President Donald Trump threatened a serving State Department official during a July 25 phone call with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky that’s now at the center of congressional investigations, according to a summary of the conversation released by the White House on Wednesday.
“She’s going to go through some things,” Trump said of Marie Yovanovitch, a veteran foreign service officer who served as the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine until May of this year. She departed from her post months earlier than expected after conservative media outlets and Donald Trump Jr. accused her of being part of an alleged Ukrainian attempt to support Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.
The statement, made after Trump referred to “the woman” as “bad news,” is a striking example of the president’s willingness to throw members of his own government ― and citizens of his own country ― under the bus, particularly when he appears to believe that will benefit him personally. Presidents are conventionally expected to conduct themselves as the ultimate representatives of the United States, especially in dealing with foreign dignitaries, to protect officials with far less power and to avoid the appearance of a fractured government apparatus that outsiders can exploit for their own ends.
The revelation that Trump spoke of punishing Yovanovitch ― whom Zelensky was quick to say he didn’t support because the president told him she “was a bad ambassador” ― will likely disturb many of the tens of thousands of career professionals working to serve his administration. The effect will be particularly strong at the State Department, which has suffered a serious collapse in morale as Trump has repeatedly proposed slashing its budget and failed to fill its top jobs.
“What’s horrifying is Trump’s implication that, having recalled Ambassador Yovanovitch from post, he also intended to impose some kind of consequences on her for his displeasure at her failure to push his personal ― not policy ― agenda,” Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official now at the Brookings Institution, told HuffPost. “It’s absolutely chilling to our diplomats serving around the world, a message that their careers are on the line if they don’t go along with abusive, unethical or illegal demands from this administration.”
Yovanovitch is still employed by the State Department and currently holds a fellowship at Georgetown University. She did not respond to a request for comment.
Officials dealing with Ukraine have already for months been disturbed by the way their official work has been mixed with the president’s political ambitions, the Washington Post reported Tuesday.
Trump is now implicated in an explicit attempt to pressure Zelensky to find damaging information about his political rival Joe Biden, the former vice president whose son once served on the board of a Ukrainian company, or else lose American military aid for Ukraine’s fight against separatists supported by Russia.
The summary of the call suggests Trump was angry at Yovanovitch on the basis of claims made by a Ukrainian prosecutor named Yuriy Lutsenko. In March, Lutsenko promised to investigate the Trump team’s claims that Ukraine interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. But Lutsenko suggested the ambassador was tampering with his work and had given him a list of people not to prosecute. Trump’s own State Department denied that charge, but the president appears to have bought it.
Rudy Giuliani, who as the president’s personal lawyer has been central to Trump’s attempts to strike political gold in Ukraine, had a personal fixation on Yovanovitch, per the Post. “She is now working for Soros,” the attorney told the outlet, baselessly invoking right-wing conspiracy theories about Democratic donor George Soros. Giuliani also criticized the State Department apparatus. He appears to have been trying to control U.S.-Ukraine relations himself on a separate track, regularly giving Trump updates about his activities in the country.
After Yovanovitch was stripped of her job, Giuliani announced that he would be traveling to Ukraine. The Trump administration has yet to nominate a new ambassador, and the summary released Wednesday suggests the president viewed Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr ― neither of whom has a foreign policy background ― as central to the U.S. approach to the country.
Back in May, Democratic lawmakers already slammed Yovanovitch’s removal as “a political hit job.”
“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,” Reps. Steny Hoyer (Md.), the House Majority Leader, and Eliot Engel (N.Y.), the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a joint statement. “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.”