The U.S. ambassador to Ukraine is abruptly leaving her post following a concerted effort by Rudy Giuliani and Trump’s media allies to connect Yovanovitch to a wide-ranging conspiracy theory involving Hillary Clinton, Paul Manafort, and Joe Biden’s work in Ukraine.
A convoluted, Fox News-fueled story involving the Clinton campaign and the Biden family’s potential conflicts of interest in Ukraine appears to have claimed its first victim: Masha Yovanovitch, a career diplomat and the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. This week, Yovanovitch was suddenly recalled from her post, months before she was expected to end her three-year assignment this July, following increasingly feverish accusations in Trumpworld that Yovanovitch has demonstrated disloyalty to the president. Donald Trump has alluded to a “Ukrainian plot to help Clinton.” Democrats are calling Yovanovitch’s ouster a “political hit job.” According to two congressional sources familiar with the situation, the decision to recall Yovanovitch two months early did not come from the seventh floor of the State Department, but directly from the White House.
The strange circumstances surrounding Yovanovitch’s early exit provide a window into what is becoming a new front in a wide-ranging information war between Democrats and Republicans that could have a significant impact on the 2020 election. The official story coming out of Foggy Bottom is that Yovanovitch’s departure is timed to the arrival of a new administration in Kiev and “as planned.” But few believe it. “There is no other reason for her early departure,” one of the congressional aides told me, adding that the president is “aware” of the situation. In fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had previously asked Yovanovitch to stay on beyond the three-year mark, the other source said.
The trouble for Yovanovitch can be traced, in part, to a speech she gave in March, during which she took a firm stand against political corruption in Ukraine and called for the ouster of Nazar Kholodnytskyy, the chief of the Special Anti-Corruption Prosecutor’s Office. Those remarks, notable for their asperity, outraged Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko. Two weeks later, he gave an interview to The Hill’s John Solomon in which he alleged, without evidence, that Yovanovitch had given him “a list of people whom we should not prosecute” during their first meeting, presumably to shield Obama–Clinton allies.
The State Department bluntly dismissed the allegation at the time as an “outright fabrication.” And in April, Lutsenko walked back his remarks entirely. (In this new telling, it was Lutsenko who asked for a “do-not-prosecute list,” and Yovanovitch who said no.) But by that point, the allegation had already been injected into the bloodstream of the conservative media.
The same day the Solomon–Lutsenko interview was published, frequent Fox News guest Joseph diGenova called for Yovanovitch’s removal as ambassador to Ukraine in an interview with Trump confidant Sean Hannity, saying she “has bad-mouthed the president of the United States to Ukrainian officials and has told them not to listen or worry about Trump policy because he’s going to be impeached.” Later that week, Fox News host Laura Ingraham piled on, revealing a May 2018 letter former congressman Pete Sessions had sent to Secretary of State Pompeo, which accused Yovanovitch of having “reportedly demonstrated clear anti-Trump bias.” Two days after Ingraham’s show, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted a Daily Wire roundup of conservative attacks on the diplomat. “We need more @RichardGrenell’s and less of these jokers as ambassadors,” the president’s eldest son wrote on Twitter, referencing the current U.S. ambassador to Germany.
Among veterans of Foggy Bottom, Yovanovitch has an impressive reputation and the allegations against her ring false to many. “Very much a role-model female diplomat,” one former high-ranking State Department official said. “Admired, respected, liked. Very professional.” Another former senior U.S. official echoed the sentiment. “She’s everyone’s idea of the best kind of professional diplomat,” they told me. But it appears she made enemies in high places—and became a convenient scapegoat.
Behind the scenes, Trump allies have been developing a labyrinthine counter-theory of collusion, designed to distract from and deflect the Mueller report. One aspect involves allegations that Ukrainian officials sought to boost Hillary Clinton’s candidacy in 2016 by questioning Trump’s fitness for office and leaking damaging information about former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort—information that ultimately made its way to Robert Mueller. Another aspect involves allegations that Joe Biden abused his position as vice president to engineer the ouster of Viktor Shokin, Lutsenko’s predecessor, to kill an investigation into Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that was paying Biden’s son Hunter Biden up to $50,000 a month to sit on the board. (Hunter Biden told The New York Times he had “no role whatsoever in relation to any investigation of Burisma, or any of its officers.”) Lutsenko has reportedly reopened the investigation into Burisma, and told Solomon that he has opened an investigation into whether Ukrainian law enforcement worked in favor of Clinton, too. (On Tuesday, citing a Ukrainian official, Bloomberg reported the Burisma case has not been reopened. The Times is standing by its reporting.)
Of course, Lutsenko has not been working alone. Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has met with Lutsenko multiple times over the past year and has discussed the Burisma case with him, according to the Times. Lutsenko’s decision to reopen the investigation was reportedly interpreted by some as an attempt “to curry favor” with the Trump administration on behalf of his boss, President Petro Poroshenko. (Poroshenko lost his re-election bid last month; incoming president Volodymyr Zelensky, a television comedian, has said he intends to replace Lutsenko as prosecutor general.)
Giuliani told the Times that he has discussed the Burisma affair with Donald Trump on multiple occasions, and has called on the Justice Department to investigate the Bidens’ involvement in Ukraine. Trump himself recently suggested that Attorney General William Barr should look into materials gathered by Lutsenko. “I would imagine [Barr] would want to see this,” he told Hannity in an April 25 interview. “It sounds like big stuff, very interesting with Ukraine. . . . But that sounds like big, big stuff, and I’m not surprised.” (The White House did not respond to a request for comment.)
It is unsurprising that Yovanovitch was quickly ensnared in this narrative. Despite the fact that she was first nominated as a U.S. ambassador by George W. Bush, she was appointed to her post in Ukraine by Barack Obama at the tail end of his presidential term. As a result, she has been cast by Fox News talking heads and allies of the president as an “Obama holdover” and a “deep state” agent.
As the attacks on Yovanovitch were escalating, Congressmen Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, privately called on Pompeo to publicly defend Yovanovitch. “It is disappointing that certain political actors within Ukraine have criticized Ambassador Yovanovitch, given her anti-corruption efforts that touch on their interests,” the lawmakers wrote in an April 12 letter. “It is critical that State Department leadership support ambassadors and foreign service officers in the field and make clear that they will not be subjected to any politically motivated attacks. We urge you to make public statements personally defending your team and those who represent our country from these spurious disparagements.”
Less than a month later, Yovanovitch is on her way out. An internal management notice sent to embassy staffers in Kiev and shared with me reveals that there is no succession plan in place, suggesting the decision was abrupt. Yovanovitch’s last day as ambassador to Ukraine will be May 20. “We expect the Department to appoint a long-term Charge d’Affaires to lead the Mission until a new Chief of Mission is nominated and confirmed,” the notice reads. During the transition, Joseph Pennington will serve as the charge d’affaires and acting deputy chief of mission until Kristina Kvien arrives at the embassy on May 28.