Trump's smearing of ex-Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch echoes Christine Blasey Ford

In the same way that Ford came to symbolize a certain kind of strength, Yovanovitch symbolizes any woman who’s ever had a man try to undermine her, demote her or push her out.
Image: Former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch is sworn in during an impeachment hearing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2019.
The former ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, is sworn in during an impeachment hearing on Capitol Hill on Nov. 13, 2019.Bill Clark / CQ-Roll Call file
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By Mimi Rocah, former assistant U.S. attorney and NBC/MSNBC legal analyst and Karen Schwartz, contributing editor, Marie Claire

Like many Americans, we expected the testimony of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, to be powerful. We did not expect it to prove so emotional, or to feel so familiar.

When the impeachment inquiry hearing began last Friday, Yovanovitch, a 33-year State Department veteran with a calming voice, opened with an emphasis on service and patriotism similar to the statements given by George Kent and William Taylor, her male counterparts in career foreign service who had testified earlier in the week.

Like many Americans, we expected the testimony of the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, to be powerful. We did not expect it to prove so emotional.

For much of the morning, her testimony harkened strongly back to the testimony of former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, who testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee in 2017. Yates told lawmakers about how former national security adviser Michael Flynn had lied to investigators about his Russian contacts, raising alarms about national security in the Trump administration. Yovanovitch, too, spoke of red flags tied to a gutted State Department and an eroding foreign policy.

But by midmorning, things took a turn. Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman asked her about how she felt after learning President Donald Trump had discussed her with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during the now infamous July 25 phone call. It was a chilling moment. Referring to Yovanovitch as “the woman,” Trump told his Ukrainian counterpart she was “going to go through some things.”

“It was a terrible moment,” Yovanovitch recalled Friday. She said “that the color drained from my face. I think I even had a physical reaction,” when that portion of the call was read to her. It sounded, she said, “like a threat.”

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In that moment, Yovanovitch became not only a witness to the corruption of Ukrainian-American policy but also a victim of that corruption — “the former ambassador” but also “the woman.” Clearly, she was being targeted by a smear campaign orchestrated by Rudy Giuliani and his henchmen, a campaign adopted and amplified by the president of the United States.

Those watching the hearing could not help but be struck by the imbalances of power at play. It’s a power dynamic that we’ve seen before however, notably during the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford.

Ford’s account of the sexual assault she alleged was perpetrated by then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh may have occurred a year ago, but it has yet to recede from the national psyche. Indeed, the night before Yovanovitch’s testimony, Ford’s testimony had been broadcast on a large screen just a few blocks from the Capitol, outside the hall where Kavanaugh gave is his first major public speech since ascending to the court.

Many Americans felt wounded as we watched and felt Ford’s strength and composure in the face of irrational white male anger and resentment. It is a wound that, apparently, is still very raw.

Ford seemed to symbolize women everywhere who had been assaulted as she recounted, yet again, her assault. In the same way, Yovanovitch seems to symbolize any woman who’s ever had a man try to undermine her, demote her or push her out.

And lest we think this is unique to Trump, you can draw another direct line between these testimonies and Anita Hill, a woman who came to symbolize anyone who has ever been sexually harassed in the workplace.

And lest we think this is unique to Trump, you can draw another direct line between these testimonies and Anita Hill, a woman who came to symbolize anyone who has ever been sexually harassed in the workplace.

Trump and conservative critics lashed out at Kent and Taylor, despite the president also claiming he wasn’t watching their testimony. And the injustice of Yovanovich’s dismissal need not have been gendered, but with “the woman” Trump made it so. But is anyone surprised? It’s nothing we haven’t seen before: From the menacing way he followed Hillary Clinton around the debate stage, the Access Hollywood tape, the multiple corroborated reports of sexual assault, and his attempts to dismiss and destroy Ford, Trump’s misogyny is neither unusual nor subtle.

It’s almost surprising he didn’t call Yovanovich “nasty.”

Many have pointed out that Trump could not resist tweeting about Yovanovitch precisely because she is a woman — that may be true, but it’s not the whole story. The TV-watcher-in-chief knew how this was playing in the hearts and minds of America. He couldn’t resist because the woman was giving compelling witness testimony.

This was about power. Speaker Nancy Pelosi put it best. “Well, he made a mistake,” she told "Face the Nation," “and he knows her strength. And he was trying to undermine it.”

A mistake indeed.

Because women, it turns out, take this quite personally. They get inspired and wear pink hats and take to the streets. They go out and vote in record numbers in wave elections. They may even topple presidencies.