What We Learned from the Yovanovitch and McKinley Transcripts

This week, the House released the transcripts from four closed-door hearings in the impeachment inquiry. The testimony of two of the witnesses — former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and former State Department Senior Adviser Michael McKinley — focused on the efforts of Trump and his allies to remove Yovanovitch from her post, and on the failure of State Department leadership (specifically Secretary Mike Pompeo) to protect her from the president’s politically motivated retaliation.

Yovanovitch’s ousting in May 2019 is a subject of American Oversight’s current lawsuit against the State Department for Ukraine-related documents. A federal judge has ordered the agency to process and release the records, and last week the agency agreed to produce by Nov. 22 any responsive documents from multiple categories, including communications between high-level officials and outside individuals like Trump attorneys Rudy Giuliani, Victoria Toensing, and Joseph diGenova, who were at the center of efforts to force out Yovanovitch and pressure Ukraine to announce an investigation into Joe Biden’s son.

The transcripts that were released on Monday contain a number of references to records of communications sought by American Oversight in our lawsuit. But the witnesses’ testimony also alludes to previously undisclosed memos and communications that American Oversight is seeking in its ongoing investigation of the Trump administration’s contacts with Ukraine, and paints a fuller picture both of Giuliani’s extensive shadow diplomacy and the politicization of the State Department that prompted McKinley to resign last month. Below are some takeaways from American Oversight’s review of the testimony of Yovanovitch and McKinley

Clues about Documents and Records of Communications 

1. Yovanovitch email seeking support from Hale: Yovanovitch’s testimony alluded to various run-ins with Giuliani beginning in 2017 and centered on the White House’s efforts to remove her from her position. At the end of March of this year, after Donald Trump Jr. sent a tweet criticizing her and calling her a “joker,” Yovanovitch sent an email to Undersecretary David Hale on a classified system (though the contents of the email were not classified) to voice her alarm and seek support. Hale said he would speak to Pompeo.

2. McKinley email to Hale and others to propose statement of support: McKinley said that he sent an email on Sept. 28, 2019, (after the release of the summary transcript of the Zelensky call) to Hale as well as State Department officials Morgan Ortagus, Lisa Kenna and Carol Perez to propose issuing a statement of support for Yovanovitch. “I wrote it deliberately,” McKinley testified, “decided it was time to start creating a paper trail of my concern.” According to the transcript, Ortagus, a department spokesperson, relayed Pompeo’s response, that such a statement would draw unwanted attention to Yovanovitch. American Oversight filed a Freedom of Information Act request on Wednesday for a copy of that email message.

3. George Kent’s memo alleging “intimidation and bullying”: A week later, Deputy Assistant Secretary George Kent wrote a memo outlining concerns about the State Department’s response to congressional requests and the department’s treatment of Foreign Service members. “It [the memo] includes allegations of intimidation and bullying and … raises questions about whether there are lies in statements.” McKinley said he forwarded the memo to Hale as well as Acting Legal Adviser Marik String and Deputy Secretary John Sullivan. We also filed a FOIA request for that memo.

After she was warned by Ukraine Internal Affairs Minister Arsen Avakov about Giuliani’s efforts, Yovanovitch relayed the concerns to either Reeker or Kent. But those communications were done over the phone or via teleconference, Yovanovitch said, because official cables “just felt too political.” Yovanovitch said that she also mentioned to Hale, Acting Assistant Secretary Phil Reeker and NSC official Fiona Hill her concerns about accusations against her by a Ukrainian prosecutor that were printed in The Hill in March 2019.

4. Communications with people outside of government (including Sean Hannity): According to Yovanovitch’s testimony, Reeker told her that Pompeo or somebody “in his inner circle” called Fox News’ Sean Hannity to find out what was going on with the allegations against her. While Yovanovitch said this was a phone call, the highly irregular instance of such a consultation between a secretary of state and a television host suggests that there could be other communications with individuals outside of government, including emails or texts, that would be included in the records the State Department has agreed to turn over by Nov. 22.

5. Other important names: When Yovanovitch returned to Washington in the spring, she requested to meet with State Department counselor T. Ulrich Brechbuhl, but he did not accept her request. Nor did Pompeo communicate with her — Deputy Secretary Sullivan had been the one to recall her. Any records of Brechbuhl or Sullivan about her recall would be included in our requests. McKinley raised his concerns with Brechbuhl, as well as with Brian Bulatao, the undersecretary of state for management and longtime ally of Pompeo. Bulatao is also included in our requests.

Notable Takeaways

1. State Department Politicization: McKinley spoke about a State Department inspector general investigation into allegations of political retaliation against career employees in the International Organizations Bureau (IO). “[T]hey felt that tabs were being kept on them in terms of whether they were loyal, whatever that means, to the administration or not,” McKinley said, mentioning specifically political appointee Mari Stull, a former lobbyist and wine blogger who has since left the administration. American Oversight sued the State Department in November 2018 for records related to Stull’s alleged review of employees’ social media for evidence of disloyalty to the president, and is still receiving records in response.

In his discussion of the investigation with congressional questioners, McKinley said that after the inspector general’s report on politicization came out, there was an “assumption” that Assistant Secretary Kevin Moley, who oversaw Stull, would step down. When that didn’t happen, McKinley said, “there was a significant reaction among people in the building” and that it “absolutely” had an adverse impact on department morale. (Moley stepped down last month amid accusations of mismanagement.)

McKinley offered the information as a way to contextualize the environment of politicization affecting career employees at the State Department, especially in light of “the cumulative impact of watching what [former] Secretary Tillerson did to the building.” And his testimony contradicts statements made by Pompeo that McKinley had never proposed issuing a statement of support for Yovanovitch.

2. Giuliani’s Interference in Visa-Granting Process: Yovanovitch discussed an incident in which the former prosecutor-general of Ukraine, Victor Shokin, had applied for a visa to the U.S. to “visit children.” Because of his corrupt practices in the past, his application was refused. According to Yovanovitch, Giuliani then called the White House and the assistant secretary for consular affairs, saying that Shokin was actually coming to visit him and that Yovanovitch was blocking the visa.

3. Giuliani’s Contacts with Lutsenko: News reports about Giuliani’s involvement in Ukraine policy and efforts to get the country to open an investigation that could help Trump politically began surfacing in May, but Yovanovitch said in her testimony that there were rumors both that Giuliani’s first meeting with the former Ukrainian prosecutor general Yuri Lutsenko was in June 2018, and that Trump had gotten on the line during a call between Lutsenko and Giuliani in January 2019. 

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