A US ambassador ousted by Donald Trump told a riveting impeachment hearing Friday she felt intimidated by the president, after he launched an extraordinary real-time attack midway through her testimony to Congress.
Taking the stand before a national television audience, Marie Yovanovitch cut a resolute figure as she was grilled for five long hours on her fraught dealings with Trump allies she accuses of undermining US foreign policy in Ukraine.
The veteran diplomat earned a standing ovation from the public at the conclusion of her marathon testimony, during which she recounted how she was subjected to a “painful” smear campaign before being abruptly pulled from Kiev.
Setting the scene less than an hour into the hearing, the president erupted spectacularly on Twitter with an attack on the highly-regarded former envoy.
“Everywhere Marie Yovanovitch went turned bad,” he wrote.
Asked what effect Trump’s tweet might have on her and other witnesses, Yovanovitch appeared unnerved.
“It’s very intimidating,” she told the panel. “I can’t speak to what the president is trying to do but I think the effect is to be intimidating.”
Trump’s outburst highlighted the intensity of the public hearings that seek to establish whether the president abused the power of his office for personal political gain, and which kicked off Wednesday with testimony by two senior diplomats including the current top envoy to Ukraine.
Friday’s testimony proved richer in drama, with the president leveling attacks from afar as Yovanovitch explained to lawmakers how “dangerous” it was for US diplomats not to have the backing of their own administration.
House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff, who presides over the impeachment inquiry, hit out at “witness intimidation in real-time by the president.”
Schiff would not say whether it was an impeachable offense, but witness tampering including intimidation is a crime.
Trump later defended his tweet, saying “I have the right to speak. I have freedom of speech just like other people do.”
But the special prosecutor during the impeachment inquiry of Democrat Bill Clinton in 1998, Ken Starr, offered a sharp rebuke, saying Trump’s tweet showed “extraordinarily poor judgment.”
The ongoing inquiry in the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives centers on accusations that Trump froze US military aid in an effort to get Ukraine to launch political investigations against potential 2020 election rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
The investigation threatens to make Trump the third US president to be impeached, although the Republican-controlled Senate would need to convict him to remove him from office.