House Democrats began releasing transcripts from their closed-door impeachment hearings on Monday. The first two transcripts to be made public are congressional investigators' interviews with former Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch, who was ousted by President Donald Trump, and former senior State Department adviser Michael McKinley.
The testimony released Monday sheds more light on the investigation into Trump, who asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on a July 25 call for a "favor" to help him investigate the origins of the Russia investigation and former special counsel Robert Mueller's probe, as well as former vice president Joe Biden, a top candidate for president, and his son Hunter. House Democrats are investigating that request as well as whether Trump's decision to withhold financial aid to Ukraine was directly connected to it.
According to the transcript, Yovanovitch told congressional investigators that she was told by a senior Ukrainian official around February of this year that Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were working with Rudy Giuliani, a lawyer working for Trump, to try to replace her as ambassador to Ukraine. The Ukrainian official told her "I really needed to watch my back," she said, according to the transcript.
Yovanovitch later identified the senior Ukrainian official as Interior Minister Arsen Avakov, who told her that Giuliani had reached out to him in "either late January or early February" to try to set up a meeting while Avakov was in the US. Avakov told her that he had spoken with Giuliani on the phone, but that he did not want to meet with Giuliani "because of his concerns about what they were doing," according to the transcript. Avakov avoided the meeting because he believed that Ukraine getting involved in US politics "was a dangerous place for Ukraine to be," given the country's bipartisan support from the US, she added.
Avakov told Yovanovitch that he was concerned about Giuliani and his associates pressing Ukraine for information on former vice president Joe Biden and Burisma, a Ukrainian gas company where his son Hunter Biden served on the board, "with a view to finding things that could be possibly damaging to a [Biden] Presidential run," she told Congress.
Yovanovitch testified that amid myriad attacks against her by the president’s allies and Ukrainian opponents, she asked the State Department to release a “strong” statement to indicate “that I, in fact, am the ambassador in Ukraine, and that I speak for the President, for the Secretary of State, for our country.”
But she said she was told the secretary of state would not issue the statement because it could be undermined by the president. “I was told that there was caution about any kind of statement because it could be undermined” by Trump in “a tweet or something,” she said.
During her tenure as ambassador, Yovanovitch told Congress, acting Assistant Secretary of State Philip Reeker told her that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo or “somebody around him” was going to call Sean Hannity at Fox News to see if they could get to the bottom of the attacks against her and ask for either proof that she was problematic or for Hannity and others to stop going after her. Yovanovitch said she was told that the call had been made, and “for a time, you know, things kind of simmered down.”
Yovanovitch was recalled from her ambassador post in May.
She testified she had received a call from Director General of the Foreign Service Carol Perez at the end of April, telling her to get on the next flight to Washington. “I was like, what? What happened? And she said, I don’t know, but this is about your security. You need to come home immediately. You need to come home on the next plane,” Yovanovitch told Congress.
When she returned to DC, she met with Reeker, who told her she needed to “leave as soon as possible. … The President had been— had wanted me to leave since July of 2018 and— or the summer, I should say, the middle of the summer of 2018—and that the Secretary had tried to protect me but was no longer able to do that,” she testified.
“I was shocked,” Yovanovitch added, saying that while Reeker did not tell her what concerns the president had about her, “there was just a general assumption that it must have to do with the information that [former Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuriy] Lutsenko provided to Mr. Giuliani. But we really didn’t get into that because, you know, we, Phil and I had—or Ambassador Reeker and I had had previous discussions about this. And, yeah, there just didn’t seem to be much point.”
Yovanovitch also testified that Lutsenko had hoped that by providing information to Giuliani, Trump might endorse then–Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko, who lost his reelection race to Zelensky in April. (Trump did not endorse Poroshenko.)
Yovanovitch said that Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan told her the reason she was being recalled so quickly was because “they were worried that if I wasn't, you know, physically out of Ukraine, that there would be, you know, some sort of public either tweet or something else from the White House. And so this was to make sure that I would be treated with as much respect as possible,” she testified.
Yovanovitch also testified that she was “shocked” to learn that Trump and Zelensky openly disparaged her in the July 25 call, after the White House released a non-verbatim transcript of the conversation in late September.
“I was very surprised ... that I would feature repeatedly in a Presidential phone call, but secondly, that the President would speak about me or any ambassador in that way to a foreign counterpart," she told Congress.
In the call, Trump referred to Yovanovitch as “bad news.” Zelensky later told Trump, “It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100%,” according to the White House’s record of the July call.
Trump later told Zelensky, “Well, she's going to go through some things.” Asked about that quote in particular, Yovanovitch told congressional investigators she wasn’t sure what Trump meant (the call came after she’d been recalled as ambassador, though she still works for the State Department), but she was and still is “very concerned.”
Asked by congressional investigators if she felt “threatened,” Yovanovitch said “yes.”
Reliving her departure was clearly difficult for Yovanovitch, who had to take a minute to collect herself during her testimony.
Some of the Republicans’ questions to Yovanovitch focused not on her testimony, but on bolstering Trump’s foreign policy record. For example, at one point Republicans focused on the president’s decision to give lethal weapons to Ukraine as a testament to a stronger foreign policy than under the Obama administration. Republicans also pushed Yovanovitch on Trump's handling of corruption allegations in Ukraine prompting the former US ambassador to confirm that Trump brought corruption claims up to former Ukrainian president Poroshenko.
McKinley had served as a senior adviser to Pompeo before he resigned in October. McKinley told congressional investigators that he had resigned both because of the administration's request for dirt on political opponents and because Pompeo and the State Department weren't doing enough to support employees who had been named in the Ukraine investigation.
"Frankly, to see the emerging information on the engagement of our missions to procure negative political information for domestic purposes, combined with the failure I saw in the building to provide support for our professional cadre in a particularly trying time, I think the combination was a pretty good reason to decide enough, that I had—I had no longer a useful role to play," he said, according to the transcript of his testimony.
Asked about Trump's attempts to use the State Department to help "dig up dirt on a political opponent," McKinley emphasized that he had "never seen" that in his 37 years at the department.
McKinley testified that after the White House released the record of Trump's July 25 call with Zelensky, he suggested that the State Department put out a "short statement that's not political, stating clearly that we respect the professionalism, the tenure of Ambassador Yovanovitch in Ukraine. ... That's pretty much as straightforward and simple a statement as I was proposing."
He said Pompeo denied his request. A State Department spokesperson told him Pompeo "decided that it was better not to release a statement at this time and that it would be in part to protect Ambassador Yovanovitch not draw undue attention to her," he testified.
“The silence from the Department was viewed as puzzling and baffling,” McKinley said, noting he was basing that comment on his own experience and conversations with other State Department staff.
Before he submitted his resignation on Sept. 30, McKinley said he had repeatedly raised concerns with Pompeo and others at the State Department about whether the department was doing enough to publicly support staff involved in the Ukraine saga, but that he didn't receive a response. "Across the 8 or 9 days, whatever period it was, that I was seeking to raise this, nobody ever really said anything to me. I was, like, receive mode," he testified.
As CNN noted, Pompeo told ABC in October that he had "never heard him say a single thing about his concerns ... not once." But McKinley told Congress he had raised his concerns with Pompeo three times, including when he submitted his resignation.
McKinley's role at the State Department did not involve Ukraine relations, but he was a top aide to Pompeo. During his testimony, Republicans’ line of questioning centered around McKinley not having firsthand knowledge of the call between Trump and Zelensky, Giuliani’s US–Ukraine negotiation efforts, or Yovanovitch's removal.
On Tuesday, the committees investigating impeachment plan to release transcripts from two other key officials in the impeachment inquiry: Kurt Volker, the former special envoy to Ukraine, and Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the European Union. The two men played a central role in text messages already released by House Democrats that laid the groundwork for a quid pro quo between Trump and Zelensky. Volker’s prepared remarks to the committees were published by BuzzFeed News last month.
Kadia Goba, Emma Loop, and Hayes Brown contributed to this story.
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