/How a Tweet from Trump Scrambled the GOP’s Impeachment Strategy

How a Tweet from Trump Scrambled the GOP’s Impeachment Strategy

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch is sworn in prior to providing testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill November 15, 2019 in Washington, DC.

Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch is sworn in prior to providing testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill November 15, 2019 in Washington, DC.
Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images

In 280 characters, Donald Trump made Marie Yovanovitch a victim.

The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine was already a sympathetic figure. Speaking in a voice so quiet that it was occasionally inaudible even with a microphone, the career diplomat described what she viewed as “a smear campaign” against her by President Trump and his allies that culminated in her sudden sacking. But then Trump tweeted about her.

The tweet came early in the hearing just as the Democratic counsel Daniel Goldman was beginning to question her. There was a rustle among the reporters as they picked up their phones as alerts to a presidential tweet went off. On the dais, a staffer walked up to Chairman Adam Schiff with a piece of paper. They conferred. After questions continued for a period, Schiff jumped in.  “Ambassador Yovanvitch, as you sit here testifying the president is attacking you on Twitter. I’d like to give you a chance to respond to one of his tweets.” She blanched while Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the committee revealed a thin smirk.

The California Democrat read, “Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad. She started off in Somalia, how did that go?” She responded, “I don’t think I have such powers. Not in Mogadishu, Somalia and not in other places. I actually think where I served over the years. I and others have demonstrably made things better.”

Republicans had long worried how Yovanovitch would present herself on television. Fox News host and Trump confidante Sean Hannity predicted on air that she would “cry on cue” on Thursday night.

The goal of Republicans had been to dismiss Yovanovitch’s testimony entirely. She had been removed from her position in Kiev in April, two months before the now infamous June 25 phone call between Donald Trump and Ukrainian president Vladimir Zelensky. As one senior Republican aide put it, “Frankly, they should’ve gaveled out after her opening statement where she said ‘I cannot provide any information on the July 25th phone call or any discussions of suspending aid.’”

But with his tweet, Trump not only buttressed her credibility, but turned her into a sort of martyr. Sources on both sides of the aisle told New York that it changed the momentum of hearing. She could no long be painted as a deep state Never Trumper. Instead, she became a figure almost too sympathetic to be directly criticized.

Democrats watching were appalled. Rep. Dean Philips (D-MN), a swing district freshman who was watching in the audience, said he found about the tweet when Schiff read it. He told New York, “I think in one moment it so defines what is so upsetting to so many of us, which is abuse.” Phillips added, “I’m now starting to believe that it is more comprehensive and that’s what it is in this case: abuse of an outstanding public servant and another human being and I’m disgusted by it.”

Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) went even further. He told New York “I think it really opens another article of impeachment for the president because what you have is a pattern of intimidating witnesses.”

In contrast, Republicans shrugged her off. Trump ally Rep. Mark Meadows (R-NC) told reporters, “I don’t know if [the tweet] was an attack on the witness. It was a characterization of her resume.”

The second day of the impeachment hearings represented a tonal shift from the first, which some analysts described as lacking “pizzazz.”  References to John McCain and the Clinton Foundation were dropped into questioning as partisan red meat, while members took subtle and not so subtle jibes at each other. It culminated when Rep Mike Conaway (R-TX) angrily raised his voice at Schiff after the hearing gaveled to a close.

In lieu of attacking Yovanvitch and defending Trump, Republicans on the committee created their own parallel narrative. The victim was Rep Elise Stefanik (R-NY), the only female Republican on the committee, and the villain was Schiff. Although the rules provided that Nunes could only yield his 45 minutes of time to the Republican committee counsel, Stephen Castor, he attempted do so to Stefanik.

The result prompted expressions of outrage from Stefanik and accusation from Nunes that Schiff was “gagging a member of Congress” as she kept on trying to ask a question and Schiff kept on banging his gavel. Eventually, Castor took over the questioning.

When Stefanik finally got her turn, she amply praised Yovanovitch for her service before spending five minutes reading quotes from Schiff saying the whistleblower should testify. The California Democrat spent the entire time staring impassively into the distance with his arms folded across his chest.

Even the end of the hearing was heated and partisan. After Nunes gave perhaps the most Trumpian critique of the proceedings, that “the television ratings must be plummeting right now,” it was gaveled to a close as the remaining spectators erupted in a standing ovation, Although many watching had come and gone over the long day, those that remained were diehards, like the college interns too ambitious to give their names but sufficiently fired up about impeachment to line up at 6AM.

As Yovanvitch left the room to loud applause, it was clear those who already think Trump should be impeached had embraced her. But what was left uncertain was whether her impact on wavering Republicans would last.