Don’t expect this to be taken as an exoneration or vindication of Donald Trump by his critics, because it’s actually neither. However, it might provide some context that could temper the hysteria swirling around Ukraine-Gate, the allegation that Trump abused his authority to pressure Volodymyr Zelensky into investigating Hunter Biden. Newsweek picks up on an interview conducted by Russian reporters with the Ukrainian president, who scoffed that he could have felt pressure by Trump in the first place (via Twitchy):
Если про просить – это точно не про Украину, Украина новая страна, сильная, ни у кого ничего не просит, сами можем кому-то помочь. pic.twitter.com/inCQ3yb9Ej
— Роман Рябчук (@ryabtchuk_roman) September 25, 2019
Ahead of their meeting at the United Nations General Assembly set for Wednesday, the Ukrainian president lightheartedly dismissed the controversy swirling over his phone call with Donald Trump. …
“Nobody can put pressure on me because I am the president of an independent state. The only one person, by the way, who can put pressure on me…is my son, who is 6 years old,” he said, according to UNIAN.
Another correspondent asked the Ukrainian president if he would ask Trump for anything during their first-ever meeting on Wednesday.
“We can talk about support. Asking is definitely not about Ukraine. Ukraine is a new, strong country, asking nothing from anyone. We, ourselves, can help someone,” Zelensky added.
Well, what did people expect Zelensky to say — especially to Russian reporters? Yeah, I was totally intimidated by the American president. No world leader is going to claim to have been unduly pressured by another leader unless there’s a clear national or personal benefit to it, and especially not when any sign of weakness invites the Bear Next Door to sniff out more weakness. That’s not how you get out of office alive in Ukraine.
So even in the literal sense this is meaningless, except that the transcript of their call also suggests that Zelensky didn’t feel threatened or intimidated, either. Both men spent considerable time praising each other, which is SOP for these kind of congratulatory calls, and also reminding each other what they can do for each other too. Trump’s pursuit of personal hobby horses like Crowdstrike and the Bidens are discordant notes and worthy of criticism, but there’s no hint of a threat or quid pro quo, and Zelensky brought up the Biden issue first in his mention of Rudy Giuliani. It would be strange indeed to have done that and later claim to have felt threatened by Trump’s subsequent acceptance of Zelensky’s offer of assistance.
However, it doesn’t actually matter in legal/political terms if Zelensky felt threatened by Trump. What matters is whether Trump abused his office and used US foreign aid as leverage to go after his political appointments, not whether it worked. Politically, this statement from Zelensky might dial down the heat a bit (although even that seems pretty optimistic), but it doesn’t answer the allegation itself.
Thus far, the transcript certainly gives room for criticism of Trump and his focus on self-interest rather than national interest in this conversation, as Philip Klein rightly pointed out this morning, and that’s a fair point to criticize. It’s also a fair point to bring up in the next election, although Trump’s relentless self-focus didn’t do Trump too much harm the first time around. However, the transcript doesn’t support the allegation of, and therefore not an impeachment for, abuse of power. Zelensky’s input is interesting to consider, but it’s not a game-changer. It’s not much more than color commentary for the game.
Update: Zelensky emphasized that the conversation was “normal” in a joint press avail this afternoon at the UN:
Q for Zelenskiy: Have you felt any pressure from President Trump to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden?
— Dan Linden (@DanLinden) September 25, 2019