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Most important takeaways from the Marie Yovanovitch impeachment hearing

Posted November 15, 2019 1:23 p.m. EST
Updated November 15, 2019 3:33 p.m. EST

— Former Ukraine ambassador Marie Yovanovitch was the star witness of the second day of the House's public impeachment inquiry, examining, among other things, whether and why President Donald Trump and his senior aides (and allies) pushed the longtime diplomat out to make it easier to implement their own version of policy toward the country.

Below, the biggest moments from the hearing in front of the House Intelligence Committee -- and why they mattered.

The power of Yovanovitch's words

Prior to Friday's hearing, most of what the average person knew about Yovanovitch came from Trump's attack on her during the rough transcript of the July 25 phone call the President had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. "The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news and the people she was dealing with in the Ukraine were bad news so I just want to let you know that," Trump said at one point.

The Yovanovitch who spoke powerfully on Friday was something very, very different than that caricature painted by the President. She spoke about her three decades serving the US in its diplomatic corps and the shock and sadness that accompanied her removal from her position in Ukraine.

But she also did more than that. Yovanovitch painted the picture of a Trump administration State Department swimming in a sea of partisanship -- and driven by political principles that placed it radically at odds with the ways in which past presidents have viewed the role of ambassadors and diplomats. "The crisis has moved from the impact on individuals to an impact on the institution," she said at one point. "The State Department is being hollowed out from within at a competitive and complex time on the world stage."

Fox News' Chris Wallace said it best: "If you are not moved by the testimony of Marie Yovanovitch today, you don't have a pulse."

Donald Trump as his own worst enemy

House Republicans had a clear plan coming into these impeachment hearings: Make their arguments not about the witnesses, but rather about the process put in place by Democrats. "Secret" hearings. "Cult"-like atmosphere. House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff (Calif.) is making the rules up as he goes and not being fair to Republicans.

And then here comes Trump! "Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad," he tweeted just after 10 a.m. ET. "She started off in Somalia, how did that go? Then fast forward to Ukraine, where the new Ukrainian President spoke unfavorably about her in my second phone call with him. It is a U.S. President's absolute right to appoint ambassadors."

Within minutes of the tweet, Schiff was reading it to Yovanovitch in the hearing -- and Republicans, who had started on a unified note by attacking the process, were suddenly scrambling to get away from the President's decision to tweet.

"I disagree with the tweet," New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, a Republican member of the Intelligence Committee, said in a break in the hearings. "I think Ambassador Yovanovitch is a public servant, like many of our public servants in the foreign service." Added former independent counsel Ken Starr on Fox News of the tweet: "Extraordinarily poor judgment. ... I think this was quite injurious."

Yes, yes it was.

Trump will be very happy with Devin Nunes

Nunes, the ranking Republican on the Intelligence Committee, has been one of Trump's most loyal congressional allies from the start -- and demonstrated his willingness to do whatever the President wants in his opening statement. The White House clearly timed the release of the rough transcript of the April call to coincide with the opening of the hearing. And Nunes read the transcript! Good job, Devin!

Asked by reporters about whether Trump was watching, White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said this: "The President will be watching Congressman Nunes' opening statement, but the rest of the day he will be working hard for the American people." That wound up not being true, of course -- see his Yovanovitch tweet -- but it's clear that the White House wanted Nunes to be aware (either during or after his opening statement) that the President was watching.

Then, later in the afternoon, Trump gave up even the guise that he wasn't watching the hearing. "I've been watching today," Trump told reporters. "For the first time, I've been watching."

Rudy Giuliani's words come back to haunt Republicans

The ongoing willingness of Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to talk (and talk) about what he said and did vis a vis Ukraine came back to bite Republicans on Friday.

In Schiff's opening statement, he noted not just Giuliani's involvement in Ukraine but also Giuliani's famous/infamous quote to The New York Times in May when the former New York City mayor said: "We're not meddling in an election, we're meddling in an investigation, which we have a right to do."

And Schiff wasn't done throwing Giuliani's words back at Republicans -- noting the CNN interview in which Giuliani told Chris Cuomo first that he hadn't asked the Ukrainians to investigate Joe Biden before admitting moments later that "of course" he had done just that.

Giuliani's mouth has already gotten him into very hot water. But now it's also causing major problems for the GOP.

What's the point, Steve?

The Republican counsel -- Steve Castor -- used up most of the 45 minutes of questioning granted to Nunes, the ranking member. But throughout that time, it was difficult (at least for me) to understand exactly what he was driving at. Castor asked a series of seemingly unrelated questions -- Do you know who Chuck Grassley is? etc. -- that Yovanovitch answered easily, if with a bit of puzzlement.

I kept thinking that Castor was building up to something -- something big -- in his seemingly haphazard questions. Turns out he wasn't! The time ran out and Castor was done, without accomplishing anything that I could tell.

Mike Turner's bad look

The Ohio Republican congressman had a simple goal for his five minutes of allotted time to question Yovanovitch: Get her to admit that Gordon Sondland, the US Ambassador to the European Union, was within his rights to be involved in Ukraine. Which, OK.

But he was in a hurry to get to that point. And when he sought to move on with another question following his assertion that Yovanovitch had essentially admitted the propriety of Sondland's involvement, she sought to add something. Schiff forced Turner to stop speaking, to which the congressman responded that shouldn't happen "on his time" and pointed at Yovanovich to say "you're done, right?"

Yovanovitch was clearly taken aback by the exchange. And Turner looked bullying and bad.

Elise Stefanik's breakout role

The New York congresswoman understood that these first few days of the public impeachment hearings would be watched closely by the political world -- especially in the House and the White House. So she put on a bit of a show -- emerging as the most pointed (and effective) Republican questioner this side of Ohio's Jim Jordan. Stefanik scored points with conservatives on a number of fronts on Friday, most notably by arguing that Schiff was depriving Republicans of their rights in the hearing. (It was not clear to me what specific rights were being violated.)

Whether you liked or hated Stefanik's move, it worked. Fox News' website led with this headline: " 'Gagging' the Gentlewoman." And you can be sure Trump backers around the country will applaud Stefanik for her role in Friday's hearing.

For someone like Stefanik, who clearly has an eye on a future leadership role in the party, that's a very good thing.

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