The former American ambassador to Ukraine has told the impeachment hearing in the US of the “big threat” she felt upon being ousted from her post and learning that Donald Trump had denounced her in a phone call with Ukraine’s president.
The hearing before the House Intelligence Committee heard that in the call in July, Mr Trump criticised Marie Yovanovitch as “bad news” and said she was “going to go through some things”.
In an extraordinary moment, Mr Trump himself went after her again as she spoke, tweeting from the White House that everywhere she served had “turned bad.”
He emphasised that as president he had the “absolute right” to appoint his own ambassadors.
Rather than distract from the career diplomat’s sombre but powerful testimony, his interference was seen by Democrats as yet more evidence against him in the probe.
“It’s very intimidating,” Ms Yovanovitch said when Mr Trump’s new tweet was shown on a screen in the hearing room. “I can’t speak to what the president is trying to do, but I think the effect is to be intimidated.”
Democrats strongly agreed.
“I want you to know that some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously,” said Adam Schiff, the Intelligence Committee chairman who displayed Mr Trump’s attack.
Ms Yovanovitch claimed there was a “smear campaign” against her by Mr Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and others, including the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr, before she was fired.
She told the politicians her sudden removal had played into the hands of “shady interests the world over” with dangerous intentions towards the United States.
She recalled that as she had read the White House’s rough transcript of Mr Trump’s conversation with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, another person said “the colour drained from my face”.
She said quietly: “Even now words fail me.”
Her removal is one of several events at the centre of the impeachment effort.
“These events should concern everyone in this room,” the diplomat testified in opening remarks. “Shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want.”
The daughter of immigrants who fled the former Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, she described a 33-year career, including three tours as an ambassador to some of the world’s tougher postings, before arriving in Ukraine in 2016. She was forced out in May 2019.
She denied the accusations against her, including that she favoured Democrat Hillary Clinton over Mr Trump in the 2016 election and that she circulated a “Do Not Prosecute” list to the former top prosecutor in Ukraine, which she called a “fabrication”.
Mr Schiff, the Democratic chairman of the panel, opened the day’s hearing saying she was “too tough on corruption for some, and her principled stance made her enemies”.
It became clear, he said, “President Trump wanted her gone”.
The top Republican on the panel, Devin Nunes, bemoaned the hearings as a “day-long TV spectacle”.
Mr Nunes complained that Democrats are relying on hearsay testimony from witnesses who only know of Mr Trump’s actions second-hand.
He also pressed to hear from the still anonymous government whistleblower who first alerted officials about President Trump’s phone call with Ukraine that is in question.
“These hearings should not be occurring at all,” he said.
Just as the hearing was opening, the White House released its rough transcript of an earlier call Mr Trump had with Mr Zelenskiy that was largely congratulatory.
Mr Nunes read that transcript aloud. In it, Mr Trump mentioned his experience with the Miss Universe pageant in Ukraine and invited Mr Zelenskiy to the White House.
Ms Yovanovitch, a career diplomat, who has served both Republican and Democratic presidents, relayed her striking story of being told to “watch my back” and then being suddenly recalled by Mr Trump in a swiftly developing series of events that sounded alarms about a White House shadow foreign policy.
In particular, Ms Yovanovitch and others have described Mr Giuliani as leading an “irregular channel” outside the diplomatic mainstream of US-Ukraine relations.
Asked during an earlier, closed-door deposition if anyone at the State Department who was alerted to Mr Giuliani’s role tried to stop him, she testified: “I don’t think they felt they could.”
The White House has instructed officials not to comply with the probe, and most have been issued subpoenas to appear.