Former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch says State Department in trouble

These were her first public remarks since testifying before Congress.

February 12, 2020, 9:23 PM

Former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch said the State Department is "in trouble," with senior leaders who lack "moral clarity" and "policy vision," in her first public remarks since testifying before Congress.

Accepting an award for excellence in diplomacy at Georgetown University, Yovanovitch also took an apparent shot at President Donald Trump's foreign policy: "An amoral, keep 'em guessing foreign policy that substitutes threats, fear and confusion for trust, cannot work over the long haul."

During her remarks and a question-and-answer session, Yovanovitch never said Trump's name and only mentioned Secretary of State Mike Pompeo directly when discussing his recent trip to Kyiv, Ukraine. But her remarks could be taken as a criticism of Trump's foreign policy, a defense of the State Department and a call to "reinvest" in diplomacy.

Yovanovitch, a fellow at Georgetown, retired this month as a career Foreign Service officer after serving as U.S. ambassador to Kyrgyzstan, Armenia and Ukraine. Last May, Trump removed her from her post in Kyiv after a smear campaign against her by him, his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani and Giuliani's American and Ukrainian associates, who accused her of badmouthing Trump, being corrupt and blocking investigations into Democrats.

"Working off of facts is not the trademark of the deep state, but of the deeply committed state," she said Wednesday night. "Truth matters."

PHOTO: Former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch speaks at Georgetown University in Washington, Feb. 12, 2020.
Former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch speaks at Georgetown University in Washington, Feb. 12, 2020.
Susan Walsh/AP

"It's important to allow the folks with regional expertise, experience, language skills and relationships to lead in our foreign policy," she added.

She was forced to step aside despite her own experience and expertise. At the time, the State Department denied the allegations against Yovanovitch, levied publicly by Giuliani and a Ukrainian prosecutor, but Pompeo has repeatedly declined to do so again or issue a statement of support for her.

Without mentioning him, Yovanovitch condemned the "senior leaders" of the department.

"Right now, the State Department is in trouble. Senior leaders lack policy vision, moral clarity and leadership skills. The policy process has been replaced by decisions emanating from the top, with little discussion. Vacancies at all levels go unfilled, and officers are increasingly wondering whether it's safe to express concerns about policy, even behind closed doors," she said.

Yovanovitch became a key witness in his impeachment hearings, testifying about Giuliani's back channel to Ukraine's new president on behalf of his business clients and to push for investigations to benefit Trump politically in the U.S. Hailed as a hero by many and derided as the "deep state" by Trump's supporters, she complied with a House subpoena and became the first official to testify in a closed-door deposition in October.

When she publicly testified in November, Trump blasted her, tweeting, "Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad." That attack followed his vague warning to Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during their July 25 call, where he called her "bad news" and promised she was "going to go through some things."

Yovanovitch referenced that line at one point Wednesday, saying, "When you 'go through some things,'" to laughter in the hall, "you have to dig deep a little bit," adding that she relied on family, friends and her faith to get through those difficult few months.

But she saved her strongest words for a defense of U.S. diplomacy. Two days after Trump's budget again requested its largest cuts at the State Department and USAID, Yovanovitch called for a "vigorous" department, with "greater resources and greater political clout in Washington" -- quipping that it's "not as exciting as sending in the Marines, but it's cheaper and usually more effective in the long term."

She had a warning for diplomats, too, however, saying they "won't be effective if ... we can't figure out how to get back in at home" with political leadership -- just as her own ouster was because of Trump's distrust of her, based on disinformation about her. Instead, she urged diplomats to build a constituency back at home, by "better explain(ing) what we do and why" to the U.S. public and members of both parties in Congress.

She received two lengthy standing ovations from a packed auditorium of retired diplomats and Georgetown students. The speakers who shared the stage with her, including former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and seven-time ambassador Thomas Pickering, fawned over her and condemned the "undignified" way she was treated, in Burns' words.

Yovanovitch also opened up about the difficulty she had in the last year, especially after testifying.

"Every friend, every teacher, every person I've ever known in my whole life has reached out to me over the last six or seven months," she said -- calling it an "incredible blessing," but joking that it was like "attending your own funeral."

Despite that hardship, Yovanovitch encouraged students to join the Foreign Service and become diplomats or contribute to U.S. national security in some other way, noting that those at institutions like Georgetown or her alma mater Princeton University had a particular responsibility to give back.

"There is nothing more gratifying than working for the American people, making the U.S. and the world more democratic, more prosperous and more secure," she said.

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