KYIV, Ukraine — In the eyes of Donald Trump, the ambassador to Ukraine was disloyal, badmouthed him behind his back and obstructed his efforts to dig up dirt on Joe Biden. Or at least that’s what Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Guilani, and his allies were telling him. The ambassador was standing in the way, they said.
So when Trump recalled Marie Yovanovitch from Kyiv in May, it raised questions about whether political pressure had been brought to bear against a career diplomat who had a reputation for honesty among those who worked with her.
Yovanovitch and the circumstances surrounding her ouster could be key to the House Democrats’ formal impeachment inquiry against Trump, which was prompted by a whistleblower alleging the president abused his power when he pressured his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelensky, in a July 25 phone call to pursue investigations into the activities of Biden and his son, Hunter. The whistleblower cited the recall of Yovanovitch as one of a number of worrying events leading up to Trump’s call with Zelensky.
Several current and former State Department officials who worked for years with Yovanovitch told BuzzFeed News they believed her removal from the post — two months ahead of her scheduled departure — was directly connected to pressure from the White House. But they said the allegations leveled by Giuliani and other Trump allies were unfounded, and instead described a three-time ambassador who remained professional and loyal — even as some colleagues hoped she would take a stance against an administration they feared would alter longstanding US policy toward Ukraine.
“I never heard her say anything pejorative or derogatory about the president,” said one current US diplomat who worked closely with Yovanovitch in Kyiv and spoke on condition of anonymity out of fear of professional retaliation.
“She was very careful to remain as apolitical as is possible,” said another current US diplomat who worked with Yovanovitch in Kyiv and didn’t want to be named for similar reasons. Recounting an embassy meeting Yovanovitch called hours after Trump’s 2016 election win, the diplomat said some colleagues “felt the sky was falling and [were] wondering, ‘What are we going to do?’”
“She said, ‘Look, we are professionals, institutions are there for a reason, and we will carry on.’ And some people actually left that meeting disappointed because they felt she was too even keel,” said the diplomat.
Yovanovitch is one of five current or former State Department officials summoned to testify in front of investigators from the House Committees on Intelligence, Oversight, and Foreign Affairs. But her appearance, scheduled for Friday, is in question after the White House said on Tuesday that it wouldn’t cooperate with what it called an illegitimate attempt “to overturn the results of the 2016 election.”
The White House earlier blocked the deposition of another key witness, Gordon Sondland, the US ambassador to the EU, hours before his scheduled appearance. A lawyer for Sondland said the State Department had ordered him not to show. The White House has put a “full halt” to cooperation with the impeachment inquiry, and said that it wouldn’t provide any other witnesses or documents. Only Kurt Volker, the former US special envoy to Ukraine who is no longer required to follow the State Department’s orders, has been deposed.
Yovanovitch, who is now serving as a diplomat in residence at Georgetown University, didn’t respond to BuzzFeed News’s requests for an interview. Asked for comment for this story, the US Embassy in Kyiv deferred to the State Department, which didn’t respond to a request.
Yovanovitch, 60, was born in Canada but her family moved to the US when she was three. She became a naturalized citizen at 18. A Russian speaker, her friends call her by the Russian diminutive Masha, and they say she shares the values of Atticus Finch from her favorite book, To Kill A Mockingbird.
Yovanovitch got a degree in history and Russian studies at Princeton before earning a master’s degree at the National War College. Described by colleagues as a by-the-book introvert, she joined the diplomatic corps in 1986, and spent the early years of her career in US embassies in Canada, Russia, the UK, and Somalia before doing two years at the State Department as deputy director of its Russia desk.
“Even at that young age, she showed the grit, good sense, and diplomatic skills that have gained her one senior — and always challenging — post after another,” Laura Kennedy, who served nearly four decades as a career diplomat and has been a friend of Yovanovitch’s for almost 30 years, told BuzzFeed News. “She is the soul of integrity and dedication to public service.”
Yovanovitch’s first tour in Ukraine came in 2001, when she was tapped to be deputy chief of the US mission in Kyiv. It was a challenging task for the quiet professional, who avoids the spotlight as much as possible, during a chaotic period for Ukraine, which had only secured independence a decade earlier and was still struggling to develop amid rampant corruption and oligarch rule. Nevertheless, she was praised for her work in Kyiv, which would lead to her appointment as ambassador to Kyrgyzstan in 2005, followed by a stint as ambassador to Armenia in 2008.
When Yovanovitch returned to Kyiv in August 2016, this time in the role of ambassador, she was a seasoned veteran — but she had her work cut out for her. Protests two years earlier had overthrown President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia, and ushered in a more Western-leaning government. But in response, Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and sparked a war in the country’s eastern Donbas region. The new Ukrainian government was less willing to heed Washington’s advice than it had been months earlier.
“She came in at a time when we had to be a little bit more of the bad guy,” said a US diplomat who worked alongside her at the embassy at the time. Then-President Petro Poroshenko, who was elected on the promise that he would implement crucial reforms demanded by Euromaidan protesters in 2014, had “backslid,” the diplomat said, and the US was applying pressure on him to implement those reforms. They included overhauling Ukraine’s justice system and pushing the prosecutor general at the time, Yuriy Lutsenko, to prosecute high-profile corruption cases, the diplomat said. Those efforts made Yovanovitch deeply unpopular with many powerful Ukrainian officials.
It was a job that kept her working almost 24-7. “She would work three shifts a day,” one of the diplomats from the embassy in Kyiv said. “She’d have a full day of meetings and reading, and then she would be working Washington until four in the morning.”
By late 2018, the campaign against Yovanovitch by Trump allies was heating up. Pete Sessions, a former Texas Republican member of the House who lost his re-election bid, wrote a letter in November to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for the firing of the ambassador for allegedly criticizing the Trump administration in private conversations with colleagues. Reporting by BuzzFeed News and other outlets show his efforts may have been backed by two Soviet-born American businessmen, Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, who are close with Giuliani and were already working behind the scenes to dig up dirt on the Bidens when they met Sessions in May 2018. According to the Daily Beast, Parnas and Fruman, through their company, Global Energy Producers LLC, donated $325,000 to a pro-Trump PAC called America First Action, which supported Sessions’ reelection bid with more than $3 million. The two men were arrested on Thursday on accusations of violating campaign finance rules.
As those Trump allies pressed on, tensions with Ukrainian officials flared in March, when Yovanovitch publicly chastised their lackluster efforts to root out corruption and called for the country’s special anti-corruption prosecutor, Nazar Kholodnytsky, to be fired after he was caught coaching suspects on how to avoid corruption charges. Reached by phone, Kholodnytsky declined to comment, saying only that Yovanovitch was “a professional diplomat.”
Lutsenko quickly hit back at Yovanovitch over the criticism, claiming, without evidence, that she had passed him a list of people his office should not prosecute during their first meeting two years earlier. The State Department said his claim was an “outright fabrication” and Lutsenko retracted it a month later after saying there was never a physical list.
Nevertheless, Yovanovitch was recalled in May, reportedly on Trump’s orders. Though it wouldn’t be until months later, after a partial transcript of Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky was released by the White House, that we would learn how Trump personally felt about Yovanovitch. “The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news,” Trump told the Ukrainian leader. “And the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news, so I just wanted to let you know that.” Trump added, ominously: “She’s going to go through some things.”
Zelenskiy replied, “It was great that you were the first one who told me that she was a bad ambassador because I agree with you 100%.”
Yovanovitch’s removal in May, and Trump’s comments about her during the call, made public with the White House’s release of a partial transcript last month, shocked career foreign service officers. In contrast with Sondland, who got the job as EU ambassador after donating $1 million to the inaugural committee for Trump, Yovanovitch is described by colleagues as a conscientious and dedicated professional diplomat with no clear political party preference.
“She stood up for American — not partisan — interests as ambassador in Kyiv, just as she always has,” Kennedy said.
“I’ve never met a career diplomat who’s openly discussed their party preference, but some you can divine from conversations on foreign policy, or whatever,” said Dan Baer, a former US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe who worked alongside Yovanovitch on Ukraine matters. “I would say Masha is on the other end of the spectrum, like, I have no idea whether she votes Republican or Democrat.”
Many of Yovanovitch’s colleagues hope she will eventually be able to testify to House investigators, but it remains unclear whether that will be possible.
Baer said she could potentially get around the State Department block on officials testifying by resigning, like Volker did, “if she feels it’s necessary that people hear it.” Yovanovitch is still a member of the Foreign Service and is currently a senior State Department fellow at Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy.
Some of her colleagues said that’s possible, given her sense of duty. But if she does testify, they don’t expect the longtime loyal public servant to take cheap shots at the man who fired her or manipulate the facts surrounding the impeachment issue.
“I don’t see her as thinking, ‘Oh, here’s my chance to get back at the administration,” said one diplomat. “I also think she is diligent enough of a civil servant that she has records, she’s kept files… [and] she has a good recall. And she will have prepared diligently for this briefing.”
“She’s never going to be one to shape the truth, so she’ll be very straight forward.”