In what top Democratic lawmakers called a “political hit job,” U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch has been recalled by the Trump administration two months early following political attacks by right-wing media figures and a senior Ukrainian official.
Yovanovitch, an experienced career diplomat who has served in Republican and Democratic administrations and has been ambassador to Ukraine since 2016, will leave her post later in May, two months before she was scheduled to step down. The attacks, which four current and former U.S. officials who spoke to Foreign Policy said are unfounded, drew the attention of top Democratic lawmakers, who urged U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in a private letter last month to publicly defend her.
Now, those lawmakers are bringing their concerns into the public. “The White House’s outrageous decision to recall her is a political hit job and the latest in this Administration’s campaign against career State Department personnel,” said Democratic Reps. Steny Hoyer, House majority leader, and Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in a joint statement made public Tuesday. “It’s clear that this decision was politically motivated, as allies of President Trump had joined foreign actors in lobbying for the Ambassador’s dismissal.”
Yovanovitch’s early dismissal will leave the U.S. Embassy in Kiev without a top diplomat at an important juncture in Ukraine, during the transition of newly elected President Volodymyr Zelensky.
Yovanovitch, who was outspoken about the need to crack down on corruption in the country, was thrust into the spotlight in March when Ukraine’s top prosecutor claimed, without evidence, that the ambassador had outlined a list of people he should not prosecute when he first met her. The U.S. State Department called the claim by Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko an “outright fabrication.” In April, he walked back the statement in a separate interview.
Lutsenko’s allegations about Yovanovitch came two weeks after she issued scathing remarks about Ukraine’s anti-corruption efforts and called on the authorities to fire special anti-corruption prosecutor Nazar Kholodnytsky. In wiretapped phone conversations, Kholodnytsky allegedly coached suspects on how to avoid corruption charges.
Lutsenko made his claim against Yovanovitch in an interview with Hill.TV’s John Solomon, which aired on March 20. That same day, the Hill published two further pieces based off what appears to be the same interview with Lutsenko, in which the prosecutor said he had opened a probe into alleged attempts by Ukrainian law enforcement to tip the 2016 U.S. presidential election in favor of Hillary Clinton by leaking financial ledgers with details of payments made to Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort by former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych.
Coming weeks before special counsel Robert Mueller published his report on Russian election interference in the 2016 election, Lutsenko’s allegation about Ukrainian interference was seized upon by Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, with the president tweeting out the headline to the Hill article, “John Solomon: As Russia Collusion fades, Ukrainian plot to help Clinton emerges.”
Yovanovitch then faced a slew of criticism from Fox News personalities and other right-wing media figures, who accused her of denigrating the president in private conversations. In March, Fox News host Laura Ingraham said that former Republican Rep. Pete Sessions sent a letter to Pompeo in May 2018 calling for the “expulsion” of Yovanovitch as ambassador to Ukraine “immediately.” The then-congressman said that he had evidence the ambassador had been critical of the Trump administration in private, though the current and former U.S. officials who spoke to Foreign Policy say that claim was unfounded.
“The fact that Sessions wrote that letter a year ago and she wasn’t removed shows me there’s no ‘there’ there,” said John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is now at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.
The president’s son Donald Trump, Jr. tweeted about the claims circulating on Fox News in late March, linking to an article from the right-leaning Daily Wire on the claims against Yovanovitch. “We need more @RichardGrenell’s and less of these jokers as ambassadors,” he wrote, referring to Trump’s ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, who has been an outspoken political supporter of the president and caused friction with Berlin over his handling of disagreements on trade and the Iran nuclear deal.
The wave of criticisms raised alarm bells for former U.S. ambassadors to Ukraine, who worried Lutsenko and other Ukrainian officials were exploiting political fissures in the United States to retaliate against Yovanovitch. According to several current U.S. officials and other sources outside the government familiar with internal deliberations who spoke to Foreign Policy, a group of former U.S. ambassadors sent a letter to Pompeo last month raising concerns about it, separate from the letter the two Democratic lawmakers sent.
Hoyer and Engel sent their private letter to Pompeo on April 12. “In what is an increasingly disturbing trend, we have seen foreign officials attack our own U.S. ambassadors and foreign service officers for performing their jobs and advancing U.S. interests,” they wrote in the letter. “We are particularly concerned about the outrageous efforts by Ukrainian officials to impugn the efforts of [Yovanovitch],” they wrote. They described the ambassador as “a dedicated public servant and diplomat of the highest caliber.”
The letter made no mention of political attacks on Yovanovitch by right-wing media figures in the United States, in an apparent attempt not to overpoliticize the situation for Pompeo. The congressmen ultimately publicized the letter with their accompanying statement on Tuesday.
“By recalling Ambassador Yovanovitch just mere months before her tenure in Ukraine was set to end, the Administration is harming American interests and undermining American diplomacy,” the congressmen said in their statement on Tuesday. “We call on the Administration to reverse this decision immediately. In this period of transition, Ukraine needs gifted professionals like Ambassador Yovanovitch more than ever.”
A State Department spokesperson said on Monday Yovanovitch was “concluding her 3-year diplomatic assignment in Kyiv in 2019 as planned,” when asked whether she was being recalled early. The spokesperson did not have additional comment on Engel and Hoyer’s statements.
The United States has pushed Ukraine to drive through serious reforms to combat corruption and strengthen democratic institutions since Russia invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014. U.S. ambassadors have served as critical voices on anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine, alongside European embassies, international financial institutions, Ukraine’s civil society, and reformers in Ukraine’s parliament.
“It’s extremely unfortunate what happened to [Yovanovitch], but it’s also a danger for our policy in Ukraine going forward,” said Herbst, the former U.S. ambassador. “Important things are going on right now with the new president taking office. You need a strong ambassador on scene. It’ll be very important that whoever that is have the ability to speak out strongly on reform.”