Testifying in defiance of President Donald Trump's ban, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch told House impeachment investigators Friday that Trump himself had pressured the State Department to oust her from her post and get her out of the country.
Yovanovitch told lawmakers investigating Trump's dealings with Ukraine that there was a "concerted campaign" against her based on "unfounded and false claims by people with clearly questionable motives."
The diplomat was recalled from Kyiv as Rudy Giuliani — who is Trump's personal attorney and has no official role in the U.S. government — pressed Ukrainian officials to investigate baseless corruption allegations against Democrat Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who was involved with a gas company there.
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Yovanovitch testified behind closed doors Friday for more than nine hours as part of the House Democrats' impeachment investigation. Her prepared remarks were obtained by The Associated Press. She left without answering questions.
New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a Democrat, said Yovanovitch occasionally had to leave the room because she was overcome with emotion as she was "recounting how she was thrown to the wolves" in Ukraine.
"It is clear to me that she was fired because she was a thorn in the side of those who sought to use the Ukrainian government for their own political and financial gain - and that includes President Trump," Maloney said.
Lawmakers leaving the meeting would not provide specifics from the confidential deposition. But they indicated that Yovanovitch was providing information that would help with the impeachment inquiry.
"It was compelling, it was impactful, it was powerful and I just feel grateful for the opportunity to have received that information," said Democratic Rep. Denny Heck, who flew in from Washington state for the interview. He said the eight hours he was there "went like a New York second."
Yovanovitch "set a very powerful, courageous example," said Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey.
Republicans leaving the meeting focused their criticism on Democrats, arguing that the president's lawyers should be able to attend the hearings and cross examine witnesses. "This process is a joke, and the consequences are huge," said New York Rep. Lee Zeldin.
Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio defended Yovanovitch's removal from Ukraine, saying the president is entitled to have the ambassador he wants.
The former ambassador said she was fired from her post after insisting that Giuliani's requests to Ukrainian officials for investigations be relayed through official channels, according to a former diplomat who has spoken with her. That former diplomat spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose the private conversation.
Trump, in a July 25 phone call, told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy that Yovanovitch was "bad news," according to notes of the call released by the White House. Neither Giuliani nor Trump has publicly specified their objections to her.
She said in her statement Friday that she was abruptly told this spring to depart Ukraine "on the next plane." She left her post in May and was later told the president had lost confidence in her and had been pressuring State Department officials for many months to remove her, she said.
Democrats leading the investigation said they subpoenaed Yovanovitch on Friday morning after learning late Thursday night that the State Department had directed her not to appear. Trump has forbidden all government employees to cooperate, and Yovanovitch remains employed by the State Department. She is doing a fellowship at Georgetown University.
Her testimony in the face of Trump's opposition won't be the last as the congressional panels hold a flurry of depositions to investigate the president's efforts to jump-start foreign investigations that could help his 2020 reelection campaign. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has said she wants the committees to move "expeditiously" as they decide whether to move forward with a formal impeachment vote.
Polls show the nation now generally split as to whether Trump should be impeached and removed from office.
On Monday, Fiona Hill, a former White House adviser who focused on Russia, is expected to appear, and three current State Department officials are tentatively scheduled next week. They include Gordon Sondland, who was blocked from appearing this week but whose attorney said he would testify next Thursday.
As for Yovanovitch's dealing with pressure from Washington, the former diplomat who spoke with her said the ambassador refused to do "all this offline, personal, informal stuff" and made clear that the U.S. government had formal ways to request foreign governments' help with investigations.
The State Department traditionally relies on mutual legal assistance treaties, under which U.S. and foreign officials agree to exchange evidence and information in criminal investigations.
In her statement to lawmakers, Yovanovitch said that "false narratives" had resulted from "an unfortunate alliance between Ukrainians who continue to operate within a corrupt system, and Americans who either did not understand that corrupt system, or who may have chosen, for their own purposes, to ignore it."
She said she had only "minimal contacts" with Giuliani — three that she could recall — and none related to "the events at issue." She speculated that "individuals who have been named in the press as contacts of Mr. Giuliani" may have believed their personal financial ambitions were stymied by U.S. anti-corruption policy.
Two Florida businessmen tied to Giuliani were arrested on Thursday and are facing federal charges of campaign finance violations. An indictment filed in the case alleges that the men, who were raising campaign funds for a U.S. congressman, asked him for help in removing Yovanovitch, at least partly at the request of Ukrainian government officials.
While the indictment unsealed Thursday identified the lawmaker only as "Congressman 1," donations described in the indictment match campaign finance reports for former Rep. Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican who lost his re-election bid in November 2018. Several senior U.S. law enforcement officials also told NBC News the congressman is Sessions.
Sessions, 64, has denied wrongdoing. But the federal indictment alleges "Congressman 1" was part of what prosecutors described as a coordinated effort to remove Yovanovitch at the behest of an unnamed Ukrainian official.
On May 9, 2018, Parnas posted a photo of himself and his business partner David Correia with Sessions in his Capitol Hill office, with the caption "Hard at work !!" Correia, and another man, a Ukrainian-born U.S. citizen named Andrew Kukushkin, are also charged in the case.
Later that same day, Sessions sent a letter to Pompeo seeking Yovanovitch's dismissal because he had "notice of concrete evidence" that she had "spoken privately and repeatedly about her disdain for the current Administration."
Yovanovitch rebuffed claims that she was disloyal to President Trump or spoke unfavorably about the administration "to Embassy colleagues or to anyone else," calling the allegations "fictitious."
The New York Times reported Friday that Giuliani is being investigated by federal prosecutors in New York for possible lobbying violations. One of the Times' anonymous sources said the investigation is related to Giuliani's efforts to undermine Yovanovitch. NBC News has not independently confirmed that an investigation is underway.
Yovanovitch also said in her statement that she had never met Hunter Biden and that Joe Biden, the former vice president, had never spoken to her about his son or the gas company with which he was involved.
State Department officials have said previously that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had tried to protect her but was forced to concede when he realized the White House was intent on removing her. Four current and former officials said Pompeo arranged for her to have a "soft landing" after her recall from Kyiv. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the confidential arrangement.
She met with the House Intelligence, Foreign Affairs and Oversight and Reform committees Friday despite Trump's declaration earlier this week that he would block all officials from testifying in the impeachment probe. Trump lambastes the investigation daily and now contends it is illegitimate because the full House has not voted on it.
Despite the officials' expected testimony next week, former Ambassador Sondland's attorney said he would not be able to produce documents "concerning his official responsibilities," as they are controlled by the State Department.
Democrats want to ask Sondland about text messages released last week that show him and two other U.S. diplomats acting as intermediaries as Trump urged Ukraine to investigate Ukraine's involvement in the 2016 U.S. election and Hunter Biden's involvement with a gas company there.
Associated Press writers Adam Geller, Jocelyn Noveck, Lisa Mascaro and Padmananda Rama contributed to this report.