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Ambassador Nicholas Burns Weighs In On Marie Yovanovitch's Testimony


In her testimony today, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch offered a glimpse of what it's like to be a U.S. diplomat at this moment in history.


MARIE YOVANOVITCH: There is a perception that diplomats lead a comfortable life throwing dinner parties in fancy homes. Let me tell you about some of my reality. It has not always been easy. I have moved 13 times and served in seven different countries, five of them hardship posts.

CHANG: Those countries included Somalia during a civil war, Uzbekistan, where the U.S. embassy came under gunfire, and Ukraine, her last post, which was cut short when she was recalled in May. To understand the broader implications of her ouster, we turn now to Nicholas Burns. He was a career diplomat who served both Democratic and Republican presidents. He now teaches at the Harvard Kennedy School, and he's also an unpaid adviser to former Vice President Joe Biden.


NICHOLAS BURNS: Thank you very much, Alisa.

CHANG: So I understand you worked closely with Yovanovitch. She was your aide at one point. What about her testimony most stayed with you today?

BURNS: Well, I know Ambassador Yovanovitch well - Masha, as her friends call her. I thought she was dignified today. She was courageous in confronting her accusers, at least among some of the Republicans. She was entirely convincing to me because she was so powerful in making the point - I think in her words - how could the system fail? How could the president of the United States listen to two corrupt individuals - Ukrainians working for Rudy Giuliani - who said fire this ambassador because she was standing up on behalf of the United States government to oppose corruption in Ukraine? That was a powerful indictment...

CHANG: I mean, at one point...

BURNS: ...Of the president.

CHANG: ...She used the word kneecapped to describe how she felt when she learned that...

BURNS: That's right.

CHANG: ...There was this so-called smear campaign against her. What did you take away from that word choice there, kneecapped? Would you have used similar words?

BURNS: I think she was right to use those words. You know, in our system when the president appoints an ambassador, ambassadors are hardly ever recalled and only when the ambassador has made some egregious error. Masha Yovanovitch - Ambassador Yovanovitch - did not do that. She upheld the dignity of her office. She was doing the right thing in opposing corruption, and yet Rudy Giuliani launched a public smear campaign against her. Donald Trump Jr. launched a public tweet - Twitter campaign against her, the president's son. And then the president, in the middle of the testimony today, launched another Twitter campaign designed to assault her dignity.

CHANG: At the same time...

BURNS: It was so reprehensible.

CHANG: At the same time, you know, one point that Republicans kept raising today was that ambassadors serve at the president's pleasure. The president can fire an ambassador at any time. These positions can be doled out for purely political purposes. What to you is significant about the way Yovanovitch was removed from her post, even given those things?

BURNS: Right. And Ambassador Yovanovitch said today she acknowledged the right of the president to, at any time, for whatever reason, replace an ambassador. But in our system, in a democracy, you don't replace a career foreign service ambassador who's done the right thing because two Ukrainians, who are now suspects under criminal charge in the United States, who are part of the corruption problem, told the president to fire her. We don't have a practice where the secretary of state doesn't get a say and the ambassador herself is not allowed to defend herself. So there is real outrage in our community in the foreign service and those of us who served in the past that she has been fundamentally mistreated here.

CHANG: Now since you're advising Joe Biden, I do need to ask you about his role. He was leading policy in Ukraine while his son sat on the board of a pretty controversial Ukrainian energy company. Was that appropriate?

BURNS: The vice president - when Vice President Biden was participating in our policy on Ukraine, he was doing so under the express orders of the president of the United States, consistent with what every other administration official and European officials were saying. These charges by Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump against Vice President Biden are completely fictitious. And all the major newspapers, including The Wall Street Journal, have said that.

CHANG: Former ambassador Nicholas Burns, who's now at the Harvard Kennedy School, thank you very much for joining us.

BURNS: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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