White House

Breaking Down the Fallout from Marie Yovanovitch’s Testimony

Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testifies on Capitol Hill, November 15, 2019. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)
She did not move the needle on impeachment, but the main event has always been 2020.

There were fireworks aplenty, but the most important development during former U.S. ambassador Marie Yovanovitch’s testimony at Friday’s House impeachment hearing was an undetonated bomb.

Or was it just a dud?

Ambassador Yovanovitch came across as a compelling witness: heroic in serving the United States in the world’s badlands, dedicated to the cause of advancing American policy under administrations of both parties, and suddenly ousted by President Trump — not just in the absence of a sensible explanation, but as the victim of a whispering campaign that maligned her character and undermined her reputation for nonpartisan service.

The president’s camp is the unapologetic source of the whispering campaign. They depict a very different Yovanovitch: a partisan deep-state operator, who abetted and covered up Ukrainian collusion with Democrats in the 2016 campaign.

On Friday, that alternative view was the dog that never barked.

In the midst of the proceedings, on the rationale that Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff (D., Calif.) was thwarting Republican efforts to confront Yovanovitch’s testimony effectively, the president and his inner circle launched a trio of missiles from outside the hearing room — the unguided kind, it seems.

The April Trump–Zelensky Call
As the hearing kicked off, the president released a rough transcript of his first telephone conversation, in April 2019, with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky (not to be confused with the later July 25 conversation, the main focus of the controversy). It was impossible to see how the new transcript helped the president in any but the most marginal sense — showing that Trump did not mention an investigation of the Bidens (no one had suggested otherwise) and took a friendly, non-threatening tack with Zelensky (no one who had read the July 25 transcript would have thought otherwise).

On the contrary, releasing the second conversation exacerbates the problems of releasing the first: If our government does not keep such exchanges confidential, foreign heads of state will be hard pressed to communicate candidly, or at all, with American presidents.

Moreover, the new publication caused two other self-inflicted wounds. First, it gave Schiff a golden opportunity (which he skillfully exploited) to catalogue a raft of documents the administration is withholding from Congress, over which Democrats anticipate adding an obstruction allegation in the likely event that they impeach the president. Second, the readout that the White House gave the media following the April call stated that Trump had promised to work with Ukraine to “root out corruption.” Alas, there was no such discussion in the call. Consequently, Trump critics point out, either the transcript is materially inaccurate (unlikely) or White House readouts of all such calls are suspect.

For now, the discrepancy aids the Democrats’ narrative that Trump is indifferent to corruption — which is why, they say, he dismissed Yovanovitch, who prioritized anti-corruption.

The Tweet
After Wednesday’s first day of public impeachment hearings, the president insisted he hadn’t watched or paid attention to them since he had more important things to do for the country. Yet, on Friday, he made time to live-tweet the proceedings. Just as Yovanovitch was testifying about how Trump had suddenly removed her as ambassador, a jaw-dropping presidential tweet inverted her willingness to serve the nation in anti-American hot spots into culpability for the hellish conditions in those places. “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” he wrote. “She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” If you spent the rest of the day trying to figure out who the Marie Yovanovitch villain character was in Black Hawk Down, you were not alone.

It is not just that the tweet was unseemly. It is not just that the tweet helped Democrats promote their theme that the president is demoralizing the foreign service with his disturbing tendency to blame American officials — rather than anti-American rogues — for challenges our country must face. The tweet was a gift to Schiff. He promptly framed it for the national television audience as “intimidation” of his very sympathetic witness. He argued that it fortifies the Democrats’ mounting basis for an article of impeachment alleging obstruction of the House impeachment inquiry.

Yes, it should go without saying that Schiff’s charge was overwrought. The tweet was not directed at Yovanovitch. She was already testifying when it was posted, and mightn’t have known about it if Schiff hadn’t informed her. Trump is angry over the hearings and their lack of due process. The tweet was not intended as intimidation and obviously had no such effect. It was, instead, an impulsive attempt to influence public opinion — this being, first and foremost, a political controversy. The real problem is that the tweet’s effect, if any, was the opposite of what Trump intended: The public saw Yovanovitch, not the president, as the victim of an unfair attack.

The Giuliani Statement
As the testimony continued, Rudy Giuliani, the president’s private lawyer, issued a blistering refutation of Yovanovitch’s version of events. This, unlike the other two salvos, actually seemed like information that, if true, could help the president’s cause. Giuliani’s press release was directly germane to Yovanovitch’s testimony.

Naturally, this would not be the scattershot Trump defense if there were not some messaging incoherence. Rudy’s statement (which was distributed to some media outlets but appears not to be posted anywhere) summarizes some of what he claims would be the testimony of five current and former Ukrainian officials. Obviously, the statement is hearsay. Yet, he oddly contends that what he’s offering is not “inadmissible hearsay,” reasoning that his witnesses have “direct evidence” that is “corroborated by additional evidence of wrongdoing.” But he does not provide any depositions or affidavits, just his hearsay rendition of what they would say. This, after Republicans spent two days chiding Schiff for peddling hearsay testimony in the first impeachment hearing.

That aside, here’s the intriguing thing: Giuliani’s detailed letter gave committee Republicans ammunition for their cross-examination of Yovanovitch. Yet, they opted not to use it. Why? We don’t yet know.

To be sure, Republicans had to tread lightly. Yovanovitch made a favorable impression in telling her story, through her opening statement and answers to questions posed by Democrats and their counsel, former federal prosecutor Daniel Goldman. With the president’s tweet having intimated that Yovanovitch was somehow to blame for the failure to solve jihadism in Somalia and unrest in Ukraine, Republicans could not afford to appear disrespectful of her service in hardship posts (civil war in Mogadishu, gunfire in Tashkent and Moscow, etc.).

But the need to be deferential clearly did not mean tough questioning was off limits. For example, in a well-executed round, Congressman Jim Jordan (R., Ohio) noticeably dented Yovanovitch’s claim to be a studious nonpartisan who was above the Obama Justice Department’s anti-Trump fervor. Jordan forced her to admit she took no action to steer Kyiv away from taking sides in the 2016 campaign, when Ukrainian officials electioneered on Clinton’s behalf (as a Ukrainian court has found) and took public shots at Trump.

This helped the president. Echoing their “policy community” allies (also known as the “deep state”), Democrats theorize that U.S. national security hinges on the bolstering of Ukraine as a pro-European buffer against Russian aggression. This takes funding, so it is vital, they say, that Ukraine avoid intrusion in U.S. politics, which would risk its bipartisan congressional support. Therefore, they allege, Trump recklessly endangered American security by pressuring Ukraine to, in effect, take sides in U.S. politics by investigating the Bidens — a potential boon to Trump’s 2020 campaign.

Without being disrespectful, Jordan showed that Yovanovitch did not push back when Ukrainians openly opposed Donald Trump. She did not fret that pro-Clinton electioneering put in jeopardy the congressional support on which Ukraine’s defense and our security supposedly depend. For the first time all day, the ambassador’s poise ebbed a bit. She seemed guarded.

Yet, Jordan and his colleagues went no further on the attack.

They did not claim, as Giuliani’s statement does, that on Yovanovitch’s watch, the U.S. embassy (a) was immersed in blatant pro-Clinton activities; (b) facilitated the transmission of anti-Trump research to the Democratic National Committee; (c) worked to block Ukrainian investigations of Obama administration-favored targets — namely, AntAC, a company said to be associated with progressive mega-donor George Soros, as well as Ukrainian officials who were purportedly involved in publicizing anti-Trump information; and (d) advocated the denial of U.S. visas to Ukrainian officials in a position to reveal Yovanovitch’s alleged partisanship.

Competing Ukraine Narratives
Time does not permit what is really necessary to grasp the competing portrayals of Yovanovitch. For that, we’d need a recounting of the interwoven American and Ukrainian partisan conflicts that, since late 2013, have played out in allegations and counter-allegations of corruption in both countries. (In Ball of Collusion, I outline some of the machinations of American officials and political consultants in Ukraine’s cutthroat power struggles.)

For now, suffice it to say that, after years of Obama’s “Russia Reset” and derision of the position (articulated by Mitt Romney in 2012) that Moscow is a formidable geopolitical foe, Democrats now cast themselves as Russia hawks working arm-in-arm with European allies to safeguard Ukraine from the Kremlin’s aggression. Their Ukraine posturing is bound up with their “Trump collusion with Russia” narrative (i.e., we’re to see Trump as manipulative toward Ukraine due to his obsequiousness toward Moscow). Thus, those who support Trump, or who oppose the factions Democrats favor in Ukraine, are depicted not just as political adversaries but as traitorous agents of Putin.

By contrast, after a campaign disturbingly suffused with flattery of Putin and wistful visions of strategic partnership with Moscow, President Trump is anxious to refute both the collusion narrative and the evidence that Russia meddled in the election he won. So, despite some internal contradictions, he simultaneously touts his ratcheting up of Russia sanctions; casts doubt on Russia’s election meddling; blames Obama’s weakness (as opposed to, say, Putin’s belligerence) for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and war-making in Donbas; and boasts that he has significantly enhanced Ukraine’s defense capabilities — even as he remains doubtful that Ukraine is worth the trouble. In Trump world, the Obama administration’s pose as a scourge against Ukraine’s endemic corruption is a fraud, masking a political agenda to shield its favored corrupt actors and undermine Trump.

Both of these narratives are hyperbolic — as, indeed, is the Democrats’ insistence that any Trump missteps in Ukraine amount not merely to poor judgment but to impeachable offenses. As we try to sort out truth and fiction, Marie Yovanovitch finds herself in the middle.

The Trump camp exhorted Republicans to confront the ambassador with Giuliani’s counter-narrative. But they demurred — even the Republicans best known for zealously defending the president. For now, it appears that they are not buying it.

I’ll end where I started before the Ukraine scandal began. The three-year Democratic campaign to impeach Trump has never been about impeaching Trump. That is, the president’s opponents realize they have never had proof of misconduct so egregious it would move the public to call for Trump’s removal, which is what it would take to move a supermajority of the Senate to oust him. Impeachment, then, has always been a political stratagem. The Democrats’ real objective is to render the president so battered and bruised that his reelection becomes inconceivable.

Those who say Yovanovitch’s testimony did not “move the needle” on impeachment are entirely correct. On that score, what will best be remembered was cut-to-the-chase questioning by Congressman Chris Stewart (R., Utah). He forced the ambassador’s concession that she had no information implicating President Trump in criminal activity, including any bribes. The Democrats remain in search of the elusive impeachable offense they need to effectuate their pre-ordained conclusion that Trump’s unfitness calls for him to be deposed.

But if you see this as I do, not as an impeachment gambit but as a 2020 campaign strategy, the Democrats had a pretty good day.

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