Ukraine’s president would like to be excluded from this narrative.
Volodymyr Zelensky said Wednesday he’d prefer to be left out of the political storm threatening to engulf Donald Trump’s presidency, dodging questions from reporters about whether he felt pressured by Trump to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden in a phone call between the two leaders in July.
“I think you read everything,” Zelensky told reporters of a White House memo on the call during his first face-to-face meeting with Trump. “I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be involved to democratic, open elections of [the] U.S.A.”
“No, you heard, we had, I think, good phone call,” he continued. “It was normal. We spoke about many things. So I think you read it that nobody pushed me.”
Trump then piped up: “In other words, no pressure. Because you know what? There was no pressure.”
He added, “And I appreciate the answer.”
Trump and Zelensky, a Ukrainian comedian-turned-politician, offered tense jokes and subtle jabs while immediately addressing the impeachment-sized elephant in the room during a televised meeting at the United Nations. The highly anticipated meeting came just hours after the White House released details of the July conversation that showed Trump urging Zelensky to investigate the Bidens.
That call, and a whistleblower complaint raising red flags about its contents, were catalysts in the House formally launching impeachment proceedings against Trump on Tuesday. But on Wednesday, the two leaders were in the mood for making not-so-veiled jokes about the conversation that set off a political firestorm.
“It’s an honor to be with you,” Trump told Zelensky at the top of their meeting. “We spoke a couple of times, as you probably remember,” he added pointedly, nodding in the direction of the press. “They’d like to hear every single word, we gave them every single word and they say, ‘Well, what about today?’”
“It’s a great pleasure to me to be here,” Zelensky responded. “It’s better to be on TV than by phone, I think,” he continued, prompting laughter throughout the room.
Moving the conversation along, the leaders chatted for the cameras about how neither Trump nor his predecessor had ever visited Ukraine, and Zelensky thanked Trump for inviting him to Washington during their much-discussed July phone call.
“But I think — I’m sorry — but I think you forgot to tell me the date,” Zelensky joked, eliciting laughter from Trump.
The two leaders then turned to the matter at hand, with Zelensky reiterating his focus on rooting out corruption and combating Russian aggression and returning control of Crimea back to Ukraine.
Trump has asserted repeatedly that his only intention in seeking a probe of the Bidens was to help Zelensky fulfill his campaign promise of rooting out corruption in Ukraine. The president and his supporters have argued that it is Biden who was corrupt in pushing for the ouster of a Ukrainian prosecutor who’d been widely criticized by the international community. That prosecutor is said to have been looking into an energy company for which Hunter Biden sat on the board, but there is no evidence that Biden himself was under investigation.
Trump repeatedly turned to the point of corruption during the meeting Wednesday and continued to bring up his accusations against Biden and even against his 2016 opponent, Hillary Clinton.
Toward the end, Zelensky appeared to get frustrated when asked by a reporter if he felt “obligated to fulfill his promises” to Trump that he would follow up on some of the issues Trump raised in July.
“I want to underscore that Ukraine is an independent country,” he said through a translator, explaining that “I can’t push anyone.”
Still, he continued, “we have a new prosecutor general in the Ukraine, a highly professional man with a western education. He’s free to investigate anything he considers and deems appropriate,” adding that “we have many more issues to care about and tackle” including corruption. But, he added, his country’s investigators “know what to do and where to go and what to tackle.”
The White House memo introduced a new twist to the Trump-Zelensky story, that Trump informed the Ukrainian president that he planned to enlist U.S. Attorney General William Barr, along with his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani, to assist in gathering potential dirt on Biden.
In the middle of the controversy is hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign aid that Trump reportedly asked his acting chief of staff to put on hold just days before his phone call with Zelensky. While Trump has denied that a quid pro quo took place between the two leaders, Democrats accused Trump of betraying his oath of office in asking a foreign government to investigate a political opponent. Biden is a front-runner among the Democrats running against Trump in next year’s election.
In the White House memo released Wednesday morning, Trump does not explicitly link the release of that aid with an investigation into Biden, though he does launch into an ask for a “favor” from his Ukrainian counterpart in response to Zelensky saying he’d like to purchase a new batch of missiles from the U.S.
Trump has offered differing explanations for his decision to delay the Ukraine aid earlier this summer, his most recent rationale being that he wanted to force other European nations to make greater financial contributions — nevermind that the European Union already sends billions in aid money to Ukraine.
But Zelensky appeared to gently push back on Trump’s assertion that Ukraine only needs money thrown its way.
“I’m sorry but we don’t need help — we need support, real support,” he said, arguing that “only together” with America and the EU can Ukraine stop Russian aggression.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine