KYIV — In the summer of 2018, an American evangelical pastor and dozens of Ukrainian Christian groups prayed for Marie Yovanovitch to be fired from her job as the US ambassador to Kyiv. With their prayers still unanswered a few months later, they put their faith in fellow evangelical Christian Mike Pompeo instead, sending a letter to the US secretary of state via a trusted Republican political appointee at the State Department.
A copy of the letter was provided to BuzzFeed News by the pastor, Dale Armstrong, following an interview in Kyiv last Thursday, coincidentally just hours before Pompeo arrived in the Ukrainian capital to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky — the most senior Trump administration official to do so since the process to impeach the US president began.
In the letter, Armstrong and 39 conservative Christian groups demanded that Yovanovitch be fired for supporting LGBTQ rights and undermining President Donald Trump’s “conservative policy for the USA and its foreign policy.”
“We, the public and religious organizations of Ukraine, demand the Congress and the U.S. authorities to recall the U.S. Ambassador and give the appropriate assessment of her actions that openly discredit President Trump,” the letter said.
Armstrong said he was later relayed a message from Pompeo that said Yovanovitch would be "retiring" next year. The State Department didn’t respond to a request for comment from Pompeo.
The back-channel Ukraine campaign of Rudy Giuliani — a lawyer working for Trump — and Giuliani’s associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman has been a focus of House Democrats leading the impeachment drive that looks set to end with Trump’s acquittal in the Senate on Wednesday. It was cited by top US State Department officials, including Yovanovitch herself, in public testimonies last fall as the main driver for her recall.
But the parallel Ukraine campaign by Armstrong has not previously been reported. In an interview with BuzzFeed News in Kyiv, Armstrong said he “rejoiced” when Yovanovitch was eventually recalled from her post in May 2019, even though he thought his efforts had “zero” impact on the decision to sack her. That’s somewhat contradictory to the suggestion he made in a July blog post, in which he wrote:
I presented a document to our Secretary of State, Mr. Pompeo, signed by more than 20 Christian NGOs in Ukraine, who filed a petition to remove the Obama appointed Ambassador to Ukraine, objecting to the Ambassador’s flagrant emphasis on LGBT issues, and trampling at every opportunity on the rights of the family. The Ambassador was removed earlier than expected much to the shock of the Democratic Party. There was quite a bit of controversy about that in the newspapers, as well.
Armstrong deleted the blog post after journalists began digging into him, but an archived version was accessed by BuzzFeed News.
Armstrong has spent years preaching about conservative values in Ukraine and has friends in high places not only in that country but also in the US State Department. He said that his efforts to remove Yovanovitch weren’t coordinated with Giuliani, Parnas, and Fruman — he told BuzzFeed News he hasn’t met the three men. It shows for the first time that Pompeo was being pressed not just by one group of operatives in Ukraine to get rid of the ambassador. Moreover, the Armstrong campaign came as Giuliani and co.’s was gaining steam in 2018.
In June 2018, Yovanovitch and more than 60 US Embassy Kyiv officials, including then-deputy chief of mission and current Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs George Kent, marched with Ukrainian LGBTQ groups and supporters in Ukraine’s annual Pride march. “I think it’s important to treat everybody with dignity and respect,” Yovanovitch told Ukraine’s Hromadske TV at the march.
Ukrainian Christian and far-right groups protested the event in the days leading up to the march and during it, waving signs scrawled with slurs aimed at LGBTQ people and messages promoting “traditional family values.” Some of them held an all-night prayer vigil until police forces broke them up. Armstrong and those groups blamed Yovanovitch for the crackdown, which they refer to as “bloody pride.”
It was a formative moment for Armstrong. The incident infuriated the pastor, who attacked Yovanovitch on Twitter for promoting LGBTQ rights and allowing the US embassy’s Facebook banner photo to display a rainbow flag, which he likened to a “traitorous” act. He also called for her to resign.
Amnesty International called the march and the preceding weeklong Kyiv Pride events that year “a genuine achievement and celebration of national significance.” Despite some progress since then, Amnesty says Ukraine remains a country where anti-LGBTQ attitudes are still strong and where activists for those communities face intimidation, harassment, and violence from far-right groups.
Just last Sunday, a neo-Nazi group attacked an LGBTQ training seminar for journalists in central Ukraine. And while the Ukrainian LGBTQ community felt it would get support from President Volodymyr Zelensky after he shut down an anti-gay heckler during a press conference last year, some felt that possibility slip away last month when more than 300 members of the country’s 424-seat parliament, including many from Zelensky’s own ruling party, formed a cross-party conservative caucus called “Values. Dignity. Family.” Among its goals, the group said its mission will be to adopt laws to protect traditional family values and “resist attempts to undermine natural law for the sake of political trends.”
Armstrong, 56, from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is president of the apostolic ministry Armada Network and international director of the conservative American Pastors Network. He’s been deeply involved in the Ukrainian Christian world for about 20 years and has some Russian speaking skills to prove it. Over that time, he’s managed to make some powerful friends in Ukraine, such as Oleksandr Turchynov, the former acting president, and current Interior Minister Arsen Avakov.
In an interview at a Kyiv café, Armstrong told BuzzFeed News he became even more intensely focused on Ukraine after the war with Russia and its separatist proxies broke out in the country’s east in 2014. He was preaching in the region in the war’s early days and recounted in detail how he saw the city of Donetsk fall to Russia-backed forces. He also recalled the deaths of a group of Christians fleeing from the fighting near the city of Donetsk. “They were escaping by bus and got hit by a missile,” he said, describing how colleagues “had to pick up the bodies in pieces.”
Armstrong’s experiences in the Donbas invigorated him. Back in Kyiv, he began reaching out to like-minded Christians, which is how he met Turchynov and his wife, Hanna Turchynova, both of whom have spoken against LGBTQ rights and railed against “gender ideology” — a conservative term for progressive ideas about gender. An emotional meeting with Turchynova in which he said he could help by lobbying members of the US government on behalf of Ukraine changed the course of his work. In his blog post from July 2019, Armstrong wrote, “when people ask me, ‘How did you get into lobbying?’ I can honestly tell them that the Lord did it!”
From then on, Armstrong took on a role as pastor and political consultant, speaking with policymakers in Washington and telling them to do more to support war-torn Ukraine. Later, he would also officially become a lobbyist despite having never worked on K Street.
In April 2017 Armstrong agreed to work for another devout Christian, Ukrainian politician Andriy Artemenko, the former lawmaker who in February of that year made headlines for getting his Moscow-friendly peace plan all the way to the office of Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn. Armstrong confirmed the details of a related Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filing that said he was paid $90,000 for three months of lobbying work that included the unsuccessful effort to prevent Artemenko’s loss of Ukrainian citizenship.
“I know I’ve put my nose where it doesn’t belong in more than one case, like with Artemenko,” Armstrong said. “I don’t have any regrets.”
A year later, he would stick his nose into another controversial situation.
In April 2018, Parnas and Fruman got the ball rolling with their campaign to oust Yovanovitch, telling Trump at an exclusive dinner at his Washington hotel, “we gotta get rid of the ambassador.” Trump responded by telling an aide, “Get rid of her! Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK? Do it.” That May, Parnas, and Fruman blasted the ambassador in a meeting with then-Rep. Pete Sessions. Afterward, Sessions wrote Pompeo a letter urging him to replace Yovanovitch, as BuzzFeed News first reported last summer.
Then came Kyiv Pride, which didn’t result in Yovanovitch being reprimanded, let alone removed. By fall, Armstrong had grown more frustrated because she remained in her post — and some high-ranking Ukrainian officials had, too. Chief among them was the interior minister Avakov, a regular target of the US Embassy, which criticized him for not cracking down on violent far-right groups, for not doing more to protect LGBTQ people, and for failing to do his part within the interior ministry to tackle corruption.
Armstrong said Avakov, a fiery and powerful enforcer who is the only Ukrainian official to survive a string of government turnovers and elections to remain in the post he’s held since the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution that ousted pro-Russian President Viktor Yanukovych, expressed his frustration with Yovanovitch during a meeting in Kyiv that October. “He was completely against her when I met with him,” Armstrong said. Avakov didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In his deleted blog post, Armstrong elaborated on his exchange with Avakov. “He wanted to know why America’s policy towards Ukraine had not changed after Donald Trump was elected. Was he wrong in thinking that Republicans held different values than the Democrats?”
“He asked me, ‘Why, when two of my police officers are killed in the line of duty, the American Ambassador didn’t call me? Why, when teenagers were kidnapped in the East, by Russians, and terrible things happened to them, the American Ambassador didn’t call me? Why, when a drunk Ukrainian hits a homosexual on the street, then the American Ambassador calls me!’”
Armstrong explained in the blog that he felt compelled after the meeting to take action. “There are moments like that when I recognize it’s the Lord putting me in the right place at the right time to say the right thing,” he wrote.
In our interview in Kyiv, Armstrong said he wrote a letter that month with the blessing of 39 Ukrainian Christian groups, all of which are listed. Some of those groups, however, told BuzzFeed News they had worked with Armstrong and supported his views on Yovanovitch but claimed they hadn’t signed onto the letter. But Armstrong insisted those groups did and were now reluctant to speak with a reporter.
Armstrong said he passed the letter directly to Tyler Brace, a strategic advisor at the State Department focused on Ukraine and Russia, who then gave it to Pompeo. He said he wasn’t paid by anyone to do it and, in fact, had racked up $88,000 in debt in the months before and during his campaign because he believed in his work.
“By her actions Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch violated the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations 1961, ratified by the United States. Article 41, paragraph 1, of the Convention obliges all persons enjoying diplomatic privileges and immunities not to interfere in the internal affairs of the receiving state,” read the letter. “We demand that the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine stop promoting and supporting the LGBT-ideology in Ukraine, and thus we insist on the withdrawal of the current Ambassador of the United States to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch.”
Armstrong said Brace confirmed to him that Pompeo had received the letter and “read it in its entirety.” Armstrong said Brace also delivered a response to him from the secretary of state. “His (Pompeo’s) message was, ‘She’s going to be retiring next year. Let’s let her retire and then we’ll get someone new in,’” Armstrong said. Brace, a former legislative assistant for Republican Sen. Rob Portman who was appointed to the State Department job in July 2018, couldn’t be reached for comment through the State Department or his personal Facebook page. Armstrong refused to elaborate on his relationship with Brace. Brace’s name popped up in the closed-door impeachment testimony of Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs, who said he was involved in meetings with US figures central to the impeachment effort.
Around the time Armstrong’s letter was sent to Pompeo, the other Ukraine campaign was gaining steam. Parnas and Furman were connecting Giuliani with a cast of shady current and former Ukrainian prosecutors and other officials who were also badmouthing Yovanovitch, as well as providing what they claimed to be evidence of corruption by the former vice president and Trump’s potential 2020 Democratic challenger, Joe Biden, and his son, Hunter.
By spring 2019, Parnas and Fruman were making headway in their campaign with Giuliani in Ukraine. In late April, Yovanovitch was abruptly summoned to Washington where she was told about her removal. In November, testifying publicly in the House’s impeachment investigation, she said she was told Trump had lost trust in her and had been seeking her ouster since summer 2018.
Armstrong said he was disappointed by the response to his letter that he received from Pompeo but still felt good about the secretary of state at least being made aware of Yovanovitch’s actions in Kyiv. He said he felt at the time that he’d made a difference, albeit a small one.
NPR reported last week that Yovanovitch, who’d remained on the State Department payroll while teaching at Georgetown University after her return to the US in May, has now officially retired from the foreign service after 33 years and three ambassadorships under both Democrat and Republican presidents. Through her lawyer, she declined to comment for this story.