Impeachment, Ukraine

Yovanovitch’s ‘Devastating’ Tale of Two Cities

Day Two of the public impeachment hearings told us more about ourselves than about Ukraine. It isn’t pretty.
by Kim Wehle
November 15, 2019
Featured Image
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 15: Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies before the House Intelligence Committee in the Longworth House Office Building on Capitol Hill November 15, 2019 in Washington, DC. In the second impeachment hearing held by the committee, House Democrats continue to build a case against U.S. President Donald Trump’s efforts to link U.S. military aid for Ukraine to the nation’s investigation of his political rivals. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, testified today in the second day of the House Intelligence Committee’s public impeachment hearings. What some observers expected to be a relatively sleepy performance turned out to be the exact opposite.

Yovanovitch painted a stark portrait of a tale of two cities:

Scene one—Kiev, Ukraine. Here we see struggling democracy—clamoring for independence from Russia, freedom for its citizens, a government by the rule of law, and international legitimacy. With the assistance of Yovanovitch, a 33-year foreign service veteran who has held three different ambassadorships under three presidents, Kiev is making efforts to root out longstanding corruption. Yovanovitch is hopeful that the country’s new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, is committed to this vision. The U.S. government has long supported that vision for Ukraine, believing that anti-corruption, pro-democracy efforts in Ukraine are good for America, too.

Scene two—Washington, D.C. The American president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has teamed up with two corrupt Ukrainian prosecutors and two gangster-like Ukrainian characters currently under federal criminal indictment. Giuliani’s aim is to stymie the anti-corruption efforts of official U.S. policy in Ukraine—starting with ousting Yovanovitch from her post and trashing her reputation. The president himself is backing Giuliani. In the infamous July 25 call asking for “a favor” in exchange for American support, Trump made clear to Zelensky that Giuliani is the point person for executing his request for politically motivated investigations in exchange for promised military aid.

The moral of Yovanovitch’s story is this: While Ukraine has tried to move toward democracy and the rule of law, the United States under Trump—through an unofficial, private channel divorced from U.S. interests and devoid of oversight—has moved away from them. Yovanovitch explained why corruption in Ukrainian politics is bad for the United States: “If Russia prevails and Ukraine falls to Russian dominion, we can expect to see other attempts by Russia to expand its territory and influence.”

And ironically (given the person in the White House right now), she quietly observed that “corrupt leaders are inherently less trustworthy, while an honest and accountable Ukrainian leadership makes a U.S.-Ukrainian partnership more reliable and more valuable to the United States.”

So far, not a single Republican has disputed the witness testimony that official U.S. policy in Ukraine is aimed at combatting corruption and fostering democracy. Nor has any disputed that Giuliani’s campaign to undermine those efforts—along with Trump’s withholding of military aid—was at odds with America’s interests.

To make matters worse, Trump tweeted attacks on Yovanovitch while she spoke under oath, visibly shaken, about the president’s comments in the July 25 call with Zelensky, which she described as “devastating.” Despite her decades of public service to protect America’s interests, Trump referred to her in that call as “bad news” and said she was “going to go through some things.” She felt threatened and intimidated by the words of the most powerful person on the planet.

Who wouldn’t?

The epic question for Americans in this moment is whether we care anymore about fostering and preserving democracy in the United States. If not, we might take a civics class from our allies in Ukraine before allowing our constitutional system to unravel beyond repair. Ukrainians remember the Soviet Union and they now live next door to Putin’s Russia—so they know what an alternative to democracy might look like. It’s not pretty.

Kim Wehle

Kim Wehle is a contributor to The Bulwark. She is also a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law and a former assistant U.S. attorney and associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation and author of How to Read the Constitution and Why (Harper Collins).