It happened on the sidelines of the UN, hours after the White House released a transcript of their July 25 call that’s at the center of a whistleblower complaint.
President Donald Trump met on Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the foreign leader at the center of the president’s growing political crisis.
And it was about as wild as you’d expect — mostly stream-of-consciousness Trump denials and attacks, with a few awkward jokes and Miss Universe references thrown in.
Trump and Zelensky met on the sidelines of the United Nations hours after the White House released a partial readout of the two leaders’ July 25 call, where Trump appears to urge Zelensky to open an investigation into Joe Biden’s son.
This meeting had been scheduled before reports surfaced that Trump’s conversations with the Ukrainian president was at the center of a whistleblower complaint tied to at least that July 25 call.
But that didn’t make this meeting between Trump and Zelensky any less remarkable. Below are the highlights from this bizarre mini press conference.
“Corruption” is the new “no collusion”
Trump introduced Zelensky by immediately stating that the Ukrainian president is “very, very strongly looking into all sorts of corruption and some of the problems they’ve had over the years.”
This looks to be pretty deliberate, as Trump has argued that he wasn’t trying to improperly pressure the Ukrainian leader but instead was just really concerned with corruption in the country.
“I think one of the primary reasons he got elected,” Trump said of Zelensky, “his reputation [is] absolutely sterling and it’s an honor to be with you and we spoke a couple of times, as you probably remember,” Trump continued, before saying both countries were doing “fantastically” well.
Zelensky, who is a comedian, tried to joke his way through the introduction by making a reference to a phone conversation and also slightly dissing former President Barack Obama.
“Thank you very much, Mr. President. Thank you very much. A great pleasure for me to be here, and it’s better to be on TV than by phone,” Zelensky said to a smattering of laughter.
“Yes,” Trump replied.
“And Mr. President, thank you very much and I’m not the first time to be in New York but I know you’ve never been in Ukraine,” Zelensky asked. “That’s right, and your predecessor — how I say in English? Didn’t find the time. So can you give me your word you will come to our great country?”
Trump responded that he was going to try, and then started rambling about the Miss Universe pageant, because, sure. “I know a lot of people from Ukraine,” the president said.
They’re great people and I own something called the Miss Universe Pageant years ago, and sold it to IMG, and when I ran for president I thought maybe it wouldn’t be the greatest thing, going to Miss Universe and Miss USA pageants, but it’s a great thing and we had a winner from Ukraine and really got to know the country very well in a lot of different ways, but it’s a country I think with tremendous potential.
It’s not really clear if someone from Ukraine ever won the Miss Universe pageant — it certainly doesn’t seem so — and how that helped Trump learn about Ukraine, well, not even going to go there.
Trump again blames Obama for Russia’s seizure of Crimea
Zelensky, too, said tackling corruption in his country was a major priority.
“Thank you for your support,” he said to Trump. “Especially now when, you know, when we have really two wars in Ukraine. The first one is with corruption. You know, but we’ll fight — no. We’ll be a winner in this fight, I’m sure.”
Zelensky said his second priority was to “stop the war and to get back our territories” — including Crimea. Trump then interjected: “If you remember, you lost Crimea during a different administration. Not during the Trump administration.”
“Yes, so you have chance to help us,” Zelensky replied.
That’s right. But that was during the Obama administration that you lost Crimea and I didn’t think it was something you should have, but that was done a long time ago, and I think it was handled poorly, but it’s just one of those things.
One of the elements that we discussed is the United States helps Ukraine but I think that other country should help Ukraine much more than they’re doing. Germany, France, the European Union nations really should help you a lot more and I think maybe together we’ll work on that. They have to feel a little bit guilty about it, because they don’t do what they should be doing. You’re very important to the European Union.
You’re a very, strategically very important and I think they should spend a lot more in helping Ukraine and they know that, also, and they actually tell me that, but they don’t seem to produce. So I’m sure you’ll talk to them and I’ll certainly be talking to them.
It’s worth pausing here to point out that Trump’s criticism — that the European Union isn’t doing enough to help Ukraine — also came up during his July 25 phone call with Zelensky, according to the readout released by the White House. Zelensky was pretty solicitous to Trump’s point on that July 25 call. (“They are not working as much as they should for Ukraine,” Zelensky told Trump).
But sitting side by side on live TV — not in a private phone conversation — Zelensky had a more diplomatic response, saying he thanked everybody: “I thank all of the European countries that help us. We also want to have more, more, but I understand so only together, America and EU, only together we can stop the war, and, you know, we are ready. We just want to tell that we remember that we are the biggest country in Europe but we want to be the richest one. It’s in my heart.”
Zelensky says he didn’t feel pressured by Trump to investigate Biden
A reporter kicked things off with a pretty direct question to the Ukrainian president: Did he feel any pressure to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden?
Zelensky answered by pointing directly to the summary released by the White House on Wednesday. “I think you read text. I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be involved to democratic open — elections,” he said, pausing to clarify with a translator. “Elections of USA. No.”
“Sure, we had — I think good phone call. It was normal. We spoke about many things, and I — so I think and you read it that nobody pushed me,” Zelensky concluded.
Trump quickly jumped in: “In other words, no pressure.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky: “Nobody pushed me.”
President Trump: “There was no pressure.”
— CSPAN (@cspan) September 25, 2019
You know what? There was no pressure and you know — by the way, you know there was no pressure. All you have to do is see it, what went on on the call but you know that but you can ask the question and I appreciate the answer. Go ahead.
Trump denies that he wants Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden — and then launches into a rambling conspiracy theory
A reporter then asked Trump directly if he wants Zelensky to investigate Joe Biden. Trump responded, “No. I want him to do whatever he can.”
“This was not his fault,” Trump added. “He wasn’t there. He’s just been here recently, but whatever he can do in terms of corruption, because the corruption’s massive.”
Trump then accused Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, of walking away “with millions” from Ukraine (and also China). Biden joined the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company in 2014 that had already been under scrutiny. Here’s Vox’s Sean Collins explaining:
In the midst of these troubles, Hunter Biden accepted a Burisma board seat, and was paid for his trouble, sometimes as much as $50,000 per month. It is unclear what he did for the company. Burisma said at the time that Biden — a lawyer — would be “in charge of” a legal unit. Biden told the New York Times in May 2019 that this was incorrect: “At no time was I in charge of the company’s legal affairs.”
Trump said all of this was a “horrible thing” even though it’s not really clear what he’s talking about, and the larger allegation — that Biden was trying to get a Ukrainian prosecutor fired to stop investigating his son — is not substantiated by any facts.
“I know the president and I’ve read a lot about Ukraine, I’ve read a lot about a lot of countries,” Trump said. “He [Zelensky] wants to stop corruption. He was elected, I think, number one, on the basis of stopping corruption. Which unfortunately has plagued Ukraine. And if you could do that, he’s doing really, the whole world a big favor. And I think he’s going to be successful.”
Trump defends Rudy Giuliani
Trump was next asked about the role of Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor and Trump’s personal attorney, in this political scandal. It’s been in the news for months that Giuliani had traveled to Ukraine to push investigations that might benefit the president politically — and, according to reporting Wednesday from the Washington Post, may have sidelined actual national security officials to do so.
It’s extraordinarily sketchy and there are still a lot of unanswered questions about what Giuliani was up to. That’s why a reporter asked Trump Wednesday whether it was appropriate or not for a personal attorney to get involved in government business.
To this Trump replied, “Ask Rudy.”
But, of course, he kept talking: “I will tell you this: that Rudy’s looking to also find out where the phony witch hunt started, how it started.”
Trump is referring to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation and the origins of the Russia probe. There’s a complicated right-wing conspiracy theory that basically says Ukraine and the Democratic National Committee framed Russia for the hack on Democratic servers during the 2016. This seems to be Giuliani’s mission, according to Trump:
A Russian witch hunt turned out to be two and a half years of phony nonsense. Rudy Giuliani is a great lawyer, he was a great mayor, he’s highly respected.
I’ve watched the passion he’d had on television over the last few days. Incredible what he’s done. What he has done, he wants to find out where did this Russian witch-hunt you people helped perpetrate, where did it start? How come it started? All nonsense. It was a hoax. A total hoax. It was a media hoax and a Democrat hoax. Where did it start?
And Rudy’s got every right to go and find out where that started and other people are looking at that, too. Where did it start? The enablers? Where did it all come from? Can out of thin air and he has every right to do it. He’s a good lawyer, knows exactly what he’s doing and it’s very important.
Trump was then thrown some red meat by a reporter, who asked whether he believed Ukraine had Hillary Clinton’s emails. And my god, if you want to get the president talking, bring up Clinton’s emails, three years later.
Trump replied: “Could be. You mean the 30,000 she deleted?”
Putting aside that this is not at all how emails work, Trump then went on a truly bizarre rant against Clinton in which he accused her of deleting emails in defiance of a Congressional subpoena (which is kind of rich) and threw in his typical complaints about her and other Democrats’ “corruption.”
Trump says he’ll continue to support Ukraine
A reporter asked about military aid and Trump replied that “we’re working with Ukraine and we want other countries to work with Ukraine.”
“I say work I’m referring to money. Put up more money. We’ve put up a lot of money. I gave you anti-tank busters that frankly President Obama was sending you pillows and sheets. I gave you anti-tank budgeters — budgeters a lot of people didn’t want to do it but I did it,” Trump said.
Then, after talking about showering Ukraine with military aid, Trump offered hope that Ukraine and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin — which seized Crimea and is supporting an insurgency in eastern Ukraine — could work things out. It’s a pretty remarkable statement.
“I believe President Putin would like to do something,” Trump said. “I really hope you and President Putin get together and can solve your problem. A tremendous achievement and I know you’re trying to do that.”
Zelensky pushed back on the notion that Ukraine can be influenced
Reporters then directed questions to Zelensky, where they asked about Trump’s request. “I mean that we have independent country and independent general security. I can’t push anyone. You know? That’s it. That is a question — that is the answer,” Zelensky said.
Another reporter followed up, asking if Zelensky felt obligated to fulfill Trump’s requests to investigate Biden’s son.
Now speaking through a translator (Zelensky had answered questions in his English earlier), the Ukrainian president replied:
I want to underscore Ukraine is an independent country we have a new prosecutor in Ukraine, highly professional man with a western education and he’s free to investigate any case he considers. Well, we have many more issues to carry about and to tackle. We have ill-advised, we have corruption cases as President Trump likely mentioned about that. So we know what to do and we know where to go and what to tackle.
The press conference concluded with Trump accusing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of being “taken over” by the radical left and bragging up about his poll numbers — though he said he doesn’t want them to go up for “this reason,” presumably meaning impeachment.
It was, in many ways, a typical Trump press appearance, offering little real clarity on the president’s interactions with Zelensky, with a slew of untruths mixed in.
Zelensky, throughout it all, kept insisting that Ukraine could not be influenced. Trump, meanwhile, stuck to his normal line: nothing to see here; everyone else is doing something wrong except me.
Author: Jen Kirby