IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Trump's impeachment trial has a lot to do with his inability to fire Marie Yovanovitch

There were other ways for Trump to try to get rid of his ambassador. But these stratagems required knowledge Trump didn't have — and so he went another route.
Image: Lev Parnas
Trump is pictured here with Lev Parnas. According to Parnas, Trump spent a lot of time trying to get rid of Marie Yovanovitch.House Judiciary Committee / via AP

The formal documents on the impeachment of President Donald Trump ring with charges of greed and betrayal. But presidents don’t get impeached only because — or even mainly because — they’re egregiously corrupt. They get impeached because they don’t know how to get what they want without violating laws, rules and norms in order to do it.

With Trump, we have a president who regularly demonstrates he has no knowledge of the intricacies of how the government works — and didn’t think he had to learn.

With Trump, we have a president who regularly demonstrates he has no knowledge of the intricacies of how the government works — and didn’t think he had to learn.

We are watching this play out now in his Senate impeachment trial. The House managers have been presenting their case of alleged corruption. But they’ve also exposed the sheer dumbness of Trump's efforts to get the Ukrainians to produce anti-Joe Biden campaign fodder for him. Even with administration partisans, including the attorney general, in control of the Justice Department, Trump couldn't figure out how to use the regular levers of government to get what he wanted. He had to resort to his private lawyer Rudy Giuliani and his "associates." That was a potentially disastrous choice — and the disaster has now materialized.

This is all an enlargement of the trouble Trump brought when he went after his ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. Trump spent a lot of time and effort trying to get rid of her. “The president kept firing her," Lev Parnas, an “associate” of Giuliani, told MSNBC host Rachel Maddow last Friday, “and she wouldn’t leave. He fired her, at least to my knowledge, at least four or five times.”

Trump must have sounded like King Henry II complaining about the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket: “Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?”

Parnas’ account seems to be confirmed by a new recording that appears to show the president telling a small gathering — including Parnas — on April 30, 2018, to “get rid of” Yovanovitch. "Get her out tomorrow. I don't care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. Okay? Do it,” says the voice in the recording, which ABC has identified as Trump. (NBC News has not confirmed that the voices on the tape are of Trump, Parnas and Fruman.)

Though a properly functioning ambassador technically serves at the pleasure of the president, the president had better be circumspect in indulging this pleasure. Trump finally did get one of his officials, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, to get rid of Yovanovitch. But Pompeo offered no plausible justification for his action. And he has been paying for it ever since. Meanwhile? Trump now finds himself impeached — “impeached forever,” as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., seems to delight in saying.

The people who most wanted Yovanovitch out were likely the Ukrainian political players whose personal fates were threatened by specific actions — such as visas and protection from extradition — over which the U.S. government had control. Yovanovitch, who was well known within the national security community as a corruption fighter, would have been their worst nightmare.

What Trump himself most wanted, and wasn’t getting through regular channels, was dirt on a leading rival in the 2020 presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden, and on Biden’s son Hunter, who had been hired by a Ukrainian company.

Yovanovitch was making enemies on both sides, and her ouster was part of the corrupt wheeling and dealing. As then-Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuri Lutsenko texted to Parnas, “If you don’t make a decision about madam [Yovanovitch], you are bringing into question” — that is, threatening the production of — “all my allegations about B.”

The “B” could have meant either “Biden” or “Burisma.” Parnas told Maddow it didn’t matter. “Nobody cares about Burisma,” Parnas cut to the chase. “[T]he concern was Biden, Hunter Biden.”

But even if firing Yovanovitch was primarily a means to an end for Trump, he didn’t exactly know how to do that, either.

Parnas said he actually saw one of the abortive firings. It took place at a six-person dinner that Parnas attended with Trump in a “private area” in Trump’s D.C. hotel – “it looks like a little White House,” Parnas said.

At that dinner, Parnas told Trump that Yovanovitch was “bad-mouthing him and saying he was going to get impeached” — whereupon Trump turned to his now-former aide John DeStefano and said, “Fire her.”

DeStefano demurred. Yovanovitch couldn’t be fired just yet, he said, because the new secretary of state, Pompeo, who was replacing Rex Tillerson, hadn’t been confirmed. In reality, though, Pompeo had indeed been confirmed — he just hadn’t yet taken his oath of office. DeStefano almost certainly knew this fact: He was head of the Office of Presidential Personnel.

Trump repeated “fire her” about Yovanovitch several times more during that dinner alone. There were other attempts as well, Parnas said, involving both Pompeo and former national security adviser John Bolton. “Bolton didn’t want to fire her,” Parnas told Maddow, instead, Bolton told Trump to get Pompeo to do it.

Trump even told his executive assistant to fire Yovanovitch — an even clearer nonstarter.

Let’s examine what was actually in play here. The people around Trump who were U.S. government officials clearly knew that firing a properly functioning U.S. ambassador would, to use the technical term, create a stink — which would translate into personal risk for them. That was likely even before the various complications posed by State Department rules, not to mention the mainstream media.

This isn’t the first time such a thing has happened. Consider President Richard M. Nixon, who grew increasingly frustrated by leaks to the media from his administration and was unable to stop them by conventional means. So, Nixon turned to successive crews of specialized operatives to plug the leaks. First, to officials nicknamed the “plumbers.” Then, men who were even farther off the grid and who came to be known to the nation as the Watergate burglars. When some of the burglars got caught, the president’s campaign found itself forced, as one is, to pay the burglars’ family expenses — which critics cruelly called hush money.

To make the payoff arrangements, the campaign relied on retired New York City police detective Anthony Ulasewicz. In those days before burner phones, you had to make your hush money calls from street-corner phone booths. As Ulasewicz explained it, he had so many calls to make that he equipped himself with a bus driver’s coin changer to dispense all the quarters he needed.

The people around Trump who were U.S. government officials clearly knew that firing a properly functioning U.S. ambassador would, to use the technical term, create a stink.

When Ulasewicz told this story at the Watergate hearings, broadcast on national television, people got a kick out of it. It was certainly easier to contemplate than the depressing testimony that followed. As is the case today, it was falsely reassuring then to think of a conspiracy to subvert democracy as just a bunch of Keystone Kops. But in a national nightmare, like the one we’re about to endure, you take your comic relief where you can get it.

There were other ways, besides the smear campaign, for Trump to try to get rid of Yovanovitch. He could have sent her to another post. He could have found her an attractive new job altogether, in government or in the private sector. After all, what are all his rich friends for? He could have made use of an intermediary. But stratagems like these were complicated. They required a knowledge of the State Department — and government in general — that Trump doesn’t seem to have.

When the framers considered the possible grounds for impeaching a president, they rejected the idea of impeachment for mere incompetence or “maladministration.”

In fact, however, we do impeach for just the type of incompetence that Trump showed in the Yovanovitch affair. The framers might have called it maladministration in the first degree.