Women And Immigrants, Demeaned By Trump, Take Center Stage At Impeachment

If the president is averse to strong women challenging him, he had a very bad week.
From left: Laura Cooper, Fiona Hill, Alexander Vindman and Marie Yovanovitch.
From left: Laura Cooper, Fiona Hill, Alexander Vindman and Marie Yovanovitch.

When former White House adviser Fiona Hill, who served as the National Security Council’s top official on Russian affairs, testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Thursday, she described a sharp interaction with Gordon Sondland.

Hill said it began when she had a tense disagreement with the U.S. ambassador to the European Union. “I actually said to [Sondland], ‘Who put you in charge of Ukraine?’” Hill said of the encounter. “I mean I’ll admit I was a bit rude, but that’s when he told me the president, which shut me up.”

Hill said that she was angry with the ambassador — and that Sondland dismissed her concerns because she is a woman. 

“Often, when women show anger, it’s not fully appreciated,” she continued. “It’s often pushed onto emotional issues perhaps or deflected onto other people.”

Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump has routinely demeaned, degraded and attacked women and immigrants. Over the past five days of impeachment hearings, some of the most incriminating testimony has come from those very people.

Key witnesses who have testified in the public impeachment hearings, which began last week, include women like Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary at the Defense Department, and Jennifer Williams, a top aide to Vice President Mike Pence, in addition to immigrants like Army Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman, the NSC’s Ukraine expert. (Hill has the distinction of being both an immigrant and a woman.) Day after day, these witnesses laid out a damning case against Trump.

Yovanovitch, who served as a foreign service officer for 33 years before Trump recalled her from her post in Ukraine in May, spoke calmly and clearly throughout hours of testimony last week. The cool-headed former ambassador even responded to smears from the president in real time during the hearing. 

Her testimony was so well-received that she earned a standing ovation from the public at the hearing (and, later, at a jazz club in Washington, D.C.). 

The former ambassador laid out how the Trump administration peddled a campaign of lies about her, launched jointly by a Ukrainian official, Trump’s personal attorney and a host of right-wing pundits. During his infamous July call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Trump called Yovanovitch “bad news” and said she was “going to go through some things.” She testified last week that Trump’s statement “sounded like a threat.” 

Yovanovitch said that Trump opened the door for corruption by being complicit in “a campaign of disinformation against a sitting ambassador, using unofficial back channels.” Her experience, she argued, sets a dangerous precedent worldwide.

“When other countries, other actors... see that private interests, foreign interests can come together and get a U.S. ambassador removed, what’s going to stop them from doing that in the future in other countries?” she said.

Cooper, the Defense Department official, clarified a key timeline question about the withholding of military aid during her Tuesday testimony. She said that Ukraine was aware that the aid was stalled before Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky. If true, this would make it extremely hard to argue that Trump’s push for politically beneficial investigations that day wasn’t a quid pro quo.

Vindman, who was born in Ukraine and immigrated to the U.S. as a toddler, testified as a real-time witness to that now-infamous call. He said there was an obvious “power disparity” between Zelensky and Trump on the call because of Ukraine’s reliance on the U.S. for military and other aid.

“When a senior asks you to do something, even when it’s polite and pleasant, it’s not to be taken as a request ― it’s to be taken as an order,” he told the House Intelligence Committee earlier this week. 

Vindman, whose family fled the Soviet Union, is not the typical immigrant targeted by the Trump administration. Those attacks are normally reserved for Black and brown people. But his status as an immigrant was still weaponized against him. Republican lawmakers and conservative cable news hosts questioned Vindman’s loyalty to the U.S. because he was born in Ukraine. 

The 44-year-old Army officer responded to these attacks in one of the more emotional moments of the impeachment hearings. He addressed his immigrant father in his opening statement. 

“I also recognize that my simple act of appearing here today ... would not be tolerated in many places around the world,” Vindman said. “Dad, my sitting here today in the U.S. Capitol talking to our elected officials is proof that you made the right decision 40 years ago to leave the Soviet Union and come here to the United States of America in search of a better life for our family. Do not worry, I will be fine for telling the truth.”

Hill, an immigrant from the U.K., said the accusations of dual loyalty lobbed at Vindman were “deeply unfair.” 

“This is the essence of America,” she said during her Thursday testimony. “It’s why I wanted to be here and why I wanted to stay here, and I think it’s unfair to castigate anyone.”

“I do not believe that my loyalty is to the United Kingdom. My loyalty is here, to the United States. This is my country and the country that I serve,” Hill continued. “And I know for a fact that every single one of my colleagues ― and there were many naturalized citizens in my office and across the National Security Council ― felt exactly the same way.”

During Hill’s testimony, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) said that she was “especially disheartened” by Trump’s treatment of women throughout this process, specifically his ongoing attacks on Yovanovitch.

“She was an easy target as a woman,” Sewell said.

“The fact of the matter is that there’s a long line of strong, talented women who have been smeared and victimized by this president,” the congresswoman continued. “We can either choose to ignore it or do something about it.”

After the hearing, Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.) said, “I think for a certain pocket of society who are perpetuating harmful mythologies about immigrants and women, and who are trying to take our country back to some mythological good old days ― I think it’s important to have representation from women and those who have immigrant backgrounds to dismantle this notion of what it means to be an American.”

It’s possible that the dual-loyalty smears against Vindman are a sneak peek of what’s to come as the pressure increases on the president. Given Trump’s history, stoking fears around citizenship and gender for political gain would be nothing new. 

Igor Bobic contributed reporting.