smear of her aired, the State Department defended Yovanovitch and called the statements leveled against her an outright fabrication. Lutsenko waited a month, however, to walk back his comments.
The timing was notable. Lutsenko’s March interview fell just two weeks after a Yovanovitch called in a speech for the firing of Nazar Kholodnytsky, Ukraine’s top anti-corruption prosecutor.
“Nobody who has been recorded coaching suspects on how to avoid corruption charges can be trusted to prosecute those very same cases,” Yovanovitch said on March 5, referencing wiretaps that recorded Kholodnytsky giving advice to a suspect involved in an ongoing corruption case.
Kholodnytsky’s business card was one of many items the FBI seized from Giuliani’s business associate Lev Parnas after he was indicted in New York last month on campaign-finance charges. Fellow Giuliani associate Igor Fruman was indicted at the same time on the same charges.
Giuliani met with Kholodnytsky in Paris in May, though his initial plan was to meet with Ukraine’s President Zelensky. That never came to pass and, according to a report by the Washington Post, Kholodnytsky voiced suspicion during the meeting about investigating Burisma, the energy company that had hired former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, to sit on its board as well as opening an investigation into interference of the 2016 election.
Friday’s hearing could be a watershed moment in the impeachment inquiry. While ambassadors serve at the president’s pleasure, removing one for personal or political benefit could be considered an impeachable offense. When Andrew Johnson was impeached in 1868, it was in part because of his decision to remove his secretary of war without cause.
According to records held in the National Archive regarding the removal power of the president, James Madison wrote: “For I contend that the wanton removal of meritorious officers would subject him to impeachment and removal from his own high trust.”
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