Elections

Impeachment Day Two:
Former Ambassador Unconcerned by Ukrainian Efforts to Sway 2016 Election

The House Intelligence Committee on Friday continued its impeachment inquiry with the public testimony of Marie Yovanovitch, former ambassador to Ukraine. The hearing began with opening statements from both committee chairman Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) and ranking member Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.). Schiff and Daniel Goldman, Democratic counsel, then asked questions regarding the circumstances of her May 2019 removal from her post.

Yovanovitch described her perception that corrupt Ukrainian officials leveraged their relationship with the president’s private attorney, Rudy Giuliani in a “smear” campaign leading to her ultimate dismissal. She was unable, however, to cite much first-hand knowledge to support these perceptions.

Yovanovitch was succeeded by William Taylor, who testified earlier in the week. Yovanovitch was also acquainted with George Kent, the third witness so far to testify in the impeachment inquiry.

Yovanovitch said she had no first-hand information concerning the July 25 phone call between President Trump and the president of Ukraine. She indicated that she first learned of the phone call from Kent.

During her testimony, the president issued a tweet critical of Yovanovitch. Schiff characterized the tweet as “witness intimidation.”

In response to questions from Nunes, Yovanovitch admitted she knew little or nothing of the president’s phone call with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. She testified she was not involved in the temporary hold on military aid at issue. Nunes then questioned whether she had any relevance at all to the inquiry.

GOP Counsel’s Questions Elicit Shrugs

When Nunes tried to yield a portion of his initial 45-minute questioning period to Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), Schiff gaveled her out-of-order and refused to let Stefanik participate in the initial questioning. 

In response to questions from Republican counsel Steve Castor, Yovanovitch admitted to knowing little about the circumstances of Hunter Biden’s employment with the Ukrainian energy company Burisma. She denied hearing anyone raise the issue as a potential conflict of interest although she later admitted that the arrangement did pose the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Notably, in anticipation of her 2016 confirmation hearing, the Obama State Department prepared her to respond to potential questions about Hunter Biden’s participation in Burisma. Yovanovitch was told to respond by referring any such questions to the office of the vice president. 

Castor asked Yovanovitch about several actions taken by Ukrainian officials during 2016 which appeared intended to encourage Americans to vote against Donald Trump. These included the public release of the Paul Manafort “black ledger” story in the summer of 2016 and an editorial critical of candidate Trump written by Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States.

Manafort resigned from the Trump campaign shortly after the “black ledger” story appeared.

In responding to Castor’s questions, Yovanovitch revealed she was unaware or unconcerned about any efforts within Ukraine to influence American voters.

“Our own U.S. intelligence community has conclusively determined that those who interfered in the election were in Russia,” Yovanovitch told the panel, echoing several criticisms of President Trump for questioning the Intelligence Community.

Castor asked Yovanovitch about Alexandra Chalupa, a DNC operative who reportedly approached the Ukrainian embassy to obtain opposition research to use against candidate Trump’s campaign staff. Yovanovitch admitted to seeing the Politico article in January 2017 but dismissed it. She admitted seeing the article but didn’t think it was her role to look into the matter in spite of the fact that she was the ambassador to Ukraine under Trump.

“What you’re describing took place in the United States. So if there were concerns, I think that would be handled here,” she said.

Castor then asked Yovanovitch whether she had any concerns about reports that the “black book” used to topple Manafort as the Trump campaign manager was authentic. Yovanovitch shrugged off those concerns saying she had no knowledge of the matter.

Yovanovitch conceded that under the Trump Administration, the Ukrainians received lethal aid from the United States. This contrasts with the Obama Administration, which may have been concerned about provoking the Russians.

No Knowledge of Bribery, Other Illegalities

Yovanovitch echoed concerns from witnesses Taylor and Kent earlier in the week who felt the president should not be meddling in diplomatic affairs.

When asked whether it’s appropriate for a president to urge an investigation involving a foreign country, she testified, “I think it’s appropriate if it’s part of our national strategy. What I would say is that we have a process for doing that and it’s called the Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty, and generally it goes from our Department of Justice to the Ministry of Justice in the country of interest, and that’s the usual path.”

“Prosecutions, judicial matters should properly remain with investigators, prosecutors, and the courts,” she added. 

Under questioning by Rep. John Ratcliffe (R-Texas), Yovanovitch admitted that she had no knowledge of the president taking a bribe or doing anything illegal. She also conceded that Hunter Biden working at Burisma created an appearance of impropriety. 

Ratcliffe asked Yovanovitch whether she thought it should raise any concerns that Biden demanded the termination of the prosecutor investigating Burisma. “I actually don’t,” she responded, “the view that Mr. Shokin was not a good prosecutor-general fighting corruption—I don’t think that had anything to do with the Burisma case.”

Ratcliffe then renewed his motion to call Hunter Biden as a witness. Schiff did not rule on the request as it was made after Ratcliffe’s time expired.