WASHINGTON — For more than six hours on Friday, members of Congress tried to get Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine, to cry.
They asked her how it felt to be personally attacked by the president and the lawyer working for him, Rudy Giuliani; how it felt to be told she had to leave her post in Kyiv in the middle of the night; how the upheaval affected her family. Much of that came from Democrats, while Republicans chose a different tack — dismissing her testimony as irrelevant, passing her recall off as a mere human resources issue, suggesting that she, a three-time ambassador, should be happy because she landed on her feet with a teaching fellowship at Georgetown.
On the second day of public hearings in the impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, Yovanovitch stood firm. In a transcript of her closed-door testimony, released last week, there’s an episode where she appears to get emotional. After her public appearance, it looks like they could have been tears of anger.
Speaking with the heft of someone with 33 years of foreign service behind her, Yovanovitch issued a stark warning — that her removal, at the hands of a president influenced by corrupt Ukrainians and Americans, would set a dangerous precedent. “How could our system fail like this?” she asked Friday. “This is about far more than me or a couple of individuals. As foreign service professionals are being denigrated and undermined, the institution is also being degraded. This will soon cause real harm, if it hasn’t already.”
There’s something about a woman standing up and speaking the truth in the face of an administration dogged by sexism. The comparisons flew fast and furious almost immediately as Yovanovitch began speaking — to Christine Blasey Ford, to Sally Yates. As members of the public inside the room stood up and applauded once Yovanvitch’s testimony was done, people started to call her a “shero.”
Like clockwork, Trump — accused of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment — pounced on Yovanovitch in a tweet sent just after her testimony began, issuing his latest personal attack against a woman. “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” he tweeted. At least he referred to her by name. In his July 25 call with Volodymyr Zelensky — just after telling the Ukrainian president he should speak to Giuliani, and just before bringing up Hunter Biden — he said, “The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news.”
(Republicans took no issue with that, but cried sexism when Rep. Adam Schiff followed procedure to shut down Rep. Elise Stefanik, the only Republican woman on the committee — and one of just 13 in the House overall. She spoke at length later in the hearing.)
The specter of victimhood hung over the entire hearing — from both Democrats and Republicans. In their questioning, Republicans seemed to imply that Yovanovitch was complicit in what happened to her — that she could have done more to fight back. Yovanovitch testified that she had raised her concerns with the top echelons of the State Department, seeking a statement of support as Giuliani and his cohorts disparaged her in the media — a statement that never came.
Schiff echoed the idea of victimhood, but came at it from the other side. “I want to follow up on a question and hearken back to something asked by minority counsel earlier,” Schiff said toward the end of the hearing. “Do you think you could have done more to push back against this smear campaign. And I’m not suggesting this is what the counsel was getting at, but sometimes victims are asked — aren’t you responsible for your own victimization? What would you say to people who say, isn’t it kind of your fault, ambassador, that you didn’t fight your own smear harder?”
“I’ve been a foreign service officer for a long time. Just like the military, we have our own culture, we have our own chain of command, so to speak,” Yovanovitch replied, bringing it back to the work. “I did everything that I could to address these issues and ask the State Department to do what I felt was the right thing, which was support me when it was important to do so, because it was also about supporting our policy.”
But Yovanovitch wasn’t a victim, and to call her that deprives her of the agency she exhibited in alerting her superiors, and now the American public, to the concerted campaign that she faced — one that opens the window into the irregular diplomacy carried out by Giuliani, and blessed by the president, that sought to pressure the Ukrainians into promising to investigate Trump’s political rivals.
In 2019, a woman can be a hero. But sexist narratives will still be put on her — intentionally and not — when the proceedings are run by men.
Rep. Val Demings, one of three Democratic women on the committee and a former police chief, called out Republicans for sexist questioning. “I was in a male-dominated profession — I know it when I see it, no matter how subtle,” she told BuzzFeed News after the session was over. “And we can start with the president. Does he not know her name? ‘The woman.’ And then for them to suggest — my Republican colleagues, I’ve watched them interview all of our witnesses — that her testimony, which is very serious, is a performance.
“And then to suggest that even though she was unjustly and unfairly removed that ‘She, well, she ought to just be thankful,’ ‘Aren’t you still working? Weren’t you reassigned? You should be thankful with what was left behind for you.’”
Yovanovitch had ascended to the very heights of her profession — still an all too rare thing for women in the foreign service. That’s something Fiona Hill, the former Russia director on the National Security Council who is set to appear at a public hearing next week, pointed out in her closed-door testimony last month. She spoke of her concern over the campaign against Yovanovitch, and highlighted her professionalism. “As a woman, and, you know, I don’t see always a lot of prominent women in these positions, she was the highest-ranking woman diplomat,” Hill said. “I just see her as epitomizing what United States diplomacy should be.”
Kadia Goba contributed reporting to this story.