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Former envoy defies Trump, testifies he pushed to oust her

Yovanovitch is now a State Department fellow at Georgetown University. Trump said earlier this week that he would block all officials from testifying, saying the probe was unfair and “illegitimate.”

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It was unclear if Yovanovitch’s appearance signalled a shift in that strategy or if she was breaking with White House orders.

Democrats are investigating Trump’s pleas to Ukrainian officials to launch investigations of political rival Joe Biden and his family and to probe Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election.

Yovanovitch was recalled from Kiev as Rudy Giuliani – who is Trump’s personal attorney and has no official role in the US government – pushed Ukrainian officials to investigate baseless corruption allegations against the Bidens.

Yovanovitch was removed from her post after insisting that Giuliani’s requests to Ukrainian officials for investigations be relayed through official channels, according to a former diplomat who has spoken with her.

In a July 25 phone call, Trump told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky that Yovanovitch was “bad news,” according to a partial transcript released by the White House. Neither Giuliani nor Trump has publicly specified their objections to Yovanovitch.

Businessmen with ties to Giuliani lobbied a US congressman in 2018 for help ousting Yovanovitch, according to an indictment made public on Thursday following the men’s arrest. It alleges that the men leveraged a flurry of GOP political donations to force Yovanovitch’s removal, an effort prosecutors say was aided by laundered foreign money.

The former diplomat who spoke with Yovanovitch said the ambassador refused to do “all this offline, personal, informal stuff” and made clear that the US government had formal ways to request foreign governments’ help with investigations. The former diplomat insisted on anonymity to disclose the private conversation.

The State Department traditionally relies on mutual legal assistance treaties, under which US and foreign officials agree to exchange evidence and information in criminal investigations.

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Yovanovitch was speaking to the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform committees behind closed doors on Friday. The committees are scheduled to talk to several other US diplomats next week, as well.

On Monday, Fiona Hill, a former White House adviser who focused on Russia, is expected to testify. Three current State Department officials also are tentatively scheduled next week – Deputy Assistant Secretary of State George Kent, US Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland, and Ulrich Brechbuhl, a State Department counsellor.

Sondland was originally scheduled for a deposition on Tuesday but did not show up. Trump tweeted immediately afterward that he couldn’t let Sondland testify because the Democratic-led probe was “compromised.”

The committees subpoenaed Sondland hours later for a deposition next week, and his attorneys said on Friday he would testify on October 17, despite the administration’s position.

“Notwithstanding the State Department’s current direction to not testify, Ambassador Sondland will honour the Committees’ subpoena, and he looks forward to testifying on Thursday,” said a statement from attorneys Robert Luskin and Kwame Manley.

“Ambassador Sondland has at all times acted with integrity and in the interests of the United States. He has no agenda apart from answering the Committees’ questions fully and truthfully.”

The statement said, however, that Sondland would not be able to produce documents “concerning his official responsibilities,” as they were controlled by the State Department.

Democrats want to ask him about text messages released last week that show him and two other US diplomats acting as intermediaries as Trump urged Ukraine to investigate Ukraine’s involvement in the 2016 US election and Hunter Biden’s involvement with a gas company there.

Earlier this week, the White House sent Congress a letter outlining its opposition to the impeachment probe and refusing to cooperate with requests for information, including interviews with administration officials.

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The House committees have moved to subpoena officials instead.

On Thursday, 10 Democratic senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding an explanation for Yovanovitch’s removal before the end of her three-year assignment.

“In particular, her early recall raises questions about whether you put the personal interests of the President above the Department’s career personnel or US foreign policy,” they wrote.

Even before the testimony, the attention on Yovanovitch was renewed on Thursday after US prosecutors arrested two Florida businessmen tied to Giuliani, charging them with campaign finance violations.

An indictment filed in the case alleged that the men, who were raising campaign funds for a US congressman, asked him for help in removing Yovanovitch, at least partly at the request of Ukrainian government officials.

Yovanovitch has led US embassies in Kyrgyzstan and Armenia and is now a State Department fellow at Georgetown University. The director of the Georgetown program, Barbara Bodine, said the former envoy is declining all requests for interviews.

Former colleagues of Yovanovitch said Trump allies’ characterisations of her as politically motivated are off-base.

She is “a top-notch diplomat, careful, meticulous, whip smart,” and unlikely to have badmouthed Trump, either to Ukrainian officials or her colleagues, said John Herbst, a predecessor as ambassador in Ukraine who worked alongside Yovanovitch there in the early 2000s.

Yovanovitch has always known that the role of diplomat “wasn’t about her” but about “serving American national interests and supporting the people around her,” said Nancy McEldowney, a former US ambassador to Bulgaria who now directs a Foreign Service program at Georgetown.

AP

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