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Analysis after Marie Yovanovitch's impeachment testimony

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch gave public testimony Friday regarding the circumstances of her abrupt ouster from her post.
Image: Impeachment live blog illustration v3
Chelsea Stahl / NBC News

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch gave public testimony Friday regarding the circumstances of her abrupt ouster from her post as part of the House impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump.

Catch up quickly:

5 things we learned from Yovanovitch's public testimony

Trump defends attacking Yovanovitch after Dems accuse him of 'witness intimidation'

Analysis: The devastating day Trump's presidency came into sharp focus

  • Also: A fate worse than firing — humiliation. "All we have is our reputations," Yovanovitch said.

Yovanovitch says Trump admin kneecapped her diplomatic efforts

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Live Blog

Ex-DNC staffer referenced by GOP speaks out

Alexandra Chalupa, the former DNC contractor at the center of the theory of Ukrainian interference in 2016, is responding on Twitter after her name was invoked several times today in the Yovanovitch hearing. She says she “never worked” for a foreign government and hasn’t been to Ukraine:

Earlier this month NBC reported exclusively from Ukraine on a new effort to push this theory, which holds that Chalupa coordinated with Ukrainian embassy officials to dig up dirt on Paul Manafort. Here’s more background on Chalupa from our story.

Although Chalupa, a Ukrainian-American who was a part-time DNC contractor in 2016, acknowledges contact with the embassy during that period, she wrote on Facebook that it's "nonsense" to claim she was running a research operation or seeking Manafort dirt from the embassy. Ukraine's embassy denies working with her on anything election-related, and the DNC says she never did opposition research for the party.

Either way, there have been no indications that the top levels of Ukraine's government ordered or were aware of attempts to interfere in 2016. In contrast, U.S. intelligence agencies say Russia's extensive efforts to intervene in that same election were directed by the Kremlin.

Yovanovitch pushes back on conspiracy theory question

Yovanovitch pushed back on unfounded allegations that Ukraine meddled in the 2016 U.S. election to oppose Trump’s candidacy and that a Democratic operative was working with the D.C. embassy to get intelligence. But she testified that she would not have been privy to that unfounded claim because it happened in the U.S.

Bizarre Twitter trend emerges on Friday

A conservative talking point on today’s hearing has quickly formed and spread in what resembled a coordinated effort.

“I hired Donald Trump to fire people like Yovanovitch,” had been tweeted by nearly a thousand individual accounts by noon, retweeted tens of thousands of times. A version was tweeted by the president’s son, Donald Trump. Jr.

The statement was first tweeted by Cari Kelemen, a right-wing YouTuber from Texas, and gained steam when a popular far-right account, catturd2, told its 119,000 followers to “get it trending.”

The campaign continued to grow after far-right personalities like conspiracy theorist Jack Posobiec pushed the statement.

Castor questioning slowing things down

Castor seems to be using his questioning of Yovanovitch to slow down the pace of the hearing and to attempt to press her on what she knew about corruption in the Ukrainian government and at Burisma Holdings — the Ukrainian gas company that former Vice President Joe Biden's son Hunter joined as a board member in 2014.

Castor asked Yovanovitch if there was a “perception problem brought to your attention as ambassador” regarding Biden being on the board while his father was the vice president.

“I was aware of it,” Yovanovitch replied. 

Moments earlier, to open his questioning, Castor directed questions at Yovanovitch about Burisma, in which he referenced multiple names — of Ukrainian government officials and Ukrainian officials at Burisma — that have the effect, and possibly the purpose, of slowing down the hearing and making it less compelling for viewers.

Castor, who has been getting guidance from Jordan here and there, doesn't appear to be scoring many points.

Why Nunes attempted to let Stefanik cut in

At the start of this portion of the hearing, Nunes attempted to yield his time to allow Rep. Elise Stefanik to question Yovanovitch directly. Stefanik is the only female GOP member on the committee.

The effort echos the time when the all-male group of Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee yielded to an outside female counsel to question Dr. Christine Blasey Ford during the Kavanaugh confirmation hearing.

But the House-approved rules governing the impeachment proceedings make clear that only Schiff, Nunes, or the Republican and Democratic counsels can ask questions during the initial 45-minute period. Schiff reiterated that point and Castor began his inquiry.


Yovanovitch returns to witness table

Former US Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch looks on after returning from a break during the second public hearings held by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as part of the impeachment inquiry into US President Donald Trump, on Capitol Hill on Nov. 15, 2019.Nicholas Kamm / AFP - Getty Images

White House pushes back on 'witness intimidation' concerns

White House officials are pushing back on the argument from Adam Schiff and others that Trump's Twitter attacks on Yovanovitch constitute witness intimidation argument. Per a senior administration official: “It’s well within the president’s right to have an opinion on her job performance. That’s not intimidation.” The official argued Yovanovitch is “not immune from having people criticize her record.”

The official also insists Schiff was asking leading questions to try to get the ambassador to say she felt intimidated earlier in the hearing, when Schiff read portions of the July call transcript back to her, including the part where the president told Zelensky that “she's going to go through some things.”

The official argues that since the call was never intended to be made public, Yovanovitch would never have known about the president’s remarks anyway — so, in the White House’s view, the comments couldn’t have amounted to intimidation if the expectation was that Yovanovitch would never see them.

Castor presses Yovanovitch on any role in the central events

Castor, the GOP’s counsel, pressed Yovanovitch on the merits of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry, asking her about whether she was involved in the July 25 call and the efforts to freeze aid. 

It’s an interesting line of questioning because she was recalled before those events happened and he seems to be setting up an argument, as Nunes did, that she is not a material fact witness in this inquiry even though Democrats have argued that her removal is part of the larger effort by Trump to pressure Ukraine to investigate the Bidens. 

She also testified that her removal was championed by the Ukrainian establishment because of her anti-corruption work and that effort was also pushed by Giuliani and his associates.

Trump camp decries 'hearsay.' But many firsthand witnesses have defied subpoenas.

"Another day, another Democrat star witness with no firsthand knowledge and all hearsay,” wrote Trump campaign press secretary Kayleigh McEnany on Twitter. It's a familiar talking point for Republicans — they used it on Wednesday, too.

But Trump's White House has told witnesses — many of them with first-hand knowledge of events and conversations — not to testify in the inquiry. In a letter to top Democrats from White House counsel Pat Cipollone, the White House claimed that the president and his administration “cannot participate in your partisan and unconstitutional inquiry.” The White House has also pressured witnesses who agreed to speak with investigators to limit their testimony.

“Past Democrat and Republican administrations would not be inclined to permit senior advisers to the president to participate in such a ridiculous, partisan, illegitimate proceeding — and neither is this one," White House spokesman Hogan Gidley said this month.

Here are the witnesses in Trump's administration who have defied subpoenas in the inquiry, according to an NBC News count.

  • Mick Mulvaney, acting chief of staff
  • Robert Blair, assistant to the president and senior adviser to the acting chief of staff
  • John Eisenberg, legal adviser at National Security Council (NSC)
  • Michael Ellis, deputy NSC legal adviser
  • Brian McCormack, associate director at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB)
  • Michael Duffey, associate director at OMB
  • Wells Griffith, special assistant to the president and senior director at NSC
  • T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, counselor at the Department of State
  • Russell Vought, acting director at OMB
  • Charles Kupperman, former deputy assistant to the president for national security affair

Kupperman has filed a lawsuit asking a judge to decide whether he should testify or not; his subpoena was withdrawn while the lawsuit progresses. 

Nunes questions reason for Yovanovitch's public testimony

Nunes, kicking off questioning for GOP members on the committee, points out that  Yovanovitch was not a “firsthand” witness to dealings related to the freeze on military aid to Ukraine that is at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

He also complains that he’s “not sure what the ambassador is doing here today” because she wasn’t on the July 25 phone call between Trump and Zelenskiy.

He goes on to say that the House Intelligence Committee “has turned into the House impeachment committee.”