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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News Roundup: Court Chips Away at Trump Administration Obstruction

News
October 24, 2019

Research Tool: Ukraine-Trump Key Figures and Documents

Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of State, Department of the Treasury
News
October 23, 2019

Federal Judge Says He Will Order State Department to Begin Turning Over Requested Ukraine Documents

Department of State
Investigation Update
News
October 22, 2019

New Lawsuit Seeks Perry and Brouillette Ukraine Documents and Communications about Biden Investigation Effort

Department of Energy
Investigation Update
October 18, 2019

News Roundup: Corruption, Plain and Simple

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State
News
October 18, 2019

Court Calls for Hearing on Emergency Motion for Ukraine Documents

Department of State
Investigation Update
October 11, 2019

News Roundup: Impeachment, Obstruction, and More Questions about Rick Perry

Administration for Children and Families, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Education, Department of Energy, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security
News
October 4, 2019

News Roundup: The Public Needs Answers

Central Intelligence Agency, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of Labor, Department of State
Investigation Update
News
October 4, 2019

Pompeo’s Obstructionism Won’t Work

Department of State
News
October 2, 2019

Pompeo’s Letter Is the Trump Administration’s Opening Salvo of Obstruction

Department of State
News
October 1, 2019

We’re Suing the State Department for Giuliani-Ukraine Documents

Department of State
Investigation Update
September 27, 2019

News Roundup: From the Top Down

Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Collier County - Florida, Council on Environmental Quality, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Interior, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Office of Management and Budget
News
September 25, 2019

Release of Trump–Zelensky Call Readout Raises Questions About Justice Department Involvement

Agency for International Development, Department of Defense, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Treasury
Investigation Update
September 20, 2019

News Roundup: Trump, Giuliani, and Ukraine

Administration for Children and Families, Agency for International Development, Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Customs and Border Protection, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Housing and Urban Development, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, Department of Transportation, Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Federal Reserve, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, National Institutes of Health, Starr County - Texas, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Texas Attorney General, Texas Secretary of State, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
News
September 12, 2019

New Lawsuit Seeks State Department Records of Jared Kushner’s Middle East Trips

Department of State
Investigation Update
June 7, 2019

News Roundup: Investigating Outside Influence and Political Appointments at the State Department

Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Department of Homeland Security, Department of Justice, Department of State, Department of Transportation, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Small Business Administration
News
March 12, 2019

Investigating the Trump Administration’s Efforts to Sell Nuclear Technology to Saudi Arabia

Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Department of State, Department of the Treasury, International Trade Administration, Office of the U.S. Trade Representative
News
January 9, 2019

Investigating the Acting Defense Secretary’s Ties to Boeing

Department of Defense
News
December 12, 2018

Audit the Wall: No Plans, Funding or Timeline — And No Wall

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of State
Investigation Update
February 9, 2018

New Lawsuit Seeks DHS Border Wall Emails with White House, Fox News, Border States

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security
Investigation Update
December 17, 2017

Trump Transition GSA Emails and Memorandum of Understanding

General Services Administration
Investigation Update
October 31, 2017

American Oversight Sues State Department for Records Showing Efforts to Compel Mexico to Pay for Border Wall

Department of State
News
October 17, 2017

5 Questions for Attorney General Sessions

Department of Justice
September 2, 2017

DOJ Confirms Trump Lied in “Wiretap” Tweets

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
August 1, 2017

American Oversight Obtains Attorney General Sessions SF-86 Signature Page

Department of Justice
Investigation Update
August 1, 2017

Statement on Waiver of Environmental Regulations for Border Wall

Investigation Update
July 21, 2017

American Oversight Calls for Resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
News
July 13, 2017

DOJ Releases Redacted Page of Sessions’s SF-86 to American Oversight

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
June 16, 2017

Watchdog Group Files Lawsuit on Trump Border Wall

Customs and Border Protection, Department of Homeland Security, Department of the Interior, Office of Management and Budget
Investigation Update
May 24, 2017

After American Oversight Lawsuit, DOJ Confirms that Sessions Lied about Russian Contacts

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 16, 2017

American Oversight Demands Release of Comey-Trump Memos

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 12, 2017

Letter to Burr and Warner: Senate Should Request Trump-Comey Tapes

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 10, 2017

Statement on the Firing of FBI Director Comey

Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
May 10, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Calls for IG Investigation of Sessions for Violating Recusal

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation
Investigation Update
April 19, 2017

American Oversight Sues DOJ for Release of Trump Tower Wiretap Records, Russia Investigation Documents

Department of Justice, Federal Bureau of Investigation, White House
Investigation Update
March 28, 2017

Statement on Trump Administration Proposal to Build Border Wall South of Rio Grande

Department of the Interior
Investigation Update
March 24, 2017

American Oversight Launches Investigation of President Trump’s Border Wall

Department of Homeland Security
Investigation Update
March 22, 2017

Statement on Intelligence Committee Chairman Nunes’ Actions

Investigation Update
March 17, 2017

American Oversight Calls on Congress to Investigate Trump Aide’s Reported Ties to Nazi Group

Office of Government Ethics, White House
News