In the following weeks, Lutsenko made a series of allegations in interviews with John Solomon of The Hill, including that Yovanovitch had given him a “do-not-prosecute list,” and that Joe Biden had abused his position as vice president to engineer the ouster of Viktor Shokin, Lutsenko’s corrupt predecessor, to kill an investigation into Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that was paying Biden’s son Hunter up to $50,000 a month to sit on the board.
The State Department, which is not completely an arm of the Trump administration, bluntly dismissed Lutsenko’s allegation against Yovanovitch as an “outright fabrication.” And Lutsenko would later walk back the claim about Yovanovitch, admit there was not an active investigation into the Bidens, and concede that he didn’t have any direct evidence against the former vice president’s family. But by that point, the allegations had already taken hold in the right-wing fever swamp.
Fox News hosts Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity gave airtime to the unfounded allegations that Yovanovitch was out to get Trump. The president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., retweeted a roundup of the allegations and wrote, “We need more @RichardGrenell’s and less of these jokers as ambassadors,” a reference to the current U.S. ambassador to Germany. By the end of April, Giuliani was actively pushing a twisted conspiracy theory that Hillary Clinton had colluded with Ukraine. “Now Ukraine is investigating Hillary campaign and DNC conspiracy with foreign operatives including Ukrainian and others to affect 2016 election. And there’s no Comey to fix the result,” he wrote on Twitter on April 23. Two days later, in an interview with Hannity, Trump told the Fox News host, “I would imagine [Bill Barr] would want to see this…. People have been saying this whole—this concept of Ukraine, they have been talking about it, actually, for a long time.”
On May 6, the State Department announced Yovanovitch would be recalled “as planned.” At the time, sources told me that the decision didn’t come from the seventh floor of Foggy Bottom, but directly from the White House. Indeed, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had previously asked Yovanovitch to stay beyond the three-year mark. In their complaint, the whistle-blower credited the abrupt recall to the unfounded allegations Lutsenko had lobbed. “Several U.S. officials told me that, in fact, her tour was curtailed because of pressure stemming from Mr. Lutsenko’s allegations.” And they went on to note that in an interview with a Ukrainian journalist published a little over a week later, Giuliani said Yovanovitch was “removed…. Because she was part of the efforts against the President.”
Diplomats I spoke with who know Yovanovitch, either personally or by reputation, believe she was, in a sense, the victim of her own competence. “I’d be willing to bet not only did she not do anything wrong, but the people who have been handling the Russia-Ukraine problem for the last five years, they are passionate about it the way the Middle East people are,” a former ambassador told me. “This is the front lines of what our country stands for. And she’s one of our experts in our country. So I imagine she took very principled, educated decisions, and this is why she pissed everyone off.”
Giuliani told the Washington Post that since last year, he had met with five current and former Ukrainian prosecutors, including Lutsenko on multiple occasions and Kholodnytskyy, whose ouster Yovanovitch had called for in her March speech. His goal was to dig up dirt on Hillary Clinton and the Bidens. And Trump’s call with Zelensky suggests that Giuliani had the president’s blessing. “The other thing, there’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that,” Trump said in the call, according to the White House readout. “Whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it…it sounds horrible to me.”
In her fight against corruption in Ukraine, Yovanovitch became a victim of corruption in the Trump administration. “For the president to recall an ambassador—especially one with a stellar record and reputation like Masha Yovanovitch—based on the unsubstantiated accusations of a foreign official that were, themselves, based on the president’s campaign interests, well, that’s just outrageous,” a former senior U.S. official told me. “The behavior described in the whistle-blower complaint illustrates the breakdown of U.S. diplomacy and the kind of behavior in international relations one normally associates with autocrats.”