White House On Marie Yovanovitch
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Marie Yovanovitch has been testifying before the House Intelligence Committee this morning. The committee has just taken a break at this moment. We're waiting for more to come. The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine was recalled by President Trump earlier this year. She told the panel this morning that the United States' effort to fight corruption in Ukraine has been thwarted.
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MARIE YOVANOVITCH: Ukrainians who prefer to play by the old, corrupt rules sought to remove me. What continues to amaze me is that they found Americans willing to partner with them and, working together, they apparently succeeded in orchestrating the removal of a U.S. ambassador. How could our system fail like this? How is it that foreign, corrupt interests could manipulate our government?
GREENE: Yovanovitch is, of course, at the center of the impeachment inquiry. She's a key witness. And joining us to talk about her testimony, NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Hi, Franco.
FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Hello.
GREENE: What have you heard so far?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, as the clip that we just played, Yovanovitch is describing Ukraine foreign policy in disarray. But also Yovanovitch probably more than anyone else takes this to a much deeper, personal level. She testified this morning about being told by people that someone wants to hurt her. And she also said this morning that she felt Trump - President Trump had threatened her on the July 25 call when he said she's going to go through some things.
GREENE: Well, I mean, there were - there was that call. But then even this morning, the president, who largely has acted like he hasn't even been watching a lot of this impeachment inquiry so far, he seems very involved today. He's been tweeting, and his tweets have actually gotten into the hearing room almost in real time.
ORDOÑEZ: It's true. I mean, before today, President Trump said he was too busy to be watching any of the hearings. And he also didn't want to give any credibility to the hearings. Today, he appears to be watching. He's tweeting about her testimony. He says he has the right to appoint ambassadors, but he also attacked her, saying everywhere Marie Yovanovitch goes went - turned bad. And in the most tense moment, Congressman Schiff, who is the chair of the House Intelligence Committee, he actually read those tweets out and asked Yovanovitch about them. She said she felt very intimidated. And in a possibly more tense moment, Schiff then came on again and said that some people here in the hearing room take witness intimidation very, very seriously.
GREENE: We should also say, as this hearing was getting started, the White House released a transcript today of an earlier phone call between President Trump and Ukraine's president, Zelenskiy. What did we learn there?
ORDOÑEZ: Well, we've long been waiting to get a transcript or rough transcript of this call. It was largely a congratulatory call. But what was interesting about this one was how different it was from the original White House readout. This - that readout - the White House originally said in April was that it addressed corruption and Ukraine's sovereignty. But the released log, the released rough transcript had no reference to that at all. And the White House hasn't addressed the discrepancy.
GREENE: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez, thanks so much.
ORDOÑEZ: Thank you.
GREENE: OK. So there is still this question looming over the ambassador, who is testifying today. And I posed this question earlier this morning to White House deputy press secretary Steven Groves.
Why did the president want Yovanovitch out of her job?
STEVEN GROVES: You know, I don't know that that is a matter of record as yet. I can just look at some of the objective facts, see that there was a - the election that brought Zelenskiy into office. There was the fact that she only had, I believe, about six weeks left on her tenure there. You know, she was there when the president came into office and remained there and served.
GREENE: But six weeks is still - I mean, that's still a decision.
GREENE: I mean, the deputy secretary of State, John Sullivan, you know, when Yovanovitch was removed, I mean, he has said in testimony that she did nothing wrong, that she was the victim of a smear campaign. And you're saying there's no record. But, I mean, can you tell me at all what the president was thinking? That has to be a reason he did this.
GROVES: I cannot. And I don't know if there are witnesses that know the president's thinking on this or the advice that he received to recall this particular ambassador and then appoint Ambassador Bill Taylor. But that doesn't really...
GREENE: But President Trump called her bad news.
GROVES: It really doesn't really quite matter. I mean, the president gets to hire, fire, promote, demote, recall and appoint who he chooses to.
GREENE: Sure, but no one's questioning the power. But it - I mean, it's very central to what they're trying to figure out. I just want to probe a little more with you here because, you know, there's been testimony suggesting that there was a smear campaign that the president's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, was at the center of. He was, you know, looking for information that he wanted in Ukraine, you know, digging up information. Here's what Giuliani said about Ambassador Yovanovitch.
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RUDY GIULIANI: They were trying to get to us, but they were being blocked by the ambassador, who was an Obama appointee, in Ukraine, who was holding back this information.
GREENE: That makes it sound like Giuliani was upset that, in his view, Yovanovitch was blocking him from talking to people. Could he have told the president that and that's what happened here?
GROVES: I mean, I would be speculating since I'm not privy to any attorney-client conversations between the president and this attorney. But he very well could have expressed his concerns to the president. And, you know, he doesn't need to have a reason. And more importantly, I just don't see where, you know, recalling Ambassador Yovanovitch fits in to being an impeachable offense. How is it a high crime or misdemeanor to recall your own ambassador and appoint a new one?
GREENE: Well, you know as well as I do, I mean, what has been suggested here, that the president was withholding military aid at a time that he was asking the Ukrainian government for certain investigations. Rudy Giuliani was at the center of that. Then you have Yovanovitch, many saying that she was part of a smear campaign by Giuliani. I mean, I don't have to go through all the facts of what's come out here. But I do want to ask you about this military aid because one of the revelations this week is that the military aid to Ukraine that the president temporarily withheld was only released after a whistleblower came forward and raised questions about all this. Did the president essentially - is it possible he got caught here and decided, wow, there are a lot of concerns being raised, I better get that aid to Ukraine now?
GROVES: Does that sound like the President Trump that you know? Does that sound like how he has operated in the past? Oh, my God. I got caught by some anonymous whistleblower, so I better take an - make an act that I really don't want to do; it's insane.
GREENE: You're not disputing the timing here. I mean, that aid was released after the whistleblower raised these concerns.
GROVES: I'm not sure exactly what the timing is. I don't have a chronology in front of me. But even if the timing was correct, you're assuming a causation and not correlation. If you're going to try to impeach a president, you better have something more than speculation to do it, regardless of what the timing is. You need causation, not correlation. And thus far, there hasn't been a shred of direct evidence under oath that there's any causation between a whistleblower complaint and the release of funds.
GREENE: And we should say, one person that lawmakers are going to be hearing from is Mark Sandy, an official with the White House Office of Management Budget, who apparently knows a lot about exactly what happened with that aid. I want to thank you for joining us this morning, Steven Groves, as deputy White House press secretary. We really appreciate your time, as always.
GROVES: Thanks for having me on. And maybe after more testimony, you can have me back on, and we'll talk about it then. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.