The U.S. congressional impeachment inquiry took a dramatic turn during the testimony of former ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch when Donald Trump lashed out publicly at the career diplomat, leading Democrats to say that the President was attempting to intimidate a witness.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter as Ms. Yovanovitch was in the middle of publicly testifying Friday before the House intelligence committee, which is looking into whether the President improperly pressed Ukraine to investigate his political rivals. “It is a U.S. President’s absolute right to appoint ambassadors.”
The tweet was “very intimidating,” Ms. Yovanovitch told the inquiry. Democrats immediately condemned Mr. Trump’s tirade as witness tampering, raising the possibility that they might add that charge to the list of offences that they may use to build an impeachment case against the President.
“This is a part of a pattern to intimidate witnesses,” intelligence committee chair Adam Schiff told reporters after the hearing. “It is also a part of a pattern to obstruct the investigation.”
In a meeting with reporters at the Oval Office on Friday afternoon, Mr. Trump denied he was trying to intimidate witnesses, saying he had the right to voice an opinion on the former ambassador. “I have the right to speak. I have freedom of speech.”
The exchange capped off a tumultuous first week of public testimony in the House of Representatives’ impeachment investigation. Democrats are examining whether Mr. Trump put pressure on Ukraine to investigate former vice-president Joe Biden and his family, along with a widely rejected theory that Ukraine had meddled in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, in exchange for a White House meeting and nearly US$400-million in security assistance. Mr. Trump is only the fourth president to face formal impeachment proceedings.
In emotional testimony, Ms. Yovanovitch described how she was “shocked and devastated” that a smear campaign against her by Ukrainian officials attempting to thwart U.S. anti-corruption policy had found a willing partner in Mr. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Born in Canada and raised in the United States from the age of 3, Ms. Yovanovitch served as an ambassador under both Republican and Democratic presidential administrations. She was abruptly removed from her post in Ukraine in May after State Department officials told her the President had lost confidence in her, though she testified that she was never told why.
Ms. Yovanovitch warned Friday that her sudden firing was part of a broader problem plaguing the State Department during Mr. Trump’s presidency, and that it set a dangerous precedent for other foreign governments that American diplomats can be removed through political pressure campaigns. “Our Ukraine policy has been thrown into disarray, and shady interests the world over have learned how little it takes to remove an American ambassador who does not give them what they want,” she said.
She testified that she was stunned by the transcript of a July 25 call between Mr. Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in which the U.S. President called her “bad news” and suggested she would “go through some things.” Someone watching her read the transcript “said the colour drained from my face,” she said, adding that Mr. Trump’s comments “sounded like a threat.”
Committee Republicans sought Friday to undercut the narrative that Mr. Trump had waged a sustained campaign to put pressure on Ukraine.
As the hearing opened, the White House released a reconstructed transcript of an April 21 call between Mr. Trump and Mr. Zelensky. In the 16-minute call, Mr. Trump congratulated the new Ukrainian President on his election and promised a future visit to the White House, but did not ask for any investigations.
California Congressman Devin Nunes described Ms. Yovanovitch’s firing as “employment disagreements” rather than grounds for impeachment. Several Republicans characterized the delay in military aid as a necessary pause to allow the White House to investigate whether the new Zelensky government was committed to reforms, and defended presidential powers to dismiss ambassadors.
“I obviously don’t dispute that the president has the right to withdraw an ambassador at any time, for any reason,” Ms. Yovanovitch said under questioning by Ohio Republican Brad Wenstrup. “But what I do wonder is why it was necessary to smear my reputation, falsely?”
The President’s Twitter outburst Friday creates a dangerous situation for current foreign-service staff abroad, said Brett Bruen, a former diplomat who served as director of engagement in the Obama White House. It gives foreign leaders “carte blanche to go after … our most senior diplomats overseas, because the President did it.”
The impeachment inquiry will continue next week with public hearings involving eight new witnesses.
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