The Effort to Discredit the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine

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The Daily|The Effort to Discredit the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine

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transcript

The Effort to Discredit the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine

Hosted by Michael Barbaro; produced by Jessica Cheung and Michael Simon Johnson, with help from Clare Toeniskoetter and Rachel Quester; and edited by M.J. Davis Lin and Lisa Tobin

While fighting corruption in Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch found herself at odds with forces loyal to President Trump — and then out of a job.

rachel quester
Shall we?
michael barbaro
Should I start?
clare toeniskoetter
Do it.
michael barbaro
From The New York Times, I’m Michael Barbaro. This is “The Daily.” All this week, we’re in Washington.
michael barbaro
O.K. This is it.
clare toeniskoetter
To the bureau.
michael barbaro
As Congress returns from recess, the impeachment inquiry enters a pivotal phase, and the White House strategy to block the investigation begins to crumble, with five administration officials set to testify before House committees.
speaker
Washington?
elisabeth bumiller
O.K., so we’ve got Fiona Hill, the former Russia expert on the National Security Council staff, on the Hill as we speak. She’s behind closed doors.
michael barbaro
On Monday, those committees heard testimony about why the president removed the longtime ambassador to Ukraine just two months before his fateful call with the president of Ukraine asking for a favor.
elisabeth bumiller
It’s busy week on the Hill. He’s going to testify. On Thursday, we’ve got another State Department official testifying. Tomorrow —
michael barbaro
Today: The story of how that ambassador ended up at the center of the impeachment process. It’s Tuesday, October 15.
michael barbaro
So are you ready for “Daily” retrieval?
sharon lafraniere
I am. Where do we go?
michael barbaro
We’re going to go down to six.
sharon lafraniere
O.K., into that — to that dark room?
michael barbaro
That dark, sweaty room.
sharon lafraniere
Yeah, is it sweaty? All right.
michael barbaro
No, it’s not too sweaty.
michael barbaro
Sharon LaFraniere is an investigative reporter in the Washington bureau.
sharon lafraniere
O.K., go ahead.
michael barbaro
And we’ll jump in. And it’ll be great. Sharon, tell us about this ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch.
sharon lafraniere
So she’s a very experienced diplomat.
archived recording
— Marie Yovanovitch to be ambassador to the Republic of Armenia.
sharon lafraniere
She’s a 33-year veteran of the State Department. She’s a three-time ambassador. George W. Bush appointed her to be ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and then to Armenia.
archived recording (marie yovanovitch)
It’s an honor for me to appear before you today. I’m honored, also, by the confidence that President Bush and Secretary Rice have shown in me by nominating me for the post of U.S. ambassador to Armenia.
sharon lafraniere
And then in August of 2016, President Obama appointed her to be ambassador to Ukraine.
michael barbaro
So she’s a career diplomat.
sharon lafraniere
She’s a career diplomat. And her sort of trademark, what people mostly say about her, is how cautious she is. She is a very careful diplomat.
archived recording (marie yovanovitch)
U.S. policy is very clear. Crimea is a part of Ukraine. And we are absolutely rock solid on that.
sharon lafraniere
You know, she doesn’t get out over her skis. She’s very, very policy-oriented, very attentive to protocol, propriety, instructions, and just by nature, a cautious person.
archived recording (marie yovanovitch)
And we are very active on the diplomatic side to ensure that Russia’s physical occupation of Crimea does not become sort of a creeping occupation through other ways.
sharon lafraniere
By the time Trump’s elected, she’s ambassador to Ukraine. She’s been in the embassy as ambassador then for about six months or so, and she continues on. Trump is the sixth president that she has served.
michael barbaro
Of both parties.
sharon lafraniere
Of both parties, correct.
archived recording (marie yovanovitch)
There has been a strong bipartisan commitment to Ukraine’s independence, and I’m confident that will continue.
michael barbaro
So what happens after President Trump renews her ambassadorship?
sharon lafraniere
She carries on, and early March, she gets this communiqué from the State Department saying, hey, can you stand? Can we extend your ambassadorship into 2020? And then less than two months later, she gets another communiqué from the State Department, which basically is, word for word, get on the next plane to Washington. And her ambassadorship, at that point, is over.
michael barbaro
So she’s asked to stay on.
sharon lafraniere
She’s asked to stand.
michael barbaro
And within weeks, she’s told she’s finished.
sharon lafraniere
Exactly.
michael barbaro
And at the time, how much notice does this attract, the fact that she’s essentially fired?
sharon lafraniere
Very little. We didn’t write a thing about it.
michael barbaro
Hmm.
sharon lafraniere
I mean, I guess generally, we don’t pay that much attention to ambassadors. They carry out policy. They don’t set policy, so —
michael barbaro
But, of course, we’re paying attention now.
sharon lafraniere
Right. And the question is, was she removed from her job because she somehow or another stood in the way of a kind of corrupt quid pro quo deal that the White House had going with Ukraine? And so more and more is coming out now about why she was recalled so abruptly to Washington. And witness after witness is being asked, what do you know about the whole campaign to drive out Marie Yovanovitch?
michael barbaro
And what have we learned from those witnesses, from this testimony?
sharon lafraniere
So let me take you back to last year, because that’s when it began.
[music]
michael barbaro
Rudy Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, had two associates who were working with him and for him in Ukraine. So that’s Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman. They are both U.S. citizens, but they’re working with Giuliani. But they are also working for themselves, for their own personal interests. They are going after Yovanovitch because they think that she is an obstacle to their effort to get a deal with the state-owned gas company that’s run by the Ukraine. And it’s been turned down by the chief executive of this company. And he is a reform-minded executive, and the ambassador is supporting him, and they want to get him out, and they want to get her out, too. O.K., let me just try to understand.
sharon lafraniere
O.K., two —
michael barbaro
Two men who work with Rudy Giuliani, the president’s private lawyer, they are trying to make a buck in Ukraine. They want to do a deal with an energy company there. They’re having some trouble. They blame the C.E.O. of that company for standing in their way, and they simultaneously blame Yovanovitch. Why did they blame her? What’s the connection?
sharon lafraniere
American diplomats have always paid attention to Ukraine’s energy policy, because energy is sort of this nexus in which Russia tries to exert influence over Ukraine, and basically, it’s a font of corruption. So the U.S. has always been saying, you know, you need good governance here in your state energy company. So that’s what Yovanovitch was saying. No more backroom deals. You need good governance in this company.
michael barbaro
And how does Giuliani come into the picture?
sharon lafraniere
O.K., so —
michael barbaro
You must have, like, a whiteboard —
sharon lafraniere
Yeah, right.
michael barbaro
— where you keep track of all these characters.
sharon lafraniere
It is. Well, O.K., there’s a parallel track, too, right? There’s another guy, Yuriy Lutsenko. This is a guy who isn’t even a lawyer, but he’s running the prosecutor’s office. He’s also against her, because she’s telling him that you got to clean up the corruption in your prosecutor general’s office. And so she’s putting pressure on him, and he doesn’t like that either. Right? So she’s got these enemies with these two associates of Giuliani. She’s got this enemy in this prosecutor. And all three of those guys sort of join up together along with Giuliani.
michael barbaro
So just to complete this set of characters that you have brought on stage — you have Giuliani’s associates, you have the prosecutor in Ukraine, you have Rudy Giuliani. All of them begin to see a common foe in this U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, who sees herself as somebody trying to fight corruption and bad business practices in Ukraine.
sharon lafraniere
Right. And they start to spread stories about her that she is disloyal to Trump.
archived recording
— Marie Yovanovitch. Yovanovitch, an Obama holdover, remains in the post today. She’s reportedly demonstrated clear anti-Trump bias.
sharon lafraniere
That there are private recordings in which she is supposedly disdainful to Trump.
archived recording
She is known and reported by people there to have bad-mouthed the president of the United States, Donald Trump, to have told Ukrainians not to listen to him or obey his policy because he was going to be impeached.
sharon lafraniere
So while they’re working in Ukraine, they’re also exporting this campaign against her to the U.S. One person who they approach is Pete Sessions —
archived recording (barack obama)
I, Barack Hussein Obama, do solemnly swear.
archived recording (pete sessions)
Remember that? It looked bleak. The press said conservatives were an endangered species. I said it was time to get to work.
sharon lafraniere
— who is then a Republican congressman from Texas who’s running for re-election.
archived recording (pete sessions)
But I’m not finished yet. We have to roll back the Obama agenda and get businesses hiring nationwide. I’m Pete Sessions, and I approve this message.
sharon lafraniere
He is head of the House Rules Committee, so he has a pretty important position. And they say, we are going to help you raise $20,000 for your re-election campaign. And we also want your help in getting Yovanovitch out. So Sessions then does write a letter to Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, and says, this ambassador’s disloyal to Trump.
michael barbaro
Wow.
sharon lafraniere
And that’s really the beginning of the whole campaign against her in the U.S.
michael barbaro
So these men, after successfully spreading the word that Yovanovitch is no good, in their telling, in Ukraine, they are asking a member of the United States Congress to try to discredit her within the government of the U.S., and he does it.
sharon lafraniere
Yes. By this spring, it’s really sort of hit a fever pitch.
michael barbaro
What do you mean?
sharon lafraniere
Well, in that Donald Trump Jr. gets on Twitter and says, we have to get rid of more of these joker ambassadors like her.
michael barbaro
Mentions her.
sharon lafraniere
Yeah, mentions her. And four days later, Giuliani takes a whole packet of information about her, which he’s gathered from these three guys, and puts it in Mike Pompeo’s hands — Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state. Right?
michael barbaro
Wow.
sharon lafraniere
And says, this is a bad ambassador. You have to investigate this.
michael barbaro
And the result of that is that Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, has this letter from this Republican lawmaker, and he has this packet of negative information about Yovanovitch from Giuliani. And, of course, Pompeo is Yovanovitch’s boss.
sharon lafraniere
Correct.
michael barbaro
So this campaign is coming from a lot of angles.
sharon lafraniere
Right.
michael barbaro
O.K., so what happens next?
[music]
sharon lafraniere
So next, it’s late April, and she gets that letter from the State Department or some kind of communiqué from the State Department, get on the next plane to Washington. And her boss is about to tell her that her ambassadorship is going to be cut short.
michael barbaro
And what kind of explanation is given?
sharon lafraniere
So the explanation is you haven’t done anything wrong. This is the deputy secretary of state saying this. This isn’t like normal cases when ambassadors are recalled for cause. In other words, you’ve done something really terrible, and we’re — you haven’t done anything wrong.
michael barbaro
He says that to her?
sharon lafraniere
Yes, he says that to her, according to her. But there’s been a campaign against you, a very concerted campaign against you for a long time, and we’ve been under pressure from the president to remove you since the summer of 2018. So we’re bringing you home.
michael barbaro
He sounds almost embarrassed.
sharon lafraniere
Yeah, apologetic, maybe.
michael barbaro
Hmm, so she just leaves the job.
sharon lafraniere
Yep, she leaves the job. And there is a reaction — we don’t know it at the time — but there is a pretty strong reaction within the State Department.
michael barbaro
What do you mean?
sharon lafraniere
Well, at the embassy back in Kiev, the officials who are left there are said to be seething about this, that this is really unusual. This is really bizarre.
michael barbaro
We’ll be right back.
archived recording
Marie Yovanovitch, I learned this evening that the president has ordered her dismissal from her post as the United States ambassador to Ukraine as a result of her activities there, which were complained of by Congressman Sessions. She —
michael barbaro
Sharon, so are we to understand, at this point, that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has told the president that he thinks Yovanovitch should go, and that that would suggest that the information Pompeo has received from this Republican congressman and from this packet of information from Giuliani, that this was effective?
sharon lafraniere
So we don’t know whether Pompeo told the president that she should go. It could be that the president told Pompeo she should go. We do know Rudy wanted her to go. So maybe Rudy is the key adviser. Maybe he tells the president this is somebody who’s disloyal to you, and the president tells Pompeo, get rid of her. It could have been that way, too.
michael barbaro
So all we know is that the president removes her from this job.
sharon lafraniere
Right. And we know that the State Department said that they were under pressure from the president to remove her for more than a year earlier.
michael barbaro
And what happens after she’s removed from this job?
sharon lafraniere
So about two months after she’s removed from the job, the president and Zelensky, the new Ukrainian president, have this now-famous phone call July 25, and she comes up —
michael barbaro
Yovanovitch.
sharon lafraniere
— in the phone call, yes. And the president says, “The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news, and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news, so I just wanted to let you know that.” And then Zelensky agrees with Trump and says, “It was great that you were the first one who told me she was a bad ambassador, because I agree with you 100 percent.” And then President Trump says, “Well, she’s going to go through some things,” which sounds quite ominous.
michael barbaro
So whether the fact that the president got rid of the ambassador to Ukraine before turning up the pressure on Ukraine is kind of an open question. We don’t know yet.
sharon lafraniere
It is an open question.
michael barbaro
But It happened two months before this pivotal phone call.
sharon lafraniere
Right, which makes you wonder, was somebody trying to get her out of the way? We just don’t know.
michael barbaro
Right.
sharon lafraniere
She doesn’t know, I don’t think.
michael barbaro
So that Zelensky-Trump telephone call, of course, has led to the impeachment inquiry. Where has Yovanovitch fit in to the inquiry?
sharon lafraniere
So she’s going to be at the top of the witness list, right? But the question is, she is still a career official within the State Department.
michael barbaro
Because she’s fired from her job, but not from the department.
sharon lafraniere
Right. So she’s just lying low, and then her name shows up on the witness list. And the House impeachment investigators really want to get her in there and find out what happened. But the White House comes out with this letter saying, we’re not cooperating, the administration is not cooperating. So we’re all wondering is she going to show up, or she’s not going to show up?
michael barbaro
Does that apply to her?
sharon lafraniere
Yeah, no, it definitely applies to her. If the administration is not cooperating, she shouldn’t be cooperating, right? So most of us, I think, are figuring she’s not going to show up. She’s been told not to show up. And then we learn, you know, not too many hours before her testimony that she is showing up.
michael barbaro
Wow.
speaker
Are you represented by State Department counsel, or are you —
sharon lafraniere
She’s showing up. And she walks through the entrance rather firmly flanked by her lawyer, and she disappears into the secure chambers where the House Intelligence Committee investigators begin to question her, and she doesn’t come out until dark. She testified for nearly nine hours in defiance of the White House directive.
michael barbaro
Mm-hmm. And what do we know about what she says?
sharon lafraniere
We got her opening statement, and it was, I thought, extremely dramatic. I was particularly struck by this one sentence that she wrote, which was, “Although I understand that I served at the pleasure of the president, I was, nevertheless, incredulous that the U.S. government chose to remove an ambassador based, as best as I can tell, on unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.” All these things that have been swirling around about me are completely false. The notion I ever said, ignore President Trump’s orders because he’s going to be impeached anyway — I never said such a thing to my embassy colleagues or to anyone else. And then she gets to Giuliani, who she says she thinks she’s met maybe three times. O.K., “I do not know Mr. Giuliani’s motives for attacking me.” But individuals, people named as his associates, may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were being stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine. In other words, maybe Giuliani’s friends thought that I was standing in the way of them putting money in their pocket. Maybe that’s what it is about. And she says more broadly that the U.S. foreign policy is going to be in a really bad state if we allow private interests to “circumvent professional diplomats for their own gain, not the public good.” So she’s making a very, very important and broad point about this, is that this is not just about me. It’s chaos in the diplomatic scene. You have an ambassador who — the State Department doesn’t have her back. And she’s being discredited by the president’s own personal lawyer and then, later, by the president himself, in this phone call with the Ukrainian president. And that’s not just a, you know, cautionary tale about her. That’s a tale for a lot of diplomats who put themselves in harm’s way to serve the nation, as she says. So she doesn’t mention Mike Pompeo by name, but it’s clear that she feels that the State Department didn’t stand up for her and should have. She’s raising serious issues there, but they’re not really political issues, they’re issues of good governance and good administration.
michael barbaro
But to many people listening, her removal from this position as ambassador is providing a lot of ammunition to what has become a pretty political matter, which is the impeachment inquiry.
sharon lafraniere
Right. So the question about how did she lose her job? Why did she lose her job? Who drove her out? This is really central to the inquiry. And even if she didn’t provide the answers because maybe she doesn’t really know, other people are going to be asked about it. And beyond the issue of what she does know or doesn’t know, did say or didn’t say, just the fact that she showed up alone is significant, really remarkable.
michael barbaro
And testified.
sharon lafraniere
And testified. Are more people like her going to follow suit? Are they going to say, you know, we don’t care what the White House says, we’re making our own decision? And one example of that is Gordon Sondland, who is the U.S. ambassador for the European Union. First, he was going to testify. Then the White House, the State Department directed him not to testify, so he was taken off the schedule. And now he’s back on the schedule because he wants to testify for his own reasons, which are probably that he doesn’t want to be painted as the bad guy in this. So he’s worried about his own reputation.
michael barbaro
I’m curious what’s happened to all of the people who worked so hard to discredit Yovanovitch and ended up getting her removed from this job. What has happened to them?
archived recording
Parnas and Fruman were arrested around 6:00 p.m. last night at Dulles Airport as they were about to board an international flight with one-way tickets.
sharon lafraniere
So the two associates of Rudy Giuliani, they were arrested for campaign finance violations, including, in part, for their contribution to Pete Sessions, which was allegedly in return for his help in getting the ambassador out. They’re sitting in the Alexandria Detention Center now.
michael barbaro
They’re in jail.
sharon lafraniere
They’re in jail.
archived recording (pete sessions)
Tonight, both Karen and I address you with great thoughts of not just thanks, but great thoughts of how important these 22 years have been.
sharon lafraniere
Sessions lost his re-election, and he is concerned that his political career has been seriously harmed by these allegations. Giuliani —
archived recording (donald trump)
Well, I don’t know. I haven’t spoken to Rudy. I spoke to him yesterday, briefly. He’s a very good attorney, and he has been my attorney. Yeah, sure.
sharon lafraniere
— is now under investigation himself for whether he was acting as a foreign agent for the Ukraine in his efforts to oust the ambassador.
michael barbaro
And, of course, the president is being investigated in an impeachment inquiry.
sharon lafraniere
Right. Some people who went after her are going through some things.
michael barbaro
[CHUCKLES] Sharon, thank you very much.
sharon lafraniere
Thank you for having me.
michael barbaro
The Times reports that in closed-door testimony on Monday, President Trump’s former top adviser on Russia, Fiona Hill, testified that she strongly objected to the removal of Marie Yovanovitch as ambassador to Ukraine, but that her advice was ignored. Hill recounted that Rudy Giuliani’s conduct was so alarming that national security adviser John Bolton told her to alert White House lawyers about it, and that Bolton described Giuliani as, quote, “a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up.” Despite objections from the White House, the leaders of the impeachment inquiry are scheduled to hear from several more State Department officials over the coming days, including the former senior adviser to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for Ukraine, and the ambassador to the European Union, who became deeply involved in the effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate Trump’s rivals. We’ll be right back.
michael barbaro
So do you think that he’s, like, busy?
rachel quester
I don’t know. We’ll have to see.
michael barbaro
He might be gone.
eric schmitt
Hey, Michael. How you doing?
michael barbaro
How are you? Nice to see you.
eric schmitt
How you been?
michael barbaro
I’m good. How on deadline are you?
eric schmitt
Right now? Not really.
rachel quester
Give me a “here’s what else you need to know today.”
michael barbaro
Here’s what else you need to know today.
michael barbaro
O.K., Eric Schmitt, can I just ask you about what happened in Syria on Monday?
eric schmitt
So three main things happened in Syria on Monday. The first is the Turkish offensive continued, continued deeper into Syrian territory. The second thing that happened was that the Syrian Kurds, who’d been allied to the Americans, they’d cut a deal with a new partner: President Assad, the Syrian government. And so Syrian government troops started moving into the territory that the Kurds used to hold. In response to all this —
archived recording (steven mnuchin)
The president announced that there would be sanctions forthcoming if Turkey moved forward with these actions.
eric schmitt
The United States finally acts, and that the president announces there’ll be economic sanctions against Turkey for what it’s done.
archived recording (steven mnuchin)
So effective immediately, we have sanctioned three of the ministers — the minister of defense, the minister of interior, and the minister of energy.
eric schmitt
But American officials I talked to today, particularly military officers who have served over in northeastern Syria, said it’s too little, too late. The sanctions, at this point, doesn’t matter. Tens if not hundreds of thousands of people will be displaced. ISIS fighters are breaking out of jails left and right. And all this has happened just a little over in the last week.
archived recording (mike pence)
President Trump made it very clear that the United States is going to continue to take actions against Turkey’s economy until they bring the violence to an end. We want an immediate cease fire, and we want to begin negotiations between Turkey and Syrian defense forces. We have great concerns about civilian populations.
michael barbaro
From the Washington bureau of The Times, that’s it for “The Daily.” I’m Michael Barbaro. See you tomorrow.

The Daily logoThe Daily

While fighting corruption in Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch found herself at odds with forces loyal to President Trump — and then out of a job.

Hosted by Michael Barbaro; produced by Jessica Cheung and Michael Simon Johnson, with help from Clare Toeniskoetter and Rachel Quester; and edited by M.J. Davis Lin and Lisa Tobin

Listen and subscribe to our podcast from your mobile device:

Via Apple Podcasts | Via RadioPublic | Via Stitcher

This week, we’re producing episodes of “The Daily” from The New York Times’s Washington bureau.

The impeachment inquiry is entering a pivotal phase as Congress returns from recess. The White House’s strategy to block the investigation is beginning to crumble, with five administration officials set to testify before House investigators.

On Monday, those committees heard testimony about why the president removed the longtime ambassador, Marie L. Yovanovitch, just two months before the call in which he asked the Ukrainian president for a favor. Today, we look at how Ms. Yovanovitch ended up at the center of the impeachment process.

On today’s episode:

  • Sharon LaFraniere, an investigative reporter based in Washington.

  • Rachel Quester and Clare Toeniskoetter, producers for “The Daily.”

Image

CreditAnna Moneymaker/The New York Times

Background coverage:

  • Marie L. Yovanovitch told House investigators that she was removed from office on the basis of “false claims by people with clearly questionable motives.”

  • The effort to pressure Ukraine so alarmed John Bolton, then the national security adviser, that he told an aide to alert White House lawyers. “Giuliani’s a hand grenade who’s going to blow everybody up,” an aide quoted him as saying of President Trump’s personal lawyer.

Tune in, and tell us what you think. Email us at [email protected]. Follow Michael Barbaro on Twitter: @mikiebarb. And if you’re interested in advertising with “The Daily,” write to us at [email protected].

Sharon LaFraniere and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

“The Daily” is made by Theo Balcomb, Andy Mills, Lisa Tobin, Rachel Quester, Lynsea Garrison, Annie Brown, Clare Toeniskoetter, Paige Cowett, Michael Simon Johnson, Brad Fisher, Larissa Anderson, Wendy Dorr, Chris Wood, Jessica Cheung, Alexandra Leigh Young, Jonathan Wolfe, Lisa Chow, Eric Krupke, Marc Georges, Luke Vander Ploeg, Adizah Eghan, Kelly Prime, Julia Longoria, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Jazmín Aguilera, M.J. Davis Lin, Dan Powell, Austin Mitchell, Sayre Quevedo and Monika Evstatieva. Our theme music is by Jim Brunberg and Ben Landsverk of Wonderly. Special thanks to Sam Dolnick, Mikayla Bouchard, Stella Tan, Julia Simon and Lauren Jackson.

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