KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Thursday there was “no blackmail” in the phone call with President Donald Trump that helped spark an impeachment inquiry.
Zelensky is trying to save his reputation and distance himself from the U.S. political drama. In an all-day “media marathon” held in a food court, he played down suggestions that Trump pressured him to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden in exchange for military aid to help Ukraine battle Russian-backed separatists.
Responding to questions from The Associated Press, Zelensky said he learned only after their July 25 phone call that Trump had blocked hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine.
“We didn’t speak about this” during the July call, Zelensky said. “There was no blackmail.”
Trump asked Zelensky during the call to “look into” Biden and his son, according to a rough White House transcript. Congressional Democrats believe Trump was holding up the military aid to use as leverage to pressure Ukraine and advance his domestic political interests before next year’s U.S. presidential election.
The July call is central to the impeachment inquiry, and embarrassed Zelensky because it showed him as eager to please Trump and critical of European partners whose support he needs to strengthen Ukraine’s economy and to end the war with Russia.
He said he “didn’t even check” whether the Ukrainian transcript of the July call is the same as that of the White House, but said, “I think they match.”
Trump said the military aid was frozen because of concerns about corruption in Ukraine, but the move prompted congressional outcry and the money was released in September.
But Zelensky said the call “wasn’t linked to weapons or the story with (Ukrainian gas company) Burisma,” where Biden’s son Hunter served on the board.
Asked what Ukraine did to persuade the United States to release the aid, Zelensky said: “We have many diplomatic contacts. And in case we need to find a solution to questions of this level, questions about our country’s security, we use all our powerful possibilities.” He did not elaborate.
“I don’t want to interfere in any way in the elections” in the United States, he said.
Zelensky appears to be playing to both U.S. political camps to ensure Ukraine has continued support no matter who wins the presidential election next year.
Zelensky said he thought the call would lead to a White House meeting with Trump, and wanted Trump to come to Ukraine. Zelensky said the “key question” for him was to try to persuade the White House to “change its rhetoric” about Ukraine as a corrupt and untrustworthy country.
He said he wanted to meet with Trump in person but that there were “no conditions” set for such a meeting.
He said he had “several calls” with Trump, but bristled at repeated questions about their relationship. “We are an independent country; we have relations with many countries,” not just the United States, he said.
A TV and film comedian, Zelensky overwhelmingly won the presidency in April on promises to fight corruption and end the five-year conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. He’s treading carefully to ensure continued support from the United States while trying to make peace with powerful neighbor Russia.
Most of the questions at Thursday’s unusual media event related to the Russian conflict or Ukraine’s economic troubles.
In the July call, Trump sought help on two fronts. The first involves Trump’s claims that Ukraine allied with the Democrats in a plot to derail his 2016 presidential campaign. No evidence of such a plot has emerged.
At the same time, Trump also sought Ukraine’s help to investigate alleged wrongdoing by the Bidens; no evidence of that has emerged either.
Trump said the United States has an “absolute right” to ask foreign leaders to investigate corruption, and openly asked China to investigate the Bidens, too.
Zelensky joked about Trump’s Twitter missives, saying he doesn’t expect a change in U.S.-Ukrainian relations, “but if there is, we’ll learn about it on Twitter.”