As the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch had to steer clear of speaking publicly about American domestic affairs.
But soon after then-President Donald Trump removed her from her diplomatic post in 2019, she found herself testifying in his first impeachment inquiry.
With the national spotlight on her, Yovanovitch testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee, detailing her experience under Trump, his administration's efforts to influence a U.S. election through foreign channels and how she was subjected to a smear campaign by Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani.
Five years later, with another presidential election approaching and a memoir coming out, Yovanovitch sat down with GBH’s Morning Edition co-host Jeremy Siegel Wednesday night at the Boston Public Library, and shared some words of caution about presidential power and the war in Ukraine.
“Now I'm a private citizen,” Yovanovitch said. “I can say whatever I want, which is on the one hand very different, on the other hand, very freeing.”
Yovanovitch was a career diplomat, having served as an ambassador to Kyrgyzstan and Armenia. She was appointed as ambassador to Ukraine under President Barack Obama in 2016, and stayed on under the first three years of the Trump administration.
“When I was ambassador, our policy was a policy I could get behind,” Yovanovitch said. “I don't think there's any American that agrees with even a president that they vote for 100% of the time. … Subsequently, after I was removed from Ukraine, that's when this strange phone call happened and it became clear what President Trump was trying to do.”
That phone call was at the center of Trump’s first impeachment inquiry. Trump was alleged to have pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to investigate then-candidate Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, and hinted that he would withhold an American shipment of Javelin missiles if Zelenskyy declined.
Trump’s first impeachment trial, in 2019, ended with a Republican majority in the Senate voting to acquit him of both impeachment articles.
“He used that office for personal gain, and he used our foreign policy assets, our national security assets, in this case Javelins, to try to get the Ukrainian president to do his personal and political bidding,” Yovanovitch said. “I think the American people can expect better than that.”
While watching the 2024 election unfold, she’s been concerned about the role America plays globally, she said.
“I think there's a lot at stake,” Yovanovitch said. “Although we are a very great country and we can do a lot, we can't do it on our own. We rely on those partnerships to advance our interests all over the globe. … We don't want to be America first and America alone. We want to be America first with the entire world.”
Trump’s Iowa caucus victory gave her some concern, she said.
“I think he is the presumptive Republican nominee,” Yovanovitch said. “And I just recall that he used his office, his public office, the highest office in the land, to try to use it against a potential rival in the coming presidential elections in 2020, against former Vice President Joe Biden.”
‘A test not only for Ukraine, but for the entire free world’
Almost two years after Russia invaded Ukraine, Yovanovitch said she would like to see America’s government continue to support Ukraine’s efforts with financial backing.
“I think it's a test not only for Ukraine, but for the entire free world. Because if Russia wins in Ukraine, Russia will keep on going,” she said.
The money currently up for debate in Congress, $61 billion, will go largely to American defense contractors building weapons, she said.
“As much as that money is, it is only 10%, maybe even less, of our annual defense budget, not even our budget, of our annual defense budget. And that is money well spent,” she said.
Her own parents fled both the Soviet Union and the Nazis before settling in Canada, then Connecticut. She also looks to the next U.S. election as highly impactful in Ukraine, she said.
“Russia has made it very clear that they hope former President Trump will be president again, because I think they anticipate that our assistance for Ukraine would stop,” she said. “If that were to happen, that [Putin] gets a victory in Ukraine, it would be because the free world has not supported Ukraine. That we are not standing up for our values. We're not standing up for our partners. We're not even standing up for our own interests.”
In her memoir, "Lessons From the Edge," Yovanovitch spoke of meeting Zelenskyy when he was a candidate and a comedian.
"Yes, he was a comedian. Yes, he was an actor," she said. "But his real talents lay in business. He had created a multimedia empire and, you know, provided content for the entire Russian-speaking world. And that company is worth millions.”
She compared him to U.S. President Ronald Reagan, who was an actor before going into politics.
“I think Zelenskyy has used that background in communications, that ability to, you know, get everybody onside, to the great benefit of Ukraine,” Yovanovitch said.
In all, she said, she looks at her former job as an ambassador as an important one.
“I'll just say from my perspective, it is tiring. But it's also invigorating because the work we do matters. The work we do saves lives. It makes a difference in people's life every day, in other ways as well,” she said. “Which would you rather do? Kind of a humdrum job that you're not really excited about? Or a job that you find intellectually and otherwise stimulating and can really make a difference for the United States and for other countries around the globe?”