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US diplomat Marie Yovanovitch: “The Trump years did great damage”

America’s former ambassador to Ukraine on Donald Trump, the 6 January Capitol riot hearings and Russia’s invasion.

By Emily Tamkin

Like many Americans, the former ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, is watching the hearings on the events around the storming of the US Capitol building on 6 January 2021. Unlike many Americans, Yovanovitch was once in similar hearing herself.

Yovanovitch spent decades working for the US State Department. Between 2016 and 2019, she was the US ambassador to Ukraine. She stayed on from Barack Obama’s administration into Donald Trump’s — at which point she was smeared by Rudy Giuliani, the president’s lawyer, as being a stooge for the Hungarian-born financier George Soros. It appeared that Yovanovitch was standing in the way of Team Trump’s 2019 effort to pressure the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open an investigation into the Ukrainian dealings of Joe Biden’s son, Hunter. (Trump correctly assumed his presidential opponent would be the elder Biden.) She was removed from her post by the State Department, which provided her with little cover from swirling lies. The department advised her not to testify in the first Trump impeachment hearing; she testified anyway.

Yovanovitch and I spoke over Zencastr on Tuesday 28 June – the same day that Cassidy Hutchinson, an aide to Trump’s last chief of staff, testified that Trump wanted people with weapons to be allowed into his “Stop the steal” rally, knowing they could then march to the Capitol. What did she make of the hearings?

Watch the full interview with Marie Yovanovitch here

“It is shocking,” she said. The day of the storming of the Capitol “was bad enough, when we saw looters and rioters overcoming the Capitol police at the citadel of our democracy. That was bad enough, and I thought that’s all there was to it. But what we have come to understand is that there was a conspiracy, reaching up to the highest levels of the government at the time [the president].

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“I would say, not to make it all about me and events that I was involved in, but Trump is unique in that he is the only US president that has been impeached twice. He’s also the only president that has not been convicted twice.

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“And I think there’s a straight line [to falsely claiming he won the election] from not being held accountable for what he did the first time, which was [to] use the power of his office, the US presidency, for his personal and political gain, not for the good of the American people.” Pressuring Zelensky to investigate the Biden family, suggesting that lethal aid would come only after the Ukrainian president did so, “was not for the good of the American people”. It was, she said, putting a still finer point on it, “the essence of corruption… And he was not held accountable for that. So moving forward, he was just emboldened and kept on going. And the result was what we saw in 2021, in terms of not accepting the results of a free and fair election.”

Did the rest of us learn what we needed to in the year between Trump’s first impeachment and his second? And what did she make of Biden touting the merits of democracy at the G7 summit in June when America’s version of it is in such a state?

“Trump didn’t win the elections, despite everything he and his supporters say. And I think part of that was that… enough of the voters did internalise that lesson,” she said, though she acknowledged a solid group did not and does not.

The US is struggling with democracy in trying to “form a more perfect union”, as the preamble to the constitution has it. “But holding up the banner of democracy, helping other countries with their democracy, maybe learning from other countries about how they have worked through significant challenges – I think that is still completely within our purview. Because we don’t help countries with their struggling democracies because we are a perfect country. We do it because we think it’s in their interests. And, frankly, also because it is in ours.” The US, she said, has better partnerships with democracies.

One example of this, I pointed out, was Ukraine – in order to remain a sovereign democracy, it is fighting a war that Russia started. What did Yovanovitch make of the Biden administration’s response?

“Actually, I’m quite impressed,” she said. “I think that if you and I had this conversation in January of this year, we would never have anticipated the robust response of the United States, of Nato, and of all the allies combined… And I think that the Biden administration has managed that really narrow channel: between, on the one hand, supporting Ukraine, deterring Russia, and reinforcing the eastern flank of Nato; and on the other hand, not broadening the war in ways that I think none of us want, because it would mean a very volatile and dangerous situation.”

[See also: Nato’s “comeback” pivots on America’s troubled politics]

What about war fatigue, I asked. What about the worry that, as the war goes on and economies struggle and gas prices rise, resolve will fade?

“I get it, we’re all fatigued, but the Ukrainians are the most fatigued of all… They’re the ones that are fighting and dying and just bearing an incredible burden for themselves. They’re fighting for their country, their freedom, their families.” But they’re fighting for more than that, too, she said. Vladimir Putin’s goals are not limited to Donetsk and Luhansk, to Kyiv and Lviv. “His goal is to bring Ukraine in, but his goal is [also to bring] other countries in… And it’s also the international order, which he feels doesn’t really work for him. He wants a ‘might makes right’ world. Forget about sovereignty for smaller countries. Forget about viability of borders for smaller countries.”

In this version of the world, Yovanovitch said, “big countries get to do what they want”. And that, in turn, “makes for a much less safe and secure world for all of the rest of us, including Americans”.

Could the US be relied upon by its allies and partners to fend off that vision? Or are those who worry that it will descend back into America First right to do so?

“I think the Biden administration has walked the walk in terms of being a reliable partner. You can’t just do it in a year and a half. Great damage was done during the Trump years. It’s amazing how quickly one can destroy something.”

[See also: Christopher Steele: “There is a serious vacuum in the Kremlin. It can’t last”]

But the US has the good faith of its allies and partners working in its favour, Yovanovitch added. “I think even among sceptics in the alliance – they want us to be back. And I think what we need to do is prove that we are [back] day in, day out, through the workings of people throughout the administration, starting at Biden and going all the way down.”

Before I let her go, I had one last question for Yovanovitch. Her memoir, Lessons from the Edge, was published earlier this year. In it, she writes of being smeared and of having her career, if not ruined, then thrown off track; and she writes of testifying in a presidential impeachment, yet not having that testimony contribute to Trump’s removal. She writes about being told that she’s being kicked out of her job and about crying angry tears. But on the other side of all that, here she was talking to me on my computer screen.

There are so many people today, I said, who are angry and scared and sad. There’s the Russian war in Ukraine. There’s domestic turmoil in America. What lessons from the edge, I asked, did she have for us?

“Diplomats are fundamentally optimistic,” she told me. “Because every day, you go in, you try to solve problems. And some of these problems, you’re not going to solve them… another 20 or 30 years, not in your lifetime, but you try to lay the foundations for a future solution… And sometimes, actually, you are lucky enough to be in the room when an actual peace treaty is signed, and there is an actual solution – and then you get to implement it, which is the hard part. But I think, to embark on that kind of a career, you have to be optimistic.”

And so she remains optimistic, she said, both about Ukraine and the US.

“I think optimism, sometimes – especially when things are toughest – it’s just a discipline. You need to get up in the morning and say, ‘We are going to do this.’ Every day.”

[See also: Russia must lose this war]