It’s strange that Zelensky would back out of the CNN interview immediately after Ukraine’s aid was finally delivered, no? He and Trump have insisted there was no quid pro quo or pressure applied. The aid didn’t depend on reopening the Burisma probe. Burisma was its own thing.
So why not go ahead with the interview? What changed in Zelensky’s calculation, if the aid’s arrival wasn’t it?
As background, remember that Gordon Sondland now admits that he told the Ukrainians on September 1 that military aid would depend on reopening the investigations Trump was interested in. Because of that, there’s zero question that Zelensky’s team thought a quid pro quo was in the works, whatever well-meaning nonsense Zelensky might now have to say about not feeling pressured. Sondland has done his best not to directly accuse *Trump* of orchestrating the quid pro quo, saying in his new testimony that he assumed Ukraine’s military aid had been delayed to pressure them on Burisma and the 2016 investigation but that he didn’t know who, specifically, had ordered the delay. (Spoiler: It was Trump.) You can judge for yourself how likely it is that the president’s point man on the Ukraine process, who was in direct contact with him throughout, was never explicitly told that Ukraine wouldn’t get its money until it played ball.
Anyway, the timeline provided to the Times via “interviews in Kiev with government officials, lawmakers and others close to the Zelensky government” is what you’d expect. The Ukrainians didn’t want to make any promises on Burisma because they didn’t want to get in the middle of a food fight between Democrats and Republicans. They need good relations with both parties to guarantee steady American support against Russia. (That’s also why Zelensky continues to say he never felt pressured by Trump. If he makes trouble for a Russia-friendly Republican president, Ukraine might lose its western patron.) But Sondland was insistent — the administration wanted a formal statement from Zelensky about reopening the investigations. The Ukrainians finally gave in since they needed the aid desperately, with Zelensky making plans to speak to Fareed Zakaria’s CNN show on September 13.
But then, as luck would have it, Ukrainegate exploded in Washington. Senators from both parties started calling Trump, demanding to know why the aid hadn’t been turned over. Reports of a whistleblower complaint involving the Ukraine aid were flying around the West Wing. The media was sniffing around, with the Washington Post having already published an editorial alleging a quid pro quo. Suddenly under heavy pressure, Trump coughed up the aid on September 11. Zelensky had gotten the quid before he had been forced to give up the quo. The interview didn’t happen, with the Ukrainians relieved that they’d narrowly avoided involvement in a partisan American food fight after all. For the moment.
[A] public statement that raised doubts about Russian meddling and Mr. Biden, whom the president regarded as the greatest threat to his re-election, would be far more useful politically to Mr. Trump [than private assurances from Zelensky about reopening the probes]. Not only would it smear Mr. Biden, it could also appear to undermine the Mueller investigation into Russian electoral interference by pinning some blame on Ukraine…
Nearly all Mr. Zelensky’s top advisers favored his making the public statement, said one of the officials who participated in the debate. United States military aid, they agreed, as well as diplomatic backing for impending peace talks to end the war outweighed the risks of appearing to take sides in American politics.
Finally bending to the White House request, Mr. Zelensky’s staff planned for him to make an announcement in an interview on Sept. 13 with Fareed Zakaria, the host of a weekly news show on CNN…
[But soon] Word of the freeze in military aid had leaked out, and Congress was in an uproar. Two days before the scheduled interview, the Trump administration released the assistance and Mr. Zelensky’s office quickly canceled the interview.
A lingering mystery: Why didn’t Trump insist that Zelensky go ahead with the interview? Clearly he wanted to get the quo from the Ukrainians before he delivered the quid but it was still possible to do it the other way around. Instead of Ukraine announcing that the Biden probe would resume before receiving its money, it could have received its money and then announced the resumption of the Biden probe. Canceling the Zakaria interview was risky for them in that it might have angered Trump and created exactly the loss of American support that Ukraine had feared all along.
An obvious possible answer is that the political heat on Trump over Ukraine had been turned up so high at that point in Washington that it was actually better for him to have Zelensky cancel the interview. If it had happened as scheduled, it’d be easy for Adam Schiff to draw a straight line. “The aid goes out on September 11 and within 48 hours Zelensky is on CNN accusing Joe Biden! The president paid for services and Ukraine immediately rendered those services. Quid pro quo.” Instead, with the interview canceled, Republicans can argue that there was no quid pro quo because Zelensky got his money without ever having to do anything. Kellyanne Conway has already made that argument in interviews, in fact. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone from the White House called Zelensky’s team between the 11th and the 13th and asked them to cancel the interview in order to strengthen the president’s defense.
The least Zelensky can do now to make it up to Trump is to insist that no pressure was brought to bear on him or Ukraine regarding the Burisma probe. Republicans like Lindsey Graham have cited that fact in their defenses of Trump lately, so it’s of some use to the president. If the Ukrainians couldn’t earn Trump’s favor by delivering some Biden dirt for him, they can earn it by helping to get him off the hook on impeachment.
Oh, speaking of helping, this guy is not helping:
The investigation I conducted concerning 2016 Ukrainian collusion and corruption, was done solely as a defense attorney to defend my client against false charges, that kept changing as one after another were disproven.
— Rudy W. Giuliani (@RudyGiuliani) November 6, 2019
As others (including Senate Democrats) have noted, it’s not great for Trump to have Rudy framing the Ukraine matter as something he was doing for his “client.” The Republican defense of Trump (for the moment) is that the quid pro quo was fine because the president had a legitimate public purpose in arranging it, namely, exposing official corruption by Joe Biden on behalf of his son’s company. The more Rudy presents it as a matter of Trump’s personal interest, the easier it is for Democrats to counter that Trump didn’t care about corruption but rather about damaging a potential electoral opponent, an obviously improper purpose. The weird thing is, Giuliani’s been doing this for months. Back in May he told the NYT of the Ukrainians and the Burisma probe, “I’m going to give them reasons why they shouldn’t stop it because that information will be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government.” It’s the government/public interest that should be emphasized for a strong defense, not the personal interest of his client. That was six months ago. Six months later Rudy’s still creating headaches for Trump.