Former US ambassador to Ukraine says Trump wanted her removed and blames 'unfounded and false claims'

Posted at 8:54 AM, Oct 11, 2019

Former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch told congressional investigators Friday she was removed from her position because of pressure from President Donald Trump and what she described as "unfounded and false claims" about her, according to a copy of her statement obtained by The Washington Post and The New York Times .

Yovanovitch told lawmakers at a closed-door deposition that she was informed by Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan there had been "a concerted campaign against me" and that Trump had lost confidence in her, adding that the State Department had "been under pressure from the President to remove me since the Summer of 2018."

Yovanovitch said she believed she had been removed because of "unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives," a reference to the effort led by Trump's personal attorney and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and his associates to remove her as ambassador.

Her deposition is a key part of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry into the President and Ukraine, which has been fueled by a whistleblower complaint alleging the President sought help from Ukraine to investigate his political rival and the White House tried to cover it up.

Yovanovitch suggested some of those associates had financial motivations for pushing her out.

"With respect to Mayor Giuliani, I have had only minimal contacts with him -- a total of three that I recall. None related to the events at issue," she said, according to her prepared statement. "I do not know Mr. Giuliani's motives for attacking me. But individuals who have been named in the press as contacts of Mr. Giuliani may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine."

She was unexpectedly pulled from her position in the spring, and her ousting was cited in the whistleblower's complaint as having raised red flags about whether the President was abusing his office by soliciting foreign interference in the election to help find dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

In her statement, Yovanovitch said after being asked to extend her tenure until 2020, she was told in April to get "on the next plane" back to Washington.

"[Sullivan] also said that I had done nothing wrong and that this was not like other situations where he had recalled ambassadors for cause," she added.

Friday, Trump announced his intention to nominate Sullivan as the next US ambassador to Russia.

Warning about future of State Department

Yovanovitch's opening statement also included a warning that the State Department was being "attacked and hollowed out from within," urging the State Department leadership and Congress to take action to stop it.

"The harm will come when private interests circumvent professional diplomats for their own gain, not the public good," she said.

"The harm will come when bad actors in countries beyond Ukraine see how easy it is to use fiction and innuendo to manipulate our system," she added. "In such circumstances, the only interests that will be served are those of our strategic adversaries, like Russia, that spread chaos and attack the institutions and norms that the US helped create and which we have benefited from for the last 75 years."

Democratic Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton of Washington, DC, who sits on the Oversight Committee, told reporters after the first hour of Yovanovitch's interview that she sounded credible.

"She's as apolitical as I've heard anyone," Norton said. "She has been the object of false statements and she's clearing that up."

Norton added that Yovanovitch "has not indicated that anybody tried to" prevent her from testifying.

There had been drama over whether Yovanovitch, who is a State Department employee, would appear for the deposition into Friday morning. The committees had scheduled US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland to be interviewed on Tuesday, but the State Department directed him not to attend early that morning. Sondland now says he will appear next week.

Democrats are also probing how the push for an investigation was tied to Ukrainian efforts to arrange a one-on-one meeting between Trump and Zelensky and the freezing of foreign aid to Ukraine.

On the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelensky, in which Trump urged him to investigate the Bidens, Trump disparaged his former ambassador, saying she was "bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that," according to a rough transcript released by the White House.

"I agree with you 100%" Zelensky responded.

Yovanovitch, a career member of the foreign service who has served in ambassadorships under three presidents, was sworn in as ambassador to Ukraine in August 2016.

At the time of her removal from the post in May, the State Department said in a statement that Yovanovitch was "concluding her three-year diplomatic assignment in Kyiv in 2019 as planned." But Democrats at the time accused the White House of carrying out a "political hit job" -- and the latest revelations about Ukraine have only fueled questions about her removal.

Yovanovitch is the second official interviewed by the Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight committees as part of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry -- and the first still serving in the Trump administration.

Former US Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker testified last week, and provided the committee with a key document: text messages between US diplomats, Giuliani and Ukrainian political aides showing how the Ukrainians announcing an investigation was linked to setting up a meeting between the two presidents.

Democrats are eager to bring in other State Department witnesses as part of the probe. In addition to Sondland, who said he would appear on Thursday after he was subpoenaed, Democrats have scheduled depositions next week with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent and State Department Counselor Ulrich Brechbuhl.

Fiona Hill, the White House's top Russia adviser who left the administration in August, has been scheduled to appear for a deposition on Monday.

But given the Trump administration's stance that the impeachment probe is illegitimate, it's still unclear how many others will appear.

Those who don't are likely to face a subpoena as Sondland did: the committee on Thursday issued subpoenas to the two Giuliani associates, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who indicated they would not attend scheduled depositions this week and were indicted by federal prosecutors on campaign finance violations on Thursday.