Democrats may see it as "witness intimidation," but President Donald Trump says he was just offering his opinion when he bashed his former ambassador to Ukraine during her public testimony in the impeachment inquiry.
“I have the right to speak. I have the freedom of speech just as other people do,” Trump told reporters at the White House Friday hours after a tweet that Democrats equated with witness tampering.
"Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian president spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. president's absolute right to appoint ambassadors," Trump tweeted as Yovanovitch was testifying before the House Intelligence Committee.
Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., read the tweet aloud during the hearing and asked her to respond.
“Where I've served over the years, I and others have demonstrably made things better,” she said, including Ukraine where she said “there are huge challenges” but they’ve made a lot of progress since 2014.
That progress, she said, was made in part by the work of the U.S. and by her work as ambassador to Ukraine.
Schiff asked Yovanovitch how the president's repeated attacks on her might affect other witnesses in the impeachment inquiry.
"It's very intimidating,” she said, adding, "I can't speak as to what the president is trying to do but I think the effect is to be very intimidating."
During a break, Schiff called Trump's mid-testimony tweet "witness intimidation in real time."
"It wasn't enough that Ambassador Yovanovitch was smeared, it wasn’t enough that she was attacked, it wasn’t enough that she was recalled for no reason, at least no good reason," Schiff told reporters. "But we saw today, witness intimidation in real time by the president of the United States, once again going after this dedicated and respected career public servant in an effort to not only chill her, but to chill others who may come forward. We take this kind of witness intimidation and obstruction of inquiry very seriously."
Trump threw the tampering allegation back at Schiff while speaking to reporters at a health care event in the White House.
"I'll tell you what tampering is. Tampering is when a guy like shifty Schiff doesn’t let us have lawyers. Tampering is when Schiff doesn’t let us have witnesses, doesn’t let us speak,” Trump said. "Nobody has had such horrible due process. There was no due process."
Asked if he thought his words and tweets could be considered intimidating, Trump said, "I don't think so at all."
After Yovanovich's testimony concluded, Schiff told reporters the president's actions were "just appalling" and "part of a broader incriminating pattern of conduct."
"This is a part of a pattern to intimidate witnesses and also part of a pattern to obstruct the investigation and also a part, frankly, of the pattern to obstruct justice," he said.
White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham told NBC News the tweet "was not witness intimidation, it was simply the president's opinion, which he is entitled to."
"This is not a trial, it is a partisan political process — or to put it more accurately, a totally illegitimate, charade stacked against the president," she added.
A senior administration official put it similarly. "It’s well within the president’s right to have an opinion on her job performance. That's not intimidation.” Yovanovitch, the official argued, is “not immune from having people criticize her record.”
GOP Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio, a top ally of the president's who was recently made a member of the Intelligence Committee, noted that Schiff was the person who told Yovanovitch about the tweet during the hearing, suggesting she wouldn't have known about any alleged attempt at intimidation if he hadn't told her.
Jordan also said the Trump wasn't intimidating Yovanovitch — he was just venting.
"The president’s been a little frustrated by the relentless attacks from the Democrats, for now what, three and a half years?" Jordan said, adding that he didn't think the tweet would shake Yovanovitch.
"I think Ambassador Yovanovitch has served in, what [did] she say, five hardship areas? I think she’s a pretty tough lady," he said.
Democrats suggested the tweet was tantamount to a criminal act, and could be added to possible articles of impeachment.
Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a member of the Intelligence Committee, told reporters that the president engaged in witness intimidation, and adding such a charge to the impeachment case "will be considered."
“Innocent people don’t intimidate and he’s just acting more guilty,” Swalwell told reporters.
Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I., a member of the House Judiciary Committee, which would consider articles of impeachment, tweeted, "The President is engaging in witness tampering during a Congressional impeachment hearing. That is a crime. Every Republican should have to say whether they’re okay with him doing that."
Rep. Diana DeGette, D-Colo., tweeted that the president's attacks on Yovanovitch were “highly concerning” and Congress won’t “tolerate such behavior.”
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton — the Democratic presidential nominee against Trump in 2016 — also weighed in on Twitter, writing, "Witness intimidation is a crime, no matter who does it. Full stop."