(Adds Yovanovitch quotes)
By Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON, Nov 15 (Reuters) - The former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, branded "bad news" by President Donald Trump, defended her record and told an impeachment hearing on Friday she had pursued anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine and did not understand why the Trump administration removed her.
"I had no agenda other than to pursue our stated foreign policy goals," the ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, said in her opening statement on the second day of televised impeachment hearings in the U.S. House of Representatives.
"I still find it difficult to comprehend that foreign and private interests were able to undermine U.S. interests in this way," she told lawmakers.
The session before the House Intelligence Committee is part of the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry that threatens Trump's presidency even as he seeks re-election in November 2020.
Yovanovitch was removed from her post as ambassador to Kiev in May after coming under attack by Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, at a time when he was working to persuade Ukraine to carry out two investigations that would benefit the Republican president politically.
Giuliani was trying to engineer Ukrainian investigations of Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden and the former U.S. vice president's son Hunter, who had served as a board member for Ukrainian energy company Burisma, as well as a debunked conspiracy theory embraced by some Trump allies that Ukraine, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 U.S. election.
"I do not understand Mr. Giuliani's motives for attacking me, nor can I offer an opinion on whether he believed the allegations he spread about me," Yovanovitch told the hearing.
Democratic Chairman Adam Schiff said the ambassador was removed in order to set the stage for "an irregular channel that could pursue the two investigations that mattered so much to the president."
The focus of the impeachment inquiry is a July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who was elected in May, to open the investigations.
Democrats are looking into whether Trump abused his power by withholding $391 million in U.S. security aid to Ukraine as leverage to pressure Kiev to investigate Joe Biden, who is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination to take on Trump in the 2020 election.
The money, approved by the U.S. Congress to help a U.S. ally combat Russia-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country, was later provided to Ukraine.
"Ambassador Yovanovitch was serving our nation's interest in fighting corruption in Ukraine, but she was considered an obstacle to the furtherance of the president's personal and political agenda. For that she was smeared and cast aside," Schiff said.
Trump has denied any wrongdoing and calls the impeachment probe a sham.
Republican Devin Nunes criticized Democrats for launching the impeachment inquiry, calling it a political exercise based on second- and third-hand hearsay.
"The problem with overthrowing a president based on this time of evidence is obvious. But that's what their whole case relies on," Nunes said in his opening statement.
Trump called Yovanovitch "bad news" in the phone call to Zelenskiy and added that "she's going to go through some things," according to a White House summary of the call. Zelenskiy told Trump: "I agree with you 100 percent" that she was a "bad ambassador."
'GO BIG OR GO HOME'
In private testimony to lawmakers on Oct. 11, Yovanovitch described how Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, had urged her to use Twitter to express support for Trump to save her job. "He said, you know, you need to go big or go home. You need to, you know, tweet out there that you support the president," she said.
Three more public hearings are scheduled for next week.
The hearings may pave the way for the Democratic-led House to approve articles of impeachment - formal charges - against Trump. That would lead to a trial in the Senate on whether to convict Trump and remove him from office. Republicans control the Senate and have shown little support for Trump's removal.
The hearing comes a day after House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told reporters that Trump already had admitted to bribery in the Ukraine scandal.
"The bribe is to grant or withhold military assistance in return for a public statement of a fake investigation into the elections," Pelosi, the top Democrat in Congress, told a news conference.
Pelosi's comments could offer a preview of articles of impeachment Democrats might put forward.
Two other career U.S. diplomats, William Taylor and George Kent, testified on Wednesday in the first public hearing, expressing alarm over the pressure tactics on Ukraine by Giuliani for investigations that would benefit Trump politically.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Susan Cornwell, Richard Cowan, David Morgan and Karen Freifeld; Writing by John Whitesides; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell)
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