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Transcript: The Witnesses: Maria Yovanovitch

The full episode transcript for Article II: Inside Impeachment, The Witnesses: Maria Yovanovitch.
Image: Marie Yovanovitch sworn in
Marie Yovanovitch, former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, is sworn in to testify before a House Intelligence Committee hearing as part of the impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald Trump on Capitol Hill on Nov. 15, 2019.Jonathan Ernst / Reuters


Article II: Inside Impeachment

The Witnesses: Maria Yovanovitch

Marie Yovanovitch: I come before you as an American citizen who has devoted the majority of my life, 33 years, to serve to the country that all of us love.

Steve Kornacki: From NBC News this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Friday, November, 15th. And here's what's happening.

Yovanovitch: It was not surprising that when our anti-corruption efforts got in the way of a desire for profit or power, Ukrainians who preferred to play by the old corrupt rules sought to remove me.

Kornacki: Open hearings in the impeachment inquiry into Donald Trump continued today. And Democrats called on former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. Yovanovitch served as the ambassador to Ukraine until May. That's when the president abruptly ordered her home.

Yovanovitch: What continues to amazing 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.

Kornacki: After Yovanovitch wrapped up her opening statement, the president weighed in.

Congressman Adam Schiff: Ambassador Yovanovitch, as we sit here testifying the president is attacking you on Twitter. "Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia. How did that go?" Later in the tweet is, "U.S. president's absolutely right to appoint ambassadors."

Kornacki: Democratic chairman Adam Schiff later said those tweets could amount to witness intimidation. Both parties tried to use Yovanovitch to crystallize their arguments. Today on Article II we'll talk through what they said and we'll ask, was either side successful in presenting its case to the public. Josh Lederman is a national political reporter for NBC News. And he joins us now. Josh, thanks for bein' here.

Josh Lederman: Great to join you, Steve.

Kornacki: First, Josh, just set the scene. What was the anticipation heading into this hearing with Marie Yovanovitch today?

Lederman: There was a lot of anticipation for how today was gonna go because the first two witnesses were really fact witnesses. They came to explain the timeline, the sequencing of events, what they had been aware of as all of this was playing out behind the scenes.

But Ambassador Yovanovitch plays a really different role, which is the victim in this. And puts a human face on the ramifications of what the president had done by getting her removed from her job as ambassador. And so there was a lot of anticipation for how sympathetic of a character she was gonna be, how hard Republicans would be able to go at her without that backfiring, and what new information she might be able to add to the timeline of events.

Kornacki: Let's go through kinda sequentially, first, in terms of the Democrats, what they were trying to do today. So it started with the chairman of the committee, Adam Schiff. He makes his opening statement, tries to set a certain tone there. What did Schiff do with that opening statement today?

Lederman: Yeah, so Democrats wanted to set this up in kind of a two-stage thing. The first being, you build Yovanovitch up as this anti-corruption figure, someone who's really fought valiantly for U.S. foreign policy and national security interests, not only in Ukraine, but in her previous posting of which she has a quite impressive resume.

Schiff: She was very direct. She made points very clearly. And she was indeed tough on corruption. And she named names. And that sometimes is controversial out there. But she's a strong person and made those charges.

Lederman: Then you introduce the chain of events that led to her being back in Washington and not Ukraine. And the campaign to smear her by Rudy Giuliani and his associates.

Schiff: The question before us is not whether Donald Trump could recall an American ambassador with a stellar reputation for fighting corruption in Ukraine, but why would he want to. Why did Rudy Giuliani want her gone? And why did Donald Trump?

Lederman: You show what a sympathetic character she is, and then you try to evoke people's sympathies by showing how she was in the view of Democrats, unfairly treated by the president.

Kornacki: She then gets a chance to speak. She gets an opening statement. What did she do with that?

Lederman: So she talked a lot about her background, her parents.

Yovanovitch: My father fled the Soviets before ultimately finding refuge in the United States. My mother's family escaped the USSR after the Bolshevik revolution. And she grew up stateless in Nazi Germany before also eventually making her way to the United States.

Lederman: And she really paints herself not only as a survivor of that legacy, but also as someone whose efforts over many decades to fight for democracy in the former Soviet Union were informed by that very personal experience.

Kornacki: You mentioned that, that there was a difference here in terms of George Kent, Bill Taylor, the first two witnesses who went on Wednesday. You say they were there as fact witnesses. Yovanovitch was here to tell a story. How did she come across?

Lederman: She came across as someone who was very sympathetic, as someone who was a professional. She did her absolute best not to get drawn into any kind of political arguments that either side was trying to set up. So she really stuck to the facts, the way that diplomats often do. She talked a lot about her service to the country, having been in many of these real hot zones.

Yovanovitch: I have moved 13 times and served in seven different countries, five of them hardship posts. My first tour was Mogadishu, Somalia. I later served in Moscow. In 1993 during the attempted coup in Russia, I was caught in cross fire between presidential and parliamentary forces.

Lederman: And it gave people the impression that she kind of this no-nonsense, national security professional who unwittingly got caught into this political morass.

Kornacki: And again the twist in these open hearings for folks who watch a lot of these Congressional hearings, each lawyer, a lawyer for each side is getting 45 minutes to talk to the witness. So you had Schiff give the opening statement. You had Yovanovitch give her opening statement. Then you had Daniel Goldman, the Democratic lawyer, get 45 minutes with her. What was there for him to do with that time? Did he break any ground that Schiff or Yovanovitch had with their operating statements?

Lederman: He did. Not in terms of turning up new facts that we didn't know before. Because remember, basically everything that these witnesses are testifying to was already extensively covered in their private, closed-door depositions that the transcripts of which were later made public by House Democrats.

But what he was able to do was to flesh out what her experience was like at the time of, for instance, reading the rough transcript of the president's call to Zelensky where he not only describes her bad news, but suggests to the Ukrainian leader that, you know, some things are gonna happen to her. This kind of ominous, vague, foreboding comments from the president.

Daniel Goldman: And prior to reading that call record, were you aware that President Trump had specifically made reference to you in that call?

Yovanovitch: No.

Goldman: What was your reaction to learning that?

Yovanovitch: I was shocked, absolutely shocked, and devastated frankly.

Goldman: What do you mean by devastated?

Yovanovitch: It was a terrible moment. A person who saw me actually reading the transcript said that the color drained from my face. I think I even had a physical reaction. I think, you know, even now words kind of fail me.

Lederman: Daniel Goldman, the counsel for the Democrats, really tried to walk a fine line between asking her to relive moments that were clearly traumatic for her, but also to get her to be able to expand on the personal experience of having come under such personal smear attacks from the president's allies.

Goldman: So just like that, you had to leave Ukraine as soon as possible?

Yovanovitch: Yes.

Goldman: How did that make you feel?

Yovanovitch: Terrible honestly. I mean, after 33 years of service to our country, it was terrible. It's not the way I wanted my career to end.

Kornacki: The president who had been quiet pretty much on Twitter on Wednesday during the first round of testimony, he was active on Twitter as Yovanovitch was testifying. And at one point something he had just tweeted this morning was then read to Yovanovitch by Adam Schiff. Schiff then said that it could amount to witness intimidation. Take us through what happened in that moment, what Schiff was tryin' to say there, and if he's gonna follow-up on that, that claim of witness intimidation.

Lederman: Yeah, the president really seems to have played into Democrats hands with that tweet that came out during the hearings so quickly that Democrats were actually able to ask Yovanovitch about it and get her to talk about the experience of feeling intimidated by such comments from the president. And it helped them weave together this narrative about threatening behavior by the president.

Schiff: And now the president in real time is attacking you. What effect do you think that has on other witnesses' willingness to come forward and expose wrongdoing?

Yovanovitch: Well, it's very intimidating.

Schiff: It's designed to intimidate, is it not?

Yovanovitch: I mean, I can't speak to what the president is trying to do. But I think the effect is to be intimidating.

Schiff: Well, I want to let you know, Ambassador, that some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously.

Lederman: There is new talk about witness intimidation that we saw from Adam Schiff. During the hearing he's been talking about it in some comments he's been making outside of the hearing room afterwards. We see a new argument emerging for Democrats, one that they could potentially use as an additional rationale for impeaching the president.

Kornacki: You know, and we should mention that Republicans in response to Schiff saying witness intimidation, they've countered that she was only made aware of the tweet, Yovanovitch was, because Schiff himself chose to read it to her during the hearing. And then Trump himself talking to reporters after this controversy was kind of set off, he said this.

He said, "I have the right to speak. I have the freedom of speech just as other people do." And his White House spokeswoman also saying this was just the president sharing his opinion. And the last piece of this, then today for Democrats, in the afternoon session, you have that five minute round. Every member of the committee, Democrat and Republican gets five minutes if they want it. From the Democratic side, what came out during that period, anything memorable there?

Lederman: The Democratic lawmakers when they got their chance to ask questions wanted to make sure that they hadn't wasted a key opportunity to create some television where they were seen as holding up this ambassador as a pinnacle of service to the nation, and being able to drive home for people what it would have been like to be in that experience of taking down by the president for ostensibly political purposes related to his re-election campaign.

Yovanovitch: There's a question as to why the kind of campaign to get me out of Ukraine happened. Because all the president has to do is say he wants a different ambassador. And in my line of work, perhaps in your line of work as well, all we have is our reputation. And so this has been a very painful period.

Archival Recording: How has it affected your family?

Yovanovitch: I really don't want to get into that. But thank you for asking.

Archival Recording: 'Cause I do care. I also want to know--

Kornacki: All right, that's the Democrats. Let's get to the Republicans now and what they were trying to getting across at this hearing today. Let's start with Devin Nunes. He's the ranking member of the committee. He leads off for Republicans with an opening statement. I know on Wednesday he used that opening statement to play up this idea of, "Hey, Ukraine involvement in the 2016 campaign, tryin' to help Hillary Clinton, all of that." What did he do with his opening statement this time?

Lederman: A lot of Nunes' focus in his opening statement was on the process arguments that Republicans had been making. The fact that they feel that the way this is being conducted by House Democratic leadership is totally unfair to Republicans, that it makes it sham proceedings as well as what the focus should be on by Democrats is on getting things done in Congress as opposed to on impeaching the president.

Congressman Devin Nunes: It's unfortunate that today and for most of next week, we will continue engaging in the Democrats day-long TV spectacles instead of solving the problems we were all sent to Washington to address.

Lederman: We didn't see him go after Yovanovitch which is probably a sign that Republicans have made the political calculation that she's not someone they're gonna get some points by going after. That her character is so unimpunable (SIC) that they need to find other ways to make her less important without seeming like they're attacking this woman.

Kornacki: Concurrently the White House was releasing another transcript, a transcript of Trump's call with Zelensky, not the July 25th one everybody's always talking about. This one was from back in appropriate when Zelensky was first elected president of the Ukraine. There was a phone call then between Trump and Zelensky. The White House releasing that transcript just before this hearing. And Nunes then reading from it. What was Nunes trying to get across there? What was the news in that transcript?

Lederman: Well, there was very little news in that transcript. And the president has been holding this up for some time now, the release of this that he had been hinting at, as another sign that everything in his interactions with Ukraine were perfect and unproblematic. But the fact of the matter is no one has ever claimed that this call was problematic. So that's a bit of a red herring there.

Kornacki: So after Nunes gave that opening statement, the next shot Republicans got at this came, or was supposed to come, in that 45 minute period when their lawyer, Stephen Castor, gets to question Yovanovitch. But before that happened, before that was to happen, there was a bit of a flare-up there, a bit of an eruption when Nunes tried to recognize another Republican member of the committee, Elise Stefanik, from New York. And the chairman Adam Schiff objected. Explain what was happening there. It seemed like a lotta tension between the two parties was kinda spilling over.

Lederman: Yeah, basically the way that House Democrats have arranged the rules for these proceedings is that in these initial 45 minute questioning periods, the chair and ranking member, meaning the top Democrat and the top Republican on the committee have that time.

And they can give their time to a lawyer that they've hired to do the questioning. But they're not allowed in that time to give it to a fellow member of Congress. So Republicans tried to mix that up by having Elise Stefanik, a Congresswoman, given time. And Adam Schiff shut that down.

Congresswoman Elise Stefanik: Ranking member yielded time to another member of Congress.

Schiff: No. That is not accurate. (UNINTEL)

Stefanik: That is accurate. Ambassador Yovanovitch, I wanna thank you for being here today.

Schiff: Gentlewoman will suspend. You're not recognized.

Stefanik: This is the fifth time you have interrupted members of Congress.

Schiff: Gentlewoman, not recognized.

Stefanik: Duly elected members of Congress.

Schiff: The gentlewoman will suspend.

Archival Recording: Mr. Chair, we control.

Lederman: And so I think they were trying to create an optical moment where Schiff would look like he was denying the Congresswoman a chance to giving questions, even though Republicans knew full well in advance that those were the rules that had been set up.

Kornacki: So after the Stefanik shift, Nunes' brouhaha settled down, that's when the Republican lawyer, Stephen Castor is his name, he got his 45 minutes, 45 minutes of questioning with Yovanovitch. Was there a specific theme or argument that emerged from the questions he was asking and the information he was trying to get there?

Lederman: Castor's strategy was really to try to narrow the universe of what Ambassador Yovanovitch could testify about that she should be believed as a first person witness to. So he was frequently trying to suss out what she wasn't there for.

Stephen Castor: So you were not part of the delegation to the inauguration. That was the day you returned. You were not part of the Oval Office meeting May 23rd, correct?

Yovanovitch: Yes, that's correct.

Castor: And you were not part of the decision making relating to whether there would be a White House meeting with president Zelensky?

Yovanovitch: That's correct.

Castor: And you were not a part of any decision making in the lead-up to the July 25th call?

Yovanovitch: That's correct.

Lederman: He really wanted to be able to show that her knowledge of events is limited to things that are separate from what is the crux of the Democrats' impeachment argument, which has to do with this quid pro quo that they say took place in July and August.

Kornacki: So then finally when the lawyer, Stephen Castor, was finished, that's when Stefanik got her chance to talk with Yovanovitch. That's when Jim Jordan, added to this committee recently by Republican leadership, that's when he got his chance. The open question around five minutes for the members. What was meaningful from the Republican questioning in that period?

Lederman: It was striking to a lot of folks to see the Republicans continue to bring up the allegations of Ukrainian interference in 2016. And they went back to some of the issues related to Paul Manafort and the black ledger and how that had come about. And really tried to press Ambassador Yovanovitch to concede in some way that the Ukrainians had favored Hillary Clinton in the election and that she had done nothing to push back on Ukrainian involvement in our election.

Archival Recording: So you had several high-ranking officials in the government, in the Ukrainian government, and President Poroshenko was president of Ukraine, criticized President Trump, then candidate Trump, all in the late summer and fall of 2016. What I wanna know Ambassador, when this was all happening, did you go talk to anyone in the Ukrainian government about this?

Lederman: So she wanted to say, "These are apples and oranges. And there wasn't some obvious reason why I should have spoken up at the time."

Yovanovitch: You know, this happens in politics. And I think that it doesn't necessarily constitute interference.

Lederman: But for Republican lawmakers, the argument was really to try to muddy the waters by introducing into the minds of those watching at home the idea that, you know, well, look the Russians meddled. The Ukrainians meddled. This is all just very messy. And potentially people kind of throw up their hands and say, "I don't really know what to make of this." But that it looks less like a single sighted problem for Republicans.

Kornacki: Big picture here, coming into these hearings, the public opinion on impeachment looked like it had sorta stalemated. The big question has been will the hearings, all this being in public, will it move public opinion decisively one way or the other.

We're at the end of the first week of it. We had two days of open public hearings this week, a bunch more to come next week. But at the end of this first week, what is your sense, talking from folks on both sides of the aisle? Does either party after this first week of public hearings think the needle is moving in a meaningful way?

Lederman: Well, Democrats do. And they thought that today's hearing in particular which erupted in applause at the end for Ambassador Yovanovitch (APPLAUSE) was a particularly emotionally hard-hitting hearing that made their case come alive for people, even in a way that the hearing a couple days ago that was much more technical didn't tug at the heartstrings.

So obviously it's way too early for us to know how and whether that will be reflected in the polls that are being done on support for impeachment. But I have been talking with a Trump administration official who's been working on impeachment who says that they're watching these very closely.

And they're comparing them to the polls that were done about Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh ahead of his confirmation when there was that whole drag-out fight in the Senate. And there still seems so far that similar to with Kavanaugh, the public's really divided on this.

And they think as long as the public is divided, they're probably okay. But that if those numbers start to budge even a little bit, that they could start to see some of those vulnerable Republican senators like Cory Gardner, Martha McSally potentially feel like it's politically in their interest to side with Democrats. And that would set up a whole different situation when it comes to if there is a vote to remove the president in the Senate.

Kornacki: And I think we will all be watching closely when those first numbers, first poll numbers, after these public hearings come out. Josh Lederman, national political reporter for NBC News, thank you for joining us.

Lederman: Thanks, Steve.

Kornacki: And as we're taping this episode, David Holmes is testifying behind closed doors before the House Intelligence Committee. Holmes is the State Department staffer who overheard a phone conversation between EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland and President Trump.

He allegedly says the call was about Ukraine conducting, quote, "investigations." The public hearings will continue next week with eight more witnesses. We'll be putting a new episode every day next week to keep up with all of that news. And tomorrow a special Saturday bonus episode. NBC legend Tom Brokaw stops by to talk about his experience covering the fall of Richard Nixon and the parallels to today.

Tom Brokaw: I remember friends of mine saying that they went to the gym every afternoon and got on a rowing machine just to watch Watergate hearings that were going on. The country came to a stop when those hearings started again.

Kornacki: My conversation with Tom Brokaw on the next Article II.

Kornacki: Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Belton, Allison Bailey, Adam, Naboah, and Barbara Raab. Our execute producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We'll be back on Saturday.