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5 things we learned from Marie Yovanovitch's impeachment testimony

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Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies before the House Intelligence Committee on Capitol Hill on Nov. 15, 2019. -
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Susan Walsh AP
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Marie Yovanovitch, theousted U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who is one of several figures at the center of the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump, spent more than six hours testifying before the House Intelligence Committee.

Friday's hearing didn't reveal much beyond what was learned from her closed-door deposition last month, but it did provide the American public the chance to hear the unconstrained, and at times emotional, account of a top diplomat who House Democrats hope can be one of the faces of their inquiry.

Here are five things we learned from her public appearance.

1. 'Witness intimidation'

Just moments after Yovanovitch testified that she felt "threatened" after learning thatTrump told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during their July 25 call that she was "bad news" and that she was going to "to go through some things," Trump tweeted more attacks on her, including, "Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad."

House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, D-Calif., actually read the tweets aloud during the hearing, and asked Yovanovitch how she felt the president's words might affect other witnesses in the impeachment inquiry.

"It's very intimidating," she said

"Some of us here take witness intimidation very, very seriously," Schiff added.

Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, told reporters during a late morning break in the hearing that witness intimidation against Yovanovitch "will be considered with other obstructive acts" among potential articles of impeachment against Trump.

The comments by Schiff and Swalwell are some of the most specific yet about how House Democrats may proceed when it comes to drafting those articles against Trump — although such articles are actually drafted by the House Judiciary Committee.

Trump, responding to the firestorm over his tweets, told reporters at the White House, "I have the right to speak. I have the freedom of speech just as other people do."

2. Stirring testimony, but no new bombshells

Yovanovitch's testimony hewed very closely to what she'd told investigators in her closed-door testimony last month. Her opening statement focused on her decades-long career in the Foreign Service, her nonpartisan efforts to fight corruption during her time in Ukraine — and how she was the victim of a smear campaign by allies of Trump and eventually forced out of her position, enabling those allies to push for investigations into the Bidens and the 2016 election.

She retold in stunning detail (she'd first revealed this during her testimony in October) the story of how, during a late night phone call in April that she'd received word from the State Department that she was being recalled and that she must return to Washington "on the next plane" because there was unspecified "concern" for her safety.

But when it came to the broader effects she felt her ouster would have on her fellow State Department employees, Yovanovitch spoke more passionately than she had in her previous testimony. She said attacks on diplomats like her have led "to a crisis in the State Department as the policy process is visibly unraveling, leadership vacancies go unfilled, and senior and mid-level officers ponder an uncertain future and head for the doors."

"The crisis has moved from the impact on individuals to an impact on the institution. The State Department is being hollowed out from within at a competitive and complex time on the world stage," she said.

3. A consistent GOP strategy

Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, delivered an opening statement Friday that was nearly identical to the one he delivered at Wednesday's hearing. Once again employing sharply worded critiques that focused on process, politics and conspiracy theories, Nunes made clear early on how his party would counter the testimony.

On both Wednesday and Friday, Nunes criticized the process of the inquiry that Democrats have engaged in, comparing their closed-door depositions to something a "cult" would do. In both, he ripped Democrats for being obsessed with the "spectacle" of impeachment from the moment they took office. And in both, he brought up unusual and repeatedly debunked conspiracy theories, including the disproved notion that the Ukrainians interfered in the 2016 election and the false allegation that Democrats sought nude pictures of Trump.

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Later, Nunes and Steve Castor, the counsel for the GOP members of the committee, repeatedly pointed out that Yovanovitch had been recalled from her post in Kyiv before the July 25 call between Trump and Zelenskiy and before military aid was frozen. Therefore, as Nunes said, she was "not a material fact witness." (Democrats have countered that she was sidelined because she was seen as an obstacle to Trump and his allies achieving his personal political goals in Ukraine, and that her removal after a smearing of her reputation is at the heart of their case.)

During questioning, Republicans also repeatedly using the fact that she'd landed a cushy fellowship at Georgetown University after her recall as proof that any sympathy for her is misplaced.

4. Emphasis on how Russia benefited

Yovanovitch — with the aid of some of the Democrats questioning her — significantly expounded on her view that Russia stood to be the biggest beneficiary of the Trump administration's dealings in Ukraine.

"We see the potential in Ukraine. Russia, by contrast, sees the risk," she said. "Ukraine is a battleground for great power competition, with a hot war for the control of territory and a hybrid war to control Ukraine's leadership."

The potential benefit to Russia is two-fold, she explained. Withholding security assistance, she said, painted a picture to Moscow that the U.S. may not be the staunch ally of Russia's vulnerable neighbor it has signaled it would be. And at the same time, she said, allowing corruption to fester in Ukraine — including empowering officials there to get the White House to remove an ambassador (as happened with her) — also makes the nation vulnerable to Russian influence.

"Corruption is also a security issue, because corrupt officials are vulnerable to Moscow. In short, it is in America's national security interest to help Ukraine transform into a country where the rule of law governs and corruption is held in check," she said, before directly fingering Vladimir Putin as a beneficiary of the administration's actions in Ukraine.

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5. Larger focus on Rudy Giuliani's role

According to Yovanovitch, whose account is backed up by the testimony of many of the witnesses in the inquiry, Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani seized on Ukrainian disinformation that she'd been badmouthing the president and was blocking corruption investigations to orchestrate a broad smear campaign againstthe veteran diplomat that culminated with her ouster.

So it came as no surprise Friday that Yovanovitch outlined in detail, both in her opening statement and responding to questions from Democrats, how shocked she was not only that he'd come after her, but that the Trump administration bought what he was selling.

"I do not understand Mr. Giuliani's motives for attacking me, nor can I offer an opinion on whether he believed the allegations he spread about me," she said at one point. "What I can say is that Mr. Giuliani should have known those claims were suspect, coming as they reportedly did from individuals with questionable motives and with reason to believe that their political and financial ambitions would be stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine."

Ironically, some Republicans seemed poised to use that to their advantage because it could help establish a narrative that the hearings are merely implicating Giuliani — and not Trump.

"This is an impeachment of Rudy Giuliani. But last time I checked, he's not the president," Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., told reporters during the hearing.

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