Menendez calls for 'Marie Yovanovitch bill' to protect foreign service employees

Menendez calls for 'Marie Yovanovitch bill' to protect foreign service employees
© Greg Nash

The top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Thursday called for legislation to protect diplomats and career foreign service officers and said it should be named in honor of former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie YovanovitchMarie YovanovitchHouse panel says key witness isn't cooperating in probe into Yovanovitch surveillance President Trump's assault on checks and balances: Five acts in four weeks Former US ambassador Yovanovitch lands a book deal: report MORE

“Congress must pass a Marie Yovanovitch act to better protect diplomats and career public servants in the face of an administration that fails to defend them, and even openly attacks them,” Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezMenendez calls for 'Marie Yovanovitch bill' to protect foreign service employees Senators condemn UN 'blacklisting' of US companies in Israeli settlements Media's selective outrage exposed in McSally-Raju kerfuffle MORE (D-N.J.) said in remarks to the Brookings Institution.

Menendez’s announcement comes as Yovanovitch herself lamented the lack of protection for State Department employees in their ability to speak up about concerns with administration policies.

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“Right now, the State Department is in trouble,” Yovanovitch said during an event hosted by Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy on Wednesday.

“Senior leaders lack policy vision, moral clarity, leadership," she said. "The policy process has been replaced by decisions emanating from the top with little discussion, vacancies go unfilled and our officers are increasingly wondering whether it is safe to express concerns about policies even behind closed doors.”

Yovanovitch was a central figure in the impeachment inquiry against President TrumpDonald John TrumpWinners and losers from the South Carolina debate Five takeaways from the Democratic debate Democrats duke it out in most negative debate so far MORE and whether he sought a foreign government to interfere in the 2020 U.S. election and withheld military aid as leverage.

Her removal from her post in Kyiv was described as a coordinated attack by Trump associates to clear the way to pressure the Ukrainian government to launch investigations seen as politically beneficial to the president.

Yovanovitch was recalled from her post in May, months before her tenure was expected to end and under pressure from a smear campaign by close associates of Trump.

Trump was acquitted last week on impeachment articles of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. 

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Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoOvernight Defense: More closures possible at US bases in Europe as coronavirus spreads | Pompeo says Afghan 'reduction in violence is working' | Man accused of trying to blow up vehicle at Pentagon Pompeo: Afghanistan 'reduction of violence is working' Pompeo accuses China and Iran of hiding coronavirus outbreak MORE has been criticized for failing to speak out in defense of Yovanovitch. The secretary has refused to answer questions over her dismissal.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee has approval to move forward an ambassador’s nomination for a post, and the full Senate must vote on confirmation. But their oversight is limited when it comes to an ambassador’s dismissal.

Last week, Trump dismissed Gordon SondlandGordon SondlandHouse wants documents on McEntee's security clearances Trump says he wants officials who are 'loyal to our country' Former US ambassador Yovanovitch lands a book deal: report MORE from his appointment as U.S. ambassador to the European Union, a move viewed as retaliation for his testimony in the impeachment inquiry.

Menendez said Congress must have more oversight on the dismissal of senior diplomats and deputies.

“It is time the State Department tells us before it removes a career diplomat why it is doing so,” he said.

“This also should extend to the second in command at embassies, the deputy chiefs of mission. Too many of them have been unjustifiably landing on the chopping block.”

William Taylor, who ran the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv following Yovanovitch’s departure and testified twice in the impeachment inquiry, left his post in January. He declined to comment on whether he was asked to leave before Pompeo visited the Ukrainian capital, CNN reported at the time.

Menendez said he will continue an investigation into the details surrounding Yovanovitch’s dismissal and the smear campaign around her.

“I will not rest until we have an accounting of everything the State Department knew about foreign disinformation against her and why its leadership failed to protect her,” he said.

The package of bills previewed by Menendez on Thursday call for more protections for State Department employees from being fired or transferred. 

Olivia Beavers contributed to this report.