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How Former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch Became A Target In Ukraine

Marie Yovanovitch meets with former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 6. The former ambassador to Ukraine has become a central figure in the impeachment inquiry against President Trump.
Mikhail Palinchak
Marie Yovanovitch meets with former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Kyiv, Ukraine, on March 6. The former ambassador to Ukraine has become a central figure in the impeachment inquiry against President Trump.

Federal prosecutors say two businessmen had a motive for making illegal contributions to U.S. political campaigns. The two men sought to remove an American diplomat in Ukraine, according to an indictment unsealed on Thursday.

The two men, Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas, were associates of President Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. They also have business interests in Ukraine.

The indictment alleges that Fruman and Parnas made hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign donations, disguising the sources of the money and bringing some of it from overseas. They were about to leave the United States with one-way tickets on Wednesday when FBI agents arrested them at Dulles International Airport.

What was it about the little-known career diplomat that made the men willing to go to such lengths to have her dismissed?

The ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, was the target of extensive criticism in conservative media this past spring — criticism that Trump himself took on board. Yovanovitch was recalled last spring before the end of her expected term. And Trump spoke of her during his now-famous phone call with Ukraine's presidenton July 25 — the call that spurred the whistleblower complaint that led the House to open an impeachment inquiry. "The woman, was bad news," Trump said, adding that she dealt with Ukrainians who were also "bad news."

Yovanovitch is now in Washington. She has been asked to testify Friday as part of the impeachment inquiry, which centers on Trump's effort to have a political rival investigated in Ukraine. She has avoided talking to the media, but NPR has reconstructed her story through documents and sources in both the U.S. and Ukraine.

What emerges is the story of a longtime government employee who made enemies in Ukraine while representing U.S. interests. Her Ukrainian enemies undermined her by spreading unsubstantiated claims to the U.S. — in particular, that she was disloyal to Trump.

Who is Yovanovitch?

President Barack Obama nominated the career diplomat in 2016 to serve as ambassador to Ukraine. Though it was a deeply partisan time, she was easily confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate.

At her confirmation hearing, Yovanovitch brought along her elderly mother and told a little of her life story. Her parents had left their homes in the former Soviet Union and moved to Canada, where Yovanovitch was born in 1958.

She was a toddler when the family migrated once again, this time to America. "They finally arrived in the United States with me in tow in search of freedom, accountability, and opportunity," she told senators.

The young immigrant became a U.S. citizen and went on to join the U.S. Foreign Service. Colleagues say her early postings included difficult locations such as Somalia and Moscow. She was especially useful in the Russian capital, having grown up speaking Russian. (Colleagues say she is widely known as "Masha," an affectionate Russian version of Marie.)

Her language and cultural skills proved useful again in 2001, when she first was assigned to the former Soviet republic of Ukraine. She was deputy chief of mission, the No. 2 diplomat behind then-Ambassador Carlos Pascual.

"She really understood what it was to work in difficult hardship posts," Pascual says. "She was one of the first people on the mission that understood how important it was to be able to create a different environment in Ukraine that allowed people to have a check on government."

Yovanovitch focused on understanding and promoting civil society — journalists, activists and citizens' groups whose work is considered vital to democracy. In 2004, not long after she finished her first stint in the country, Ukraine's civil society made history by displacing the government after a disputed election in what is known as the Orange Revolution. Another uprising came in 2014.

When Yovanovitch returned in 2016, it was as the top U.S. diplomat. She was inheriting a tough job. By then, Russia had invaded Ukraine, annexed Crimea and encouraged separatist movements.

During her confirmation, Yovanovitch said she was open to providing military aid to Ukraine, a stance that had bipartisan support. She also set a goal to keep promoting civil society.

"Building capacity within the journalistic community, within civil society so that they themselves can get their own good news out and they themselves can counter the Russian propaganda efforts," she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

A "reserved" and "cautious" diplomat

This commitment would cause many in Ukraine's civil society to look favorably on Yovanovitch.

Daria Kaleniuk, executive director of the Kyiv-based Anti-Corruption Action Center, described the ambassador as "very supportive" to the anti-corruption reforms in Ukraine.

Other Ukrainians who dealt with the ambassador recall her as a professional who worked hard to represent U.S. policy. Journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk says Yovanovitch "was a good diplomat, but very, very reserved."

"She was extremely cautious," Gumenyuk says. "She would never say anything beyond what the diplomat can say."

In November 2016, the new ambassador invited civil society activists and others to an event to mark America's presidential election. Kaleniuk, who was in attendance, said some in the room were dismayed by Trump's election because he was viewed as sympathetic to Russia. But the U.S. ambassador delivered a reassuring message, says Kaleniuk.

"The United States will continue being the partner and supporter of Ukraine and we congratulate our democracy," Kaleniuk says, recalling Yovanovitch's message that night. "She didn't express any frustration."

The story, which a second attendee at the event confirmed to NPR, would be characteristic of a career diplomat like Yovanovitch. Unlike some ambassadors, who are friends or supporters of a president, supporters say she served whoever was in the White House.

A growing cast of enemies

Yet not everyone in Ukraine was pleased with her. Some Ukrainians found her narrow-minded, bureaucratic and hard to reach.

Then there were the two associates of Giuliani, the men arrested this week.

Fruman and Parnas, both U.S. citizens who had been born in former Soviet republics, had business interests in Ukraine. Federal prosecutors allege they wanted to please Ukrainian officials who disliked the ambassador.

According to the indictment, they sought to gain influence in the U.S. government and allegedly made hundreds of thousands of dollars in illegal campaign contributions.

Their efforts appeared to pay off in 2018. They donated to Pete Sessions, who was then a senior member in the House but lost his reelection bid in 2018. While the congressman is not named in the indictment, details from the document and Federal Election Commission records outline the ties between Fruman, Parnas and the Texas Republican.

Sessions wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo demanding that the ambassador be dismissed.

Sessions made an allegation that was toxic in the Trump administration: that Yovanovitch had criticized the president. He alleged that she showed "disdain for the current administration."

After the arrest of Fruman and Parnas, Sessions admitted having met with the two men, but he denied that they had caused him to write the letter. "At no time did I take any official action after these meetings," he said in a statement.

Yovanovitch was not fired after Sessions' complaint, but worse was coming for her. Kaleniuk, the Ukrainian anti-corruption activist, says the ambassador had another enemy: Ukraine's then-prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko.

"Ambassador Yovanovitch was a friend for civil society in Ukraine," she said. "This is what Yuri Lutsenko and other corrupt officials in power did not like."

Lutsenko was a vital figure in what happened next. Civil society groups called him corrupt. They recently summarized their accusations in a formal complaint, which they sent to the U.S. Treasury Department and that NPR has obtained. The groups affixing their names to the letter include Kaleniuk's Anti-Corruption Action Center.

In the document, Lutsenko is accused of enriching himself and targeting anti-corruption investigators.

Yovanovitch was focused on corruption. On March 5, she gave a speech alleging that Ukraine's government was backsliding in its efforts against corruption. "It is increasingly clear," she said, "that Ukraine's once-in-a-generation opportunity for change has not yet resulted in the anti-corruption or rule of law reforms that Ukrainians expect or deserve."

Attacks in conservative media

Soon after this speech, Lutsenko struck back, suggesting the U.S. ambassador was really the corrupt one. On March 20, he spoke to Hill TV and claimed that Yovanovitch had given him a list of people not to prosecute.

The State Department denied the story, and Lutsenko later recanted his claim, but it had already spread.

The very night of the Hill TV report, another accusation against the ambassador reached Sean Hannity of Fox News. On his program that night, Hannity interviewed Joseph DiGenova, a lawyer linked to Trump. DiGenova said that the ambassador "has bad-mouthed the president of the United States." NPR asked DiGenova where he got that information, but he declined to say.

On March 24, Donald Trump Jr. attacked the ambassador on Twitter. "We need... less of these jokers as ambassadors," the president's oldest son wrote. Then in April, Hannity interviewed the president himself, and Trump made a vague statement that conservative media reporting out of Ukraine "sounds like big stuff."

Weeks later, Yovanovitch was called home from her job, before the end of her assignment.

An ambassador removed

Why would these toxic claims go so directly from Ukraine to people around the president? Here is at least part of the answer: Ukrainians who opposed her were also sources for the president's personal lawyer.

Giuliani was on a months-long search for political dirt in Ukraine to help Trump. The two indicted businessmen were helping Giuliani find information.

Lutsenko, the prosecutor accused of corruption, met Giuliani at least twice, according to the whistleblower report filed against the president. The president's lawyer developed a negative view of the U.S. ambassador, later saying on CNN that she stopped him from interviewing witnesses in his search for politically damaging information against former Vice President Joe Biden. His son Hunter had served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

In the end, the removal of Yovanovitch may not have helped the president or his lawyer. Her replacement was another career diplomat, Bill Taylor, who now has an indelible place in the impeachment inquiry.

In September, Taylor sent text messages, which are now public, in which he said, "I think it's crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign." Trump did withhold military aid to Ukraine, before later asking the country's president to investigate Biden for acts in Ukraine. Those efforts are now at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: October 11, 2019 at 12:00 AM EDT
In the audio of this story, as in a previous Web version, we refer to some text messages from diplomat Bill Taylor as having been sent in July. Those messages were sent in September.
Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ashley Westerman is a producer who occasionally directs the show. Since joining the staff in June 2015, she has produced a variety of stories including a coal mine closing near her hometown, the 2016 Republican National Convention, and the Rohingya refugee crisis in southern Bangladesh. She is also an occasional reporter for Morning Edition, and NPR.org, where she has contributed reports on both domestic and international news.

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