Marie Yovanovitch's Story

Nov 15, 2019
Originally published on November 15, 2019 7:16 am
Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

When President Trump ordered home the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in the spring, the move attracted very little attention. A few lawmakers and correspondents raised their eyebrows here in Washington. The State Department said her departure was as planned - nothing to see here. Extensive sworn testimony now shows that statement was misleading at best because there was a lot to see.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

That's right. And today, Marie Yovanovitch tells her story in public and under oath. She is today's only public witness in the impeachment inquiry. And unlike her dismissal, it's safe to say the hearing will draw enormous media attention, carried live on television, also here on NPR.

Yovanovitch says her superiors recalled her much earlier than planned. Evidence now shows two Soviet-born businessmen wanted her out. They have been indicted for allegedly making illegal campaign donations to speed up her removal. So how does all this relate to the main issue of the impeachment inquiry, the president's drive for investigations? Well, let's listen back to the ambassador's story.

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INSKEEP: Marie Louise Yovanovitch has testified before Congress before.

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MARIE YOVANOVITCH: ...Hardened members of this committee, it's an honor to appear before you today as President Obama's nominee to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

INSKEEP: It was her confirmation hearing in 2016. She sat at the witness table with short hair, glasses and a tan suit. She had brought along her elderly mother.

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YOVANOVITCH: Like so many in Europe in the 1940s, including those in the Ukrainian American community, my parents survived poverty, war and displacement. They finally arrived in the United States with me in tow in search of freedom, accountability and opportunity.

INSKEEP: Marie Louise Yovanovitch is an immigrant. Her family came from the former Soviet Union. It was a Russian-speaking family. And she answered to an affectionate Russian version of her name, Marie.

CARLOS PASCUAL: Everybody that ever worked with her knew her as Masha.

INSKEEP: Carlos Pascual worked with Masha Yovanovitch because, in the early 2000s, he was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. It was a former Soviet republic with many Russian speakers, so he hired Russian-speaking Yovanovitch as his deputy. This immigrant, now a U.S. citizen, was part of the U.S. Foreign Service.

PASCUAL: She had already been based in Moscow. She had been based in Somalia. She really understood what it was to work in difficult-hardship posts. One of the key things that emerged in Ukraine were the foundations for a civil society that retained a check and balance on power and government.

INSKEEP: Civil society - that phrase means journalists, activists and citizens' groups whose work is vital for democracy. Yovanovitch made it her business to track and understand them. In 2004, not long after she finished her first assignment in Ukraine, those groups made history. One of our correspondents looked on...

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UNIDENTIFIED NPR REPORTER: A sea of several hundred thousand people enthusiastically waving yellow-and-light-blue Ukrainian flags into a bitterly cold, perfectly clear sky.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

INSKEEP: ...As Ukrainians displaced their government after a disputed election. Years later, Yovanovitch returned to Ukraine, this time as the top U.S. diplomat, the ambassador. The Senate confirmed her without controversy, though her assignment was tough. Russia had invaded Ukraine. At that 2016 confirmation, she told Senators she was open to providing military aid to Ukraine. She also said she'd keep promoting civil society.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YOVANOVITCH: Building capacity within the journalistic community, within civil society so that they themselves can get their own good news out, and they themselves can counter the Russian propaganda efforts.

INSKEEP: In November 2016, the new ambassador invited civil society activists and others to an event to mark America's presidential election. Daria Kaleniuk, a Ukrainian anti-corruption activist, was among those who attended.

DARIA KALENIUK: Ambassador Yovanovitch was hosting this reception. So for many Ukrainians, the victory of Trump was a big surprise.

INSKEEP: Some were dismayed since Trump seemed sympathetic to Russia. But Kaleniuk recalls the U.S. ambassador delivering this reassuring message.

KALENIUK: The United States will continue being the partner and supporter of Ukraine, and we congratulate our democracy. And she didn't express any frustration or anything.

INSKEEP: Remember, she's a career diplomat. Unlike some ambassadors who are friends or supporters of a president, she served whoever was in the White House. Ukrainians say she was professional and worked hard to represent U.S. policy. Nataliya Gumenyuk had many dealings with the ambassador as a journalist.

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: She was a good diplomat, but very, very reserved. So she was extremely cautious. She would never say anything beyond what the diplomat can say.

INSKEEP: Yet the ambassador made enemies. Some Ukrainians called her narrow-minded and bureaucratic. And then there were the two business associates of Rudy Giuliani. They had business in Ukraine. Federal prosecutors say they wanted to please Ukrainian officials who disliked the ambassador, so they tried to gain influence in the U.S. government. They allegedly made illegal campaign contributions. And their efforts paid off in 2018.

They donated to Texas Congressman Pete Sessions, and Sessions wrote a letter demanding that the ambassador be dismissed. Sessions made an allegation that was toxic in the Trump administration. He claimed this cautious, by-the-book ambassador criticized President Trump, showing, quote, "disdain" for the current administration. Sessions has denied his campaign contributors told him to say that. Ambassador Yovanovitch was not fired at that time in 2018, but worse was coming. The Ukrainian anti-corruption activist Daria Kaleniuk says the ambassador had another enemy.

KALENIUK: Basically, Ambassador Yovanovitch was a brand for civil society activists in Ukraine. And this is what Yuriy Lutsenko and other corrupt officials in power did not like.

INSKEEP: Yuriy Lutsenko was Ukraine's prosecutor general and a vital figure in what happened next. Civil society groups called him corrupt. They recently summarized their accusations in a formal complaint. They sent the U.S. Treasury Department that complaint, which NPR has obtained. Lutsenko is accused of enriching himself and targeting anti-corruption investigators. This made him just the sort of official the U.S. ambassador called out.

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YOVANOVITCH: Hi, everybody. Natalia (ph), thank you. And it's really an honor and a pleasure to be here to celebrate...

INSKEEP: This is a speech the ambassador gave on March 5, 2019 before a group called the Ukraine Crisis Media Center. She said Ukraine's government was backsliding in its efforts against corruption.

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YOVANOVITCH: It is increasingly clear that Ukraine's once-in-a-generation opportunity for change has not yet resulted in the anti-corruption or rule-of-law reforms that Ukrainians expect or deserve.

INSKEEP: Soon after this speech, that Ukrainian prosecutor struck back. Yuriy Lutsenko suggested the U.S. ambassador was really the corrupt one.

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YURIY LUTSENKO: (Through interpreter) I had some difficult personal relationship with Ms. Ambassador.

INSKEEP: On March 20, 2019, Lutsenko gave this interview through an interpreter to Hill TV.

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LUTSENKO: (Through interpreter) Ms. Ambassador gave me a list of people whom we should not prosecute.

INSKEEP: Should not prosecute? Brian Bonner of a Ukrainian newspaper called the Kyiv Post says Lutsenko was suggesting the ambassador was protecting someone.

BRIAN BONNER: And it turned out to be false, completely false. The State Department denied it, and Lutsenko retracted it.

INSKEEP: But by then, the toxic claim had spread. The very night of the Hill TV report, another accusation against the ambassador reached a TV program very popular with the president of the United States.

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INSKEEP: Sean Hannity of Fox News interviewed a lawyer linked to the president. On this primetime show, Joe DiGenova suddenly denounced the previously obscure ambassador.

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JOE DIGENOVA: And we also now know that the current United States ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, has bad-mouthed the president of the United States to Ukrainian officials.

INSKEEP: We asked diGenova where he got that information, and he declined to say. On March 24, Donald Trump Jr. attacked the ambassador on Twitter. And in April, Hannity interviewed the president himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

SEAN HANNITY: Let me start with this issue in the Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Hannity asked the president if he'd followed conservative media reporting on Ukraine. The president was vague but said the story should win a Pulitzer Prize.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: These are the ones that should be winning. It sounds like big stuff. It sounds like - very interesting with Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Weeks later, in the spring of 2019, Ambassador Yovanovitch was called home from her job before the end of her assignment. Now, why would these toxic claims go so directly from Ukraine to people around the president? Here's at least part of the answer.

Ukrainians who opposed her were also sources for the president's personal lawyer. Rudy Giuliani was on a months-long search for political dirt in Ukraine to help President Trump. The two indicted businessmen? They were helping Giuliani find information. That prosecutor accused of corruption? He met Giuliani at least twice. That's according to the report filed by a U.S. government whistleblower. The president's lawyer developed a negative view of the U.S. ambassador. He later claimed on CNN that she stopped him from interviewing witnesses.

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RUDY GIULIANI: They were trying to get to us, but they were being blocked by the ambassador, who was a Obama appointee, in Ukraine.

INSKEEP: And you can see by the involvement of the president's personal lawyer how the ambassador's recall is part of the impeachment inquiry. Ambassador Yovanovitch departed before President Trump asked Ukraine's president for investigations, but she was a witness to some of the preliminary acts and apparently a victim of them, David.

GREENE: This is interesting, Steve. I mean, the story that we just heard we first broadcast in October. Since then, we have Yovanovitch's - the transcript of her closed-door deposition, hundreds of pages. What did she add to this story?

INSKEEP: Well, she essentially confirms everything we just told you, and she adds some things to it. Yovanovitch says she never understood the campaign to remove her. And in fact, here's a quote - "you're going to think I'm incredibly naive, but I couldn't imagine all of the things that have happened over the last six months." The ambassador also insisted, by the way, that she was never opposed to the president.

GREENE: Which is so notable because you had the president somehow opposed to her. I mean, that phone call with the president of Ukraine, President Trump said, quote, "the woman was bad news."

INSKEEP: Which is one of the things that so disturbs professional career diplomats here, that the president was dumping on an American to a foreigner. But this is what he would have heard from his personal lawyer or seen on outlets like Fox, which ran with the disinformation campaign. Now, the deputy secretary of state at the time of Yovanovitch's removal has testified that she did nothing wrong, that she was the victim of a smear campaign and that the president personally wanted her removed. She was somehow in the way of the president's irregular efforts to achieve his goals in Ukraine.

GREENE: All right. Yovanovitch will be telling her own story in public to House investigators today, and we'll have live coverage on many NPR stations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.