Published by The Lawfare Institute
in Cooperation With
Editor’s note: This is one of many summaries of depositions released by House impeachment investigators. The others are available here.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testified before Congress in the ongoing impeachment inquiry on Oct. 11. Below is a summary of her testimony, as compiled from her opening statement and the transcript of her deposition.
Yovanovitch, a 33-year foreign service officer, began her opening statement by discussing U.S. foreign policy on Ukraine, which has emphasized Ukraine’s remaining democratic and resisting Russian expansionism since 2014. Recently, that has included anti-corruption efforts, since the U.S. has viewed corruption as a security issue, corrupt officials being more vulnerable to Russian influence. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky ran on a platform with anti-corruption efforts as his number one priority, and voters overwhelmingly favored him. Yovanovitch noted that this created “fear among the political elite.” She said understanding Ukraine’s history was crucial for unpacking the issues in the impeachment inquiry that she would be addressing.
Yovanovitch began serving as ambassador to Ukraine on Aug. 22, 2016, and left permanently on May 20, 2019, although she had been asked to extend her tour to 2020 in March. She noted several important events that occurred before she arrived: the release of the “black ledger,” which detailed millions of dollars in payments to Paul Manafort from former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s pro-Russian political party, Manafort’s subsequent resignation from Trump’s campaign, the embassy’s April 2016 letter to the Prosecutor General’s Office about the investigation into the Anti-Corruption Center, and the departure of former Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin.
Yovanovitch made the following clear: “I have never, myself or through others, directly or indirectly, ever directed, suggested, or in any other way asked, for any government or government official in Ukraine or elsewhere to refrain from investigating or prosecuting actual corruption.”
She repeated that Yuriy Lutsenko’s accusation that she made a do-not-prosecute list was false and said she has never been disloyal to the Trump administration. She also denied that she told the embassy team not to follow the president’s orders because he was going to be impeached. She said she has had only “minimal contact” with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, having met him a total of three times, and she did not know his motives for attacking her. However, she gleaned that Giuliani’s associates would have believed that their personal and financial incentives were stifled by the anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.
When Yovanovitch was informed that her term was being abruptly ended, she tried to find out why, and went to speak with the deputy secretary of state, who said that Trump had “lost confidence” in her and no longer wanted her to serve as an ambassador. He further added that there had been a “concerted campaign” against her and that the president had been attempting to remove her since the summer of 2018. He added that she had done nothing wrong, and this was not a recall for cause. Yovanovitch said that although she and everyone understands that the president could remove her at any time, she was “incredulous that the U.S. Government chose to remove an ambassador based, as far as [she could] tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.” Moreover, her removal occurred during a challenging time in establishing relations with a newly elected president in Ukraine. Yovanovitch concluded her opening statement by noting that the attacks on the State Department and its hollowing out from within are a serious issue and that department leadership needs to take action to defend the institution.
Before questions from the committee, Yovanovitch’s counsel made clear that she was appearing in response to a subpoena and that it was their position that she was required to appear. Her legal team had asked the State Department to provide a written statement addressing their concerns regarding “executive branch confidentiality interests,” but the department never provided such a statement.
Yovanovitch then discussed Lutsenko. She first heard from Ukrainian officials at the end of 2018 that Lutsenko was in communication with Giuliani. She had an impression that Lutsenko was discussing this freely. She noted that Lutsenko is a politician and was allied with former President Petro Poroshenko but is not a lawyer. Lutsenko was brought in to reform the Prosecutor General’s Office but was not successful in cleaning up the corruption within the office. He wanted the U.S. Embassy to set up meetings with various Justice Department offices and the director of the FBI, saying he had important information for them, which was not the usual process to follow; the embassy kept encouraging him instead to talk to the legal attache in Ukraine. He “clearly wanted to work around the system” in a way that provided for less transparency. Yovanovitch said she guessed that the information he was trying to share was falsehoods about her.
Lutsenko and Giuliani had a number of meetings, and Lutsenko was looking to hurt Yovanovitch in the U.S., but she did not understand why. Much of what she learned was from the press and media, as well as from other officials she talked to in Ukraine. Around February 2019, she spoke to Minister of Internal Affairs Arsen Avakov, who said she “really needed to watch [her] back.” He described Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman as setting up meetings for Giuliani with Lutsenko and said that they wanted a different ambassador to support their business interests. She thought this was “exceedingly strange” but clearly did not understand the full circumstances. Additionally, she knew that Giuliani was promoting investigations related to Manafort, and Joe Biden and Burisma, but again reiterated that she did not understand the full circumstances. When she reported the conversation back to the department, nobody quite understood what was going on.
Giuliani had also reached out to Avakov, who was concerned about his activities because he thought getting involved in U.S. domestic politics was a dangerous thing for Ukraine to do. Additionally, Poroshenko wanted Trump to endorse him, and Lutsenko thought providing information to Giuliani would be a way to get that endorsement.
Yovanovitch also discussed the April 2019 open letter from Dale Perry, who had an energy company in Ukraine; this was the second time she heard about Parnas and Fruman after the discussion with Avakov. The letter described their business interests in Ukraine through the energy company and that they wanted a “better ambassador” to facilitate these interests. She still found their concern about her “completely mysterious.” Additionally, in the summer of 2018, then-Rep. Pete Sessions met with Parnas and Fruman and sent a letter the same day critical of Yovanovitch.
After the attacks on Yovanovitch in March, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale asked her to document her understanding in a classified email to him. She said she wanted Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to issue a statement of confidence. Hale said he would talk to Pompeo, but she never heard back and the statement was never issued. She also spoke to Acting Assistant Secretary Philip Reeker, who was relaying messages from the leadership floor and told her that the department was cautious “about any kind of a statement, because it could be undermined” by the president.
Yovanovitch also discussed the call between Trump and Zelensky when it was clear Zelensky would win the election in April. She did not receive a readout or a transcript, in contrast to the Obama administration practice of providing a transcript, which would have been useful to her. Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff later suggested that the reason for not providing a readout may have been that the two presidents were speaking negatively about her. If so, Zelensky had an incentive to agree with Trump because he wanted to secure a meeting with him.
Yovanovitch said seeing the call transcript between Trump and Zelensky on July 25, and the Ukrainian president’s disparaging remarks about her in that call, took her by surprise because she thought that Zelensky liked her. She later described meeting with Zelensky for more than an hour after he was elected, which she took to be a positive sign and a signal of a good relationship. A Republican later expressed incredulity at the fact that Zelensky ran on an anti-corruption platform, won overwhelmingly and then said he was glad Yovanovitch was being recalled, to which she responded again that she didn’t know how this happened and was surprised by his remarks.
Regarding the July 25 Trump-Zelensky call, Yovanovitch said that specific requests for prosecutions usually go through the Department of Justice through the mutual legal assistance treaty, and it did not look like that happened in this case. State Department official George Kent discussed the call with her before the transcript was released, saying that Zelensky did not take Trump up on the proposal to have his own prosecutor general, in contrast to the later-released transcript. She said it was not unusual for colleagues to share information about a country she was interested in after she left. After the transcript was released, Yovanovitch described Michael McKinley reaching out to her asking how she was doing and saying he was concerned that there had been no outreach to her or support from the department. McKinley was also concerned about the lack of support for Kent.
Republicans spent time focusing on the release of Yovanovitch’s opening statement to the Washington Post. They also asked about Yovanovitch’s request that Washington help comb through press after the March 24 story in The Hill, which the office declined. Toward the end of the deposition, Republican Rep. Scott Perry asked whether Yovanovitch or any of her staff members requested “unmasking” of any individuals, and then explained the term. Yovanovitch said all the press section did was look at public reports and that it was all unclassified.
Minority staffer Steve Castor also tried to suggest that Yovanovitch did, in fact, provide some kind of do-not-prosecute list and Lutsenko was therefore not incorrect in his claim. He asked whether she ever urged the prosecutor general not to engage in politically motivated prosecutions and whether she ever referenced specific cases in doing so. She said she did mention only one individual by name but clarified that she would tell prosecutors not to bring politically motivated cases and to follow the rule of law. She claimed that she never said not to prosecute a particular individual. Lutsenko, moreover, recanted the whole accusation.
Republicans returned to Burisma throughout the deposition. Yovanovitch said she was familiar with the investigations into Burisma and its founder, Mykola Zlochevsky, also the former minister of ecology and natural resources, but these were occurring before she arrived and were dormant by the time she got to Ukraine. She had the impression that keeping the investigation dormant, instead of closing it, was advantageous as a means of putting pressure on the company and keeping it “on the hook.” When Lutsenko later raised issues regarding Burisma, that caught her by surprise. Rep. Perry also asked about two 2018 convictions in Ukraine of U.S. election meddling, which were later overturned. Yovanovitch said she didn’t believe the charges and thought they were politically motivated.
Another notable point is Sean Hannity’s involvement. After Yovanovitch was given a heads-up that there was “nervousness” from senior State Department officials and the White House, with the initial plan that she would stay until July 2019, Reeker told her that either Pompeo or somebody around him was going to place a call to Hannity to ask the basis for his attacks on Yovanovitch, and Yovanovitch understood that that call was made.
There was then a pause in the criticisms of Yovanovitch for the Ukrainian elections in April, whereupon Yovanovitch received another call telling her to come back to the U.S. immediately—without much of an explanation. When she arrived back at the State Department, she was told that she needed to leave Ukraine as soon as possible, that Trump had wanted her gone since summer of 2018, that the secretary had protected her, but that he was no longer able to do that. She was shocked to learn this. She was also told that she had been called back abruptly because the department was worried that Trump would tweet about her or take some other public action. She did not receive an explanation beyond the president’s having made a decision. She thought the decision was influenced by Lutsenko, because there was a rumor from the Ukrainians that in a meeting between Lutsenko and Giuliani, Trump got on the line. Yovanovitch further thought that the decision was sending a negative message about anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine and wanted to know how the State Department would manage that. Yovanovitch never spoke to Pompeo, but she did ask to speak with his counselor, T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, who did not accept the meeting request.
Yovanovitch also discussed the aid to Ukraine. She thought it was very significant that the administration provided lethal assistance to Ukraine in the form of Javelin anti-tank missiles. She thought it was a symbolic message to Russia that the U.S. supported Ukraine by providing Javelins and would be helpful if there was escalation in the conflict between the two states. At the end of the deposition, she said the U.S. was the most important partner to Ukraine and the Ukrainian president would try “to do whatever an American President requested.” The committee returned to this topic at the close of the deposition, and Yovanovitch said the foreign aid that was held up did not include the Javelins. Zelensky was talking about the purchase of the Javelins on the call through foreign military sales, whereas the aid that was held up was appropriated security assistance.
Yovanovitch said she did not have any conversations with Kurt Volker, the State Department’s Ukraine special envoy, about Giuliani but considered Volker to be a “man of honor.” The only conversation she had with U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland was after the Hill article and the attacks on her, and he responded that he did not know that this had occurred and that she should “go big or go home”—meaning that she should publicly state that the attacks were false and that she supported Trump. She did not think she could take this advice, because the State Department was silent.