Who Is Former U.S. Ambassador To Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch?

Oct 11, 2019
Originally published on October 11, 2019 1:24 pm
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

We have a story this morning behind two men accused of illegal campaign contributions. They were associates of Rudy Giuliani, President Trump's personal lawyer. Federal prosecutors arrested the two businessmen Wednesday night. They were at Washington Dulles Airport, about to leave the country. They're accused of making hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal donations while representing interests in Ukraine.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The indictment says the men wanted to remove the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. That ambassador was removed, and she is scheduled to testify today because she's also a witness in the House impeachment inquiry. So who is ambassador Marie Louise Yovanovitch? And how did she make enemies in President Trump's world? Steve Inskeep has been reconstructing her story.

STEVE INSKEEP, BYLINE: Marie Louise Yovanovitch has testified before Congress before.

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MARIE LOUISE YOVANOVITCH: ...Hardened members of this committee, it's an honor to appear before you today as President Obama's nominee to serve as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

INSKEEP: It was her confirmation hearing in 2016. She sat at the witness table with short hair, glasses and a tan suit. She had brought along her elderly mother.

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YOVANOVITCH: Well, like so many in Europe in the 1940s, including those in the Ukrainian American community, my parents survived poverty, war and displacement. They finally arrived in the United States, with me in tow, in search of freedom, accountability and opportunity.

INSKEEP: Marie Louise Yovanovitch is an immigrant. Her family came from the former Soviet Union. It was a Russian-speaking family, and she answered to an affectionate Russian version of her name, Marie.

CARLOS PASCUAL: Everybody that ever worked with her knew her as Masha.

INSKEEP: Carlos Pascual worked with Masha Yovanovitch because in the early 2000s, he was the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. It was a former Soviet republic with many Russian speakers, so he hired Russian-speaking Yovanovitch as his deputy. This immigrant, now a U.S. citizen, was part of the U.S. Foreign Service.

PASCUAL: She had already been based in Moscow. She'd been based in Somalia. She really understood what it was to work in difficult-hardship posts. One of the key things that emerged in Ukraine were the foundations for a civil society that retained a check and balance on power and government.

INSKEEP: Civil society - that phrase means journalists, activists and citizens groups whose work is vital for democracy. Yovanovitch made it her business to track and understand them. In 2004, not long after she finished her first assignment in Ukraine, those groups made history. One of our correspondents looked on...

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UNIDENTIFIED NPR REPORTER: A sea of several hundred thousand people enthusiastically waving yellow and light blue Ukrainian flags into a bitterly cold, perfectly clear sky.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in foreign language).

INSKEEP: ...As Ukrainians displaced their government after a disputed election. Years later, Yovanovitch returned to Ukraine, this time as the top U.S. diplomat, the ambassador. The Senate confirmed it without controversy, though her assignment was tough. Russia had invaded Ukraine. At that 2016 confirmation, she told senators she was open to providing military aid to Ukraine. She also said she'd keep promoting civil society.

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YOVANOVITCH: Building capacity within the journalistic community, within civil society so that they themselves can get their own good news out and they themselves can counter the Russian propaganda efforts.

INSKEEP: In November 2016, the new ambassador invited civil society activists and others to an event to mark America's presidential election. Daria Kalanick, a Ukrainian anti-corruption activist, was among those who attended.

DARIA KALENIUK: Ambassador Yovanovitch was hosting this reception. So for many Ukrainians, the victory of Trump was a big surprise.

INSKEEP: Some were dismayed since Trump seemed sympathetic to Russia. But Kaleniuk recalls the U.S. ambassador delivering this reassuring message.

KALENIUK: The United States will continue being the partner and supporter of Ukraine, and we congratulate our democracy. And she didn't express any frustration or anything.

INSKEEP: Remember, she's a career diplomat. Unlike some ambassadors who are friends or supporters of a president, she served whoever was in the White House. Ukrainians say she was professional and worked hard to represent U.S. policy. Nataliya Gumenyuk had many dealings with the ambassador as a journalist.

NATALIYA GUMENYUK: She was a good diplomat but very, very reserved, so she was extremely cautious. She would never say anything beyond what the diplomat can say.

INSKEEP: Yet, the ambassador made enemies. Some Ukrainians called her narrow-minded and bureaucratic. And then there were the two business associates of Rudy Giuliani, the men arrested this week. They had business in Ukraine. Federal prosecutors say they wanted to please Ukrainian officials who disliked the ambassador, so they tried to gain influence in the U.S. government. They allegedly made illegal campaign contributions, and their efforts paid off in 2018.

They donated to Texas Congressman Pete Sessions, and Sessions wrote a letter demanding that the ambassador be dismissed. Sessions made an allegation that was toxic in the Trump administration. He claimed this cautious, by-the-book ambassador criticized President Trump, showing, quote, "disdain for the current administration." Sessions has denied his campaign contributors told him to say that. Ambassador Yovanovitch was not fired at that time in 2018, but worse was coming. The Ukrainian anti-corruption activist Daria Kaleniuk says the ambassador had another enemy.

KALENIUK: Basically, Ambassador Yovanovitch was a brand for civil society activists in Ukraine. And this is what Yuriy Lutsenko and other corrupt officials in power did not like.

INSKEEP: Yuriy Lutsenko was Ukraine's prosecutor general and a vital figure in what happened next. Civil society groups called him corrupt. They recently summarized their accusations in a formal complaint. They sent the U.S. Treasury Department that complaint, which NPR has obtained. Lutsenko is accused of enriching himself and targeting anti-corruption investigators. This made him just the sort of official the U.S. ambassador called out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

YOVANOVITCH: Hi, everybody. Natalia, thank you. And it's really an honor and a pleasure to be here to celebrate...

INSKEEP: This is a speech the ambassador gave on March 5, 2019 before a group called the Ukraine Crisis Media Center. She said Ukraine's government was backsliding in its efforts against corruption.

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YOVANOVITCH: It is increasingly clear that Ukraine's once-in-a-generation opportunity for change has not yet resulted in the anti-corruption or rule of law reforms that Ukrainians expect or deserve.

INSKEEP: Soon after this speech, that Ukrainian prosecutor struck back. Yuriy Lutsenko suggested the U.S. ambassador was really the corrupt one.

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YURIY LUTSENKO: (Through interpreter) I had some difficult personal relationship with Ms. Ambassador.

INSKEEP: On March 20, 2019, Lutsenko gave this interview through an interpreter to Hill TV, a right-leaning website in the U.S.

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LUTSENKO: (Through interpreter) Ms. Ambassador gave me a list of people whom we should not prosecute.

INSKEEP: Should not prosecute? Brian Bonner, of a Ukrainian newspaper called the Kyiv Post, says Lutsenko was suggesting the ambassador was protecting someone.

BRIAN BONNER: And it turned out to be false, completely false. The State Department denied it, and Lutsenko retracted it.

INSKEEP: But by then, the toxic claim had spread. The very night of the Hill TV report, another accusation against the ambassador reached a TV program very popular with the president of the United States.

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INSKEEP: Sean Hannity of Fox News interviewed a lawyer linked to the president. On this primetime show, Joe diGenova suddenly denounced the previously obscure ambassador.

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JOE DIGENOVA: And we also now know that the current United States ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, has bad-mouthed the president of the United States to Ukrainian officials.

INSKEEP: We asked diGenova where he got that information, and he declined to say. On March 24, Donald Trump junior attacked the ambassador on Twitter. And in April, Hannity interviewed the president himself.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

SEAN HANNITY: Let me start with this issue in the Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Hannity asked the president if he'd followed conservative media reporting on Ukraine. The president was vague but said the story should win a Pulitzer Prize.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HANNITY")

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: These are the ones that should be winning. It sounds like big stuff. It sounds like - very interesting with Ukraine.

INSKEEP: Weeks later, in the spring of 2019, Ambassador Yovanovitch was called home from her job before the end of her assignment.

Now, why would these toxic claims go so directly from Ukraine to people around the president? Here's at least part of the answer. Ukrainians who opposed her were also sources for the president's personal lawyer. Rudy Giuliani was on a months-long search for political dirt in Ukraine to help President Trump. The two indicted businessmen? They were helping Giuliani find information. That prosecutor accused of corruption? He met Giuliani at least twice. That's according to the report filed by a U.S. government whistleblower.

The president's lawyer developed a negative view of the U.S. ambassador. He later claimed on CNN that she stopped him from interviewing witnesses.

RUDY GIULIANI: They were trying to get to us, but they were being blocked by the ambassador, who was a Obama appointee, in Ukraine.

INSKEEP: So the career U.S. ambassador, whose friends called her nonpartisan, had to return early to Washington.

But there is irony here. Things did not get easier for the president or his lawyer. Marie Louise Yovanovitch was replaced by another career diplomat, Bill Taylor. And Taylor now has an indelible place in the impeachment inquiry. In July, Taylor sent text messages which are now public. He said, quote, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign." President Trump, as we know, did withhold military aid to Ukraine while also demanding his rival Joe Biden be investigated for acts in Ukraine.

MARTIN: So, Steve, the president's moves are now at the center of the impeachment inquiry, which raises a question, right? Did President Trump know about anything you have just reported?

INSKEEP: Well, he says no. The president spoke to reporters yesterday and distanced himself from this whole case, says he didn't know the two campaign contributors who have been arrested - although some of the money was in support of him - says he doesn't know why Rudy Giuliani would have known them. But the available evidence suggests something a little different.

MARTIN: What evidence?

INSKEEP: Well, the phone call - you know, the one at the center of the impeachment inquiry, the phone call to the president of Ukraine...

MARTIN: Right.

INSKEEP: ...Where President Trump asks for favors, including an investigation of Joe Biden? President Trump also mentioned the ambassador's recent dismissal. He says of her, quote, "the woman was bad news," says she dealt with people who were also bad news. So from that record of the call, Rachel, it's clear that the president knew of her dismissal and that he'd heard the attacks on this career U.S. diplomat and that he agreed with them.

MARTIN: OK. Fascinating reporting by our own Steve Inskeep. Thanks so much, Steve.

INSKEEP: Thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: We refer to some text messages from diplomat Bill Taylor as having been sent in July. Those messages were sent in September.] Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.