Former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, a key figure at the center of the Democrats’ impeachment investigation, is either a victim of Rudy Giuliani’s misplaced smear campaign or the epitome of an Obama administration holdover deep-state apparatchik working to undermine President Trump. The depiction that makes the most sense depends on which side of Washington’s split-screen partisan views one subscribes to.
The real answer may lie in the more nuanced gray area -- how a senior diplomat carefully navigated her rise up the State Department food chain over the course of three decades and formed ties to key establishment Washington foreign-policy figures who were working to undermine Trump and his America-first agenda.
One thing is clear: Republicans have their work cut out for them in their second go at grilling the three-time ambassador, who was appointed to two of those posts by two GOP presidents, including Trump himself.
Trump’s decision to recall Yovanovitch from her post earlier this year after angry complaints from Giuliani that she was stymying his efforts to investigate Joe and Hunter Biden’s roles in Ukraine has spurred deep resentment in Democrat-dominant foreign service circles and at Foggy Bottom.
While Wednesday’s witnesses were quick on their feet and authoritative, Republicans and media critics doubted the public was staying closely tuned to the bureaucratic communications and frequent acronym-dropping of William Taylor, the acting ambassador to Ukraine, and George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary in the State Department’s Europe and Eurasian affairs bureau.
But Democrats believe Yovanovitch will put a more human face on the drama when she testifies Friday before the House Intelligence Committee. The former ambassador broke down in tears during her private deposition in Congress last month, and commentators are openly speculating that at least part of her role is “to be emotional so that people can feel sympathetic” and see that government officials “were actual victims” of Trump’s policies.
Despite her many defenders, Trump allies inside and outside the administration are pressing House Republicans not to pull their punches, even though this could entail roughing up a sympathetic witness – a 61-year-old decorated senior diplomat facing the intense glare of the impeachment spotlight.
But her critics point to a Fox News report last week suggesting that Yovanovitch may have lied to the committee during sworn testimony about communicating with a House Democratic staffer via her personal email account two days after the whistleblower complaint, which set off the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, became public.
Below are four areas where questions about Yovanovitch’s role remain.
Extending Her Tour
Why did top State Department officials ask Yovanovitch to extend her ambassador posting an extra year – until 2020 – when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had rejected her request for a public statement of support around the same time period? And which side is more accurate when characterizing her controversial actions in that job? Is it Giuliani, who was furious that Yovanovitch helped reject the visa application of the same former Ukrainian prosecutor Joe Biden had pushed to remove from office when he was vice president, or senior State Department officials, who are incensed by her ouster? (Giuliani had hoped to question the prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, once he was in the U.S.)
Yovanovitch has testified that in April top State Department officials sent her a cryptic note sternly advising her to be on the next plane out of Ukraine. She initially thought there was concern for her physical safety, but upon landing in Washington, she learned officials were worried that the president would deride her in a public tweet if she remained in the country.
She also soon learned that Giuliani and others had been pressing for her recall for more than a year. In the spring of 2018, Pete Sessions, then a senior GOP member of Congress, wrote a letter to Pompeo alleging that the Yovanovitch had made anti-Trump comments.
All of this occurred, she said, shortly after the State Department top brass formally asked her to extend her ambassadorship into 2020 -- one year longer than she had planned. There are also accusations, which she strongly denies, that she meddled in Ukrainian corruption investigations. In March, John Solomon reported in the Hill newspaper that Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko said Yovanovitch gave him a “do-not-prosecute list” during their first meeting – a list of people and entities that his office should not go after for corruption. Lutsenko also said Yovanovitch was improperly withholding $4 million in U.S. funds the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine was supposed to allocate to his office.
After that article gained traction in conservative circles, Yovanovitch asked for a show of support from Pompeo or other high-ranking State Department officials – a vote of confidence that never came. A month later, Lutsenko appeared to retract his claim that Yovanovitch had given him such a list, and that, in fact, he had asked her for one. Earlier this week, Solomon wrote another piece strongly disputing the retraction. The story also showed that State Department officials had pressed Ukrainian prosecutors to drop or avoid certain cases, including one involving an anti-corruption center jointly funded by the State Department and liberal billionaire George Soros.
Rejecting Shokin’s Visa
Who did Yovanovitch consult in this regard and who signed off on it? It’s been widely reported that Giuliani’s anger over Yovanovitch’s role in rejecting a visa for the former Ukrainian prosecutor was the catalyst behind Trump’s decision to recall her. In January, Giuliani was pushing the administration to grant the visa to Shokin to travel to the United States, presumably to speak to him, and possibly Justice Department officials, about the Bidens’ alleged roles in corrupt Ukrainian dealings.
Shokin is the same prosecutor Joe Biden publicly bragged about getting fired by threatening to withhold $1 billion in U.S. aid to the country in 2016, arguing that Shokin was not pursuing corruption cases aggressively enough. The International Monetary Fund and European leaders also were pressing for his ouster at the time. Giuliani and other Republicans, however, have argued, without citing specific proof, that Biden could have been motivated by a desire to help his son, Hunter, who sat on the board of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company Shokin was allegedly investigating. Kent has told congressional investigators that Giuliani appealed to the White House after the State Department denied the visa request, but that Shokin’s visa was never granted.
During Yovanovitch’s private deposition to the House Intelligence Committee last month, she said she had talked to Kent about Giuliani’s activities in the Ukraine in late 2018 and again in 2019 because Ukrainian officials had been warning embassy staff that she needed to be careful. There were disparaging remarks being made against her but nothing “specific to report,” she told the panel. Yovanovitch has suggested that Giuliani may have wanted her removed to ease the way for Ukrainian business deals for his clients, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas – both of whom pled not guilty last month on campaign finance charges. But when Shokin applied for a tourist visa to the United States, it set off alarm bells in the consular office in charge of granting visas and officials there alerted Yovanovitch.
“So the consular folks, you know, got the application, recognized the name, and believed that he was ineligible for a visa, based on his, you know, known corrupt activities,” she testified.
Yovanovitch said she then “alerted Washington” by calling Kent because he’s “the person responsible for day-to-day Ukraine policy.” She said she did so because Shokin had previously held a high position in Ukraine and knows government officials so she anticipated complaints and did not want to “blind side Washington.”
One government official familiar with Yovanovitch’s personality and career says she is such a stickler for rules that she always sought senior State Department sign-off before making decisions. During her private testimony last month, Yovanovitch said she knew Kent spoke to a Trump political appointee, former Assistant Secretary of State Wess Mitchell, who “was completely supportive, that this had been the right decision.”
When Giuliani started raising a fuss and making calls to the White House and to the assistant secretary for consular affairs, “Mr. Mitchell, you know, held firm,” she said.
When discussing her role in rejecting Shokin’s visa, Republican lawmakers didn’t ask whether Yovanovitch had spoken to anyone else or whether Biden or other Obama administration officials had a previous policy of preventing Shokin and other so-called “corrupt” Ukrainian officials from entering the United States.
Early in Yovanovitch’s deposition, she said she had met Biden only once while ambassador to Ukraine but several times over the course of her diplomatic career. She said that “neither he nor the previous administration ever directly or indirectly raised the issue either of Burisma or Hunter Biden with me.”
The Biden campaign did not respond to RealClearPolitics’ questions on whether he played any role in rejecting Shokin’s or other Ukrainian officials’ visas when he was vice president or afterward and whether he discussed the issue of Shokin’s rejected visa with anyone before it became public.
What Does Mitchell Say?
Until now, Wess Mitchell was known mainly as a longtime advocate for strengthening NATO and for providing robust assistance to Ukraine and Georgia as a way to counter Russian aggression. Before joining the Trump administration, he ran a small foreign policy think tank he co-founded, the Center for European Policy Analysis, which he has since rejoined, along with serving as a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace.
Yovanovitch credits Mitchell for backing up her and others’ decisions to reject Shokin’s visa, but it’s unclear if the committee has reached out to him to corroborate her story or ask about other parts of the Ukraine timeline. Republicans and Democrats on the Intelligence Committee did not respond to separate RCP questions asking about Mitchell’s involvement in the impeachment inquiry. Mitchell mysteriously left the State Department in mid-February, citing personal and professional reasons.
“As the administration completes its second year in office, I feel that I have completed what I set out to do in taking this position,” he wrote, citing the development of a Europe strategy and helping Pompeo transition into the job after Rex Tillerson was fired. “As such, I believe that the time has come for me to spend more time with my young family, who have endured many days without me over the past several months.”
Asked whether has spoken to Democrats or Republicans on the impeachment inquiry, Mitchell said in an emailed statement that his “resignation was indeed for the reasons stated in my letter at the time of my departure and had nothing to do with the events discussed before the House Intelligence committee.”
Yovanovitch’s ties to the Bidens and Victoria Nuland
In questioning Yovanovitch behind closed doors last month, House Republicans tried to pin the top diplomat down on whether she or her close associates harbored an anti-Trump bias and exactly what she knew about Hunter Biden’s business arrangement with Burisma.
They also wanted to know how closely she worked with Joe Biden and repeatedly pressed her about her opinion of a Ukrainian lawmaker who pushed anti-Biden accusations. One Republican, Rep. Scott Perry, asked whether she had a relationship with Ukrainian oligarch Victor Pinchuk, who had donated between $10 million and $25 million to the Clinton Foundation. She replied that she had, but only in her capacity as ambassador to Ukraine and his as one of the wealthiest men in the country.
One name that did not come up but Trump allies hope will arise in Friday’s public questioning is Victoria Nuland. Nuland had Mitchell’s job, assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasian affairs, from 2013 until the last days of the Obama administration. For several months in 2013, Yovanovitch served as Nuland’s top deputy.
Nuland was Obama’s top diplomatic hand on Russia and Ukraine and a tough Russia hawk. She was originally hired in the Clinton administration and remained on in the Bush years, eventually becoming a deputy foreign policy adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney.
Nuland more recently made headlines for her role in the wide-ranging campaign to tie the Trump campaign to Russian meddling in the 2016 election, although she has publicly tried to downplay that role. She reportedly passed along some of the unsubstantiated Steele dossier to the FBI in mid-July 2016, which dovetailed with Trump securing the Republican presidential nomination. According to a 302 memo of an FBI interview from late November 2016, a top FBI official knew that Glenn Simpson, head of the dossier-producing opposition research firm Fusion GPS, and others were “talking to Victoria Nuland at the U.S. State Department.”
When it comes to Ukraine, Nuland has been a strong advocate of providing U.S. aid as way to combat Russian aggression. She also has worked to crack down on Ukrainian corruption and served as a top contact for Soros and his team, according to emails obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.
In 2015, Nuland publicly called out Shokin, pressing for the need to reinvent Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office as “an institution that serves the citizens of Ukraine rather than ripping them off.”
Several weeks later, Biden, along with the European Union, publicly called for Shokin’s ouster, citing evidence he wasn’t pursuing corruption cases vigorously enough. Then, in early 2016, Biden successfully had Shokin fired by threating to withhold $1 billion in U.S. aid.
In the telephone conversation that set off the political crisis, Trump told Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky that Yovanovitch was “bad news” and ominously predicted that “she’s going to go through some things.”
And indeed she has. After her abrupt recall from Ukraine, Yovanovitch is now exiled in a fellowship at Georgetown University, on loan from the State Department.
Now as they train the spotlight on her, Democrats are relying on the former envoy to put the president through some things and clinch his impeachment. With stakes this high, House Republicans aren’t likely to go easy but still must tread carefully into this Ukrainian minefield.
Susan Crabtree is RealClearPolitics' White House/national political correspondent.