President Trump disparaged former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, above center, in a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

President Trump disparaged former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, above center, in a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Mikhail Palinchak, Presidential Press Service Pool Photo via AP

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‘People Will Be Afraid’: How Trump’s Ukraine Call Could Chill Public Servants

Diplomats condemn Trump for "threatening" a foreign service officer and other civil servants.

President Trump’s controversial phone call with the president of Ukraine has upended American politics and led to an impeachment inquiry. It also may have a profound effect on the nation’s public servants.

In a portion of the call that garnered fewer headlines than Trump’s request that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky investigate the business dealings of former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, Trump disparaged the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, a career foreign service officer, and appeared to threaten her.

“The former ambassador from the United States, the woman, was bad news,” Trump said, according to a summary of the call released by the White House. He was referring to Marie Yovanovitch, the former ambassador to Ukraine who Trump recalled in May. He added that Yovanovitch was “going to go through some things.”

On Thursday, at a United Nations event for U.S. diplomats in New York, Trump was recorded as saying that any government official who provided information to the whistleblower who first raised concerns about the president’s call was “almost a spy.”

He added another ominous warning:

“You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right?” Trump asked the diplomats in the room. “The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”

In a statement, Trump’s reelection campaign called the whistleblower a “partisan bureaucrat.”

Ambassador Harry Thomas, who as the director general of the foreign service served as the State Department’s Senate-confirmed director of human resources, said the president and his campaign are “doing a disservice to the American public.” Thomas, who was appointed by President George W. Bush, suggested foreign service officers may now feel discouraged about serving in Ukraine and those who do may feel fearful about “telling the truth.” 

“When you know you’re going to be attacked, why would you be willing to risk your career?” Thomas said.

The American Foreign Service Association said the nation required a professional, apolitical foreign service.

“Our members have taken an oath to the U.S. Constitution and do their utmost to support the foreign policy of the United States under the leadership of the elected leaders of our democracy,” the organization said. “We urge that their service, which at times is under the most serious hardship conditions and security risks, not be politicized, and that they not be dragged into partisan political battles.”

It added that “any attack on their integrity and commitment to non-partisan service does a great disservice to them, to their families and to our country.”

The American Academy of Diplomacy called on the Trump administration to “make clear that it will not act against [a] career diplomat” and referred to the president’s comments as “threatening.”

“Whatever views the administration has of Ambassador Yovanovitch’s performance, we call on the administration to make clear that retaliation for political reasons will not be tolerated,” said Thomas Pickering and Ronald Neumann, AAD’s chairman and president, respectively.

Yovanovitch is still working for State, currently serving as diplomat in residence at Georgetown University.

Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., Adam Schiff, D-Calif., and Elijah Cummings, D-Md., who chair the House committees on Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Oversight and Reform, respectively, called Trump’s comments “reprehensible.”

“We condemn the president’s attacks, and we invite our Republican counterparts to do the same because Congress must do all it can to protect this whistleblower, and all whistleblowers,” the chairmen said. “Threats of violence from the leader of our country have a chilling effect on the entire whistleblower process, with grave consequences for our democracy and national security.”

Thomas, who has also served as ambassador to Bangladesh, the Philippines and Zimbabwe under secretaries of State Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell and John Kerry, said the current secretary, Mike Pompeo, should step up to defend his workforce.

Pompeo’s predecessors “would not sideline you,” Thomas said. “They protected their people and people were willing and able to give them the facts.”

He added that typically secretaries allow diplomats to speak their mind in private, and noted that Yovanovitch—who was elevated to the position of ambassador by President Obama—never sought to publicly criticize or undermine the Trump administration. Thomas expected the fallout from Trump’s comments to trickle down to the rest of the foreign service.  

“If people in Washington think someone is good or doing something right, you need to be able to tell them this is what is really going on,” Thomas said. “People will be afraid.”