Ex-Ukraine ambassador testifies in impeachment hearing: Five things to watch

House Democrats hope the public testimony of Marie Yovanovitch on Friday breathes life into their narrative that President Trump and his associates carried out a shadow campaign to oust the top U.S. diplomat to Ukraine.

Yovanovitch, a career diplomat, described to House investigators last month a “dangerous precedent” where the president’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, corrupt Ukrainian officials, and disreputable media figures succeeded in ousting a U.S. ambassador who they saw as standing in the way of their business and political interests. 

{mosads}Yovanovitch has testified that she felt “threatened,” “concerned” and uncomfortable upon learning that Trump singled her out during his summer phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

Here are five things to watch at the second public impeachment hearing:

Will Yovanovitch put a human face on impeachment?

Democrats have described Yovanovitch as the first victim of the pressure campaign on Ukraine, one which abruptly and unceremoniously ended the career of the longest-serving diplomat in Europe at the time.

The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine testified behind closed doors last month that she was the target of a conservative smear campaign by Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, and his associates, because they saw her as an obstacle to Kyiv launching investigations helpful to their business interests and Trump’s reelection campaign.

At one point, Yovanovitch got choked up and had to take a break from her deposition, according to the transcript of her interview. That dramatic moment came when the 33-year career foreign service official was asked about how she felt the day she was told she was being removed from her post because Trump had lost confidence in her.

Democrats on the Intelligence Committee say that Yovanovitch, whose friends call her “Masha,” will be a “sympathetic” witness for their party. And it’s possible that emotion comes across in her public testimony Friday.   

If testimony from top diplomats William Taylor and George Kent drew attention to the human cost of Trump withholding military aid — Ukrainian lives are lost every week in their war against Russia, they said — then Democrats hope that Yovanovitch will put a human face on the Trump-Ukraine saga.  

“She was removed. I don’t think it was for cause,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.), a member of the Intelligence Committee that is leading the impeachment hearings.

“She was a distinguished foreign service officer and the evidence is strongly pointing to her being removed for the purpose of making way for the Three Amigos [Gordon Sondland, Kurt Volker and Rick Perry] and Giuliani to commandeer Ukraine policy for Giuliani’s clients’ benefits and namely Donald Trump’s benefit.”

Will new information come to light?

While Democrats have sought to downplay the possibility of uncovering new bombshell developments at these hearings, Yovanovitch — one of the earliest witnesses to testify privately with House investigators — may offer new details on Friday.

She may be able to expand on information raised in now-public impeachment transcripts, or contacts may have since reminded her of additional events, as was the case Wednesday with Yovanovitch’s replacement in Ukraine, acting ambassador William Taylor.

Taylor revealed that a member of his staff overheard a conversation between Trump and U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland the day after the president’s July 25 call with his Ukrainian counterpart, Zelensky.

The staffer recalled that Trump voiced interest in the news on “the investigations” into former Vice President Joe Biden and 2016 election interference, which Giuliani was pursuing. Sondland replied that the Ukrainians “were ready to move forward,” Taylor testified.

By successfully eliciting new and implicating details about Trump’s contacts with Ukraine, Democrats experienced a boost of momentum during their first opportunity to make their case to the American people that the president is unfit for office. Doing so twice in a row would be a win for Democrats’ first week of public impeachment hearings.

Additional information also could come to light from another place.

House investigators are expecting to receive closed-door testimony from the staffer who allegedly overheard the phone call between Trump and Sondland — a call Trump on Wednesday denied taking place — on the same day as Yovanovitch’s testimony. David Holmes, who worked at the U.S. embassy in Ukraine, first worked under Yovanovitch before serving under Taylor after her ouster.

Will Republicans try a new line of attack?

Republicans are focused on hammering home the message that none of the witnesses so far have directly linked Trump to an impeachable offense. But GOP members know they will have to walk a fine line on Friday not to come off as bullying a sympathetic witness.

Yovanovitch repeatedly expressed dismay that the State Department stayed silent rather than defend one of their own diplomats from the personal attacks stemming from right-wing commentators, out of fear an agency-issued statement of support would be undermined by a tweet from Trump.

Still, Republicans have some talking points they want to sink their teeth into during Yovanovitch’s testimony, including the argument that the president can choose whoever he wants as ambassador to carry out foreign policy. 

Will the hearing turn personal and nasty?

In his July 25 phone call with Zelensky, Trump knocked Yovanovitch as “bad news” and said she was “going to go through some things.”

Will Republicans follow the president’s lead and take a more aggressive tack with the former ambassador than they did with Taylor and Kent?

Some of Trump’s top GOP allies on Capitol Hill have accused Yovanovitch of lying under oath after revelations that she used her personal email account to communicate with a Democratic congressional staffer about a “quite delicate” and “time-sensitive” matter two days after the filing of the whistleblower complaint that launched the impeachment inquiry into the president, according to Fox News.

Under questioning from Rep. Lee Zeldin (R-N.Y.) during her closed-door deposition, Yovanovitch had testified that she did not respond to the email. This discrepancy may attract some attention by GOP members, though it likely won’t be the center of their attention since she did send the request to the State Department’s legislative office, as she testified.

But Democrats warned that Republicans can’t get too rough with Yovanovitch. Trump’s personal attacks on the former ambassador — including those contained in the July 25 call with Zelensky — could help Democrats portray her as a sympathetic victim of Trump’s shadow diplomacy, argued Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), a senior member of the Intelligence panel.

“Language like, ‘She’s going to go through some things.’ That’s even better messaging then we’ve come up with, right?” Himes said. “Because you can hear the strings of ‘The Godfather’ playing in the background as the president says, ‘She’s going to go through some things.’”

Will there be any drama?

The high-stakes hearing is likely to attract drama from both sides, as Democrats face mounting pressure to prove the president abused his oath of office and as the onus falls on Republicans to defend him from such claims.

Both parties are seeking to attract viewers and win over public opinion.

On the first day of the impeachment hearings, more than 13 million people tuned in across multiple broadcast and cable outlets, which was lower than some previous high stakes Capitol hearings.

But unlike the testimonies of Taylor and George Kent, a senior State Department official, the topic of a smear campaign targeting Yovanovitch’s career and reputation is bound to make the hearing more personal for the witness as well.

Both Democrats and Republicans separately huddled Thursday to strategize and decide their course of play for Friday’s hearing.

Mike Lillis contributed.


Tags Donald Trump Gordon Sondland Impeachment Jim Himes Joe Biden Kurt Volker Lee Zeldin Raja Krishnamoorthi Rick Perry Rudy Giuliani Ukraine

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