President Trump meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday as he seeks to dispel fresh criticisms of a July phone call in which he told his Ukrainian counterpart to work with the U.S. attorney general to investigate the conduct of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
The meeting is a high-wire act for both leaders as Zelensky tries to avoid angering the U.S. president or his Democratic opponents while Trump tries to disarm allegations that have generated a formal impeachment inquiry by the Democratic-controlled House.
Hours before the meeting, the White House released the transcript of the call, which included Trump offering to meet Zelensky at the White House following Zelensky's promise to conduct an inquiry.
The White House and Democrats have taken opposing views of the call. Democratic Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Calif.) said the transcript “reads like a classic mob shakedown.” White House officials said that the document does not show the president seeking an investigation of Biden’s son in exchange for providing aid to Ukraine, and that accusations the president offered a quid pro quo to undermine a political rival are untrue.
“There was no pressure whatsoever,” Trump told reporters Wednesday.
Days before the phone call, Trump ordered a hold on about $400 million of military aid for Ukraine, which has been fending off Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east.
Trump had denied the suggestion that he linked the disbursement of U.S. military aid to Ukraine’s willingness to investigate Biden’s son, saying Tuesday that he withheld the aid over a concern that European countries were not contributing enough to help support Ukraine.
“My complaint has always been, and I’d withhold again, and I’ll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute to Ukraine because they’re not doing it,” Trump told reporters.
In the transcript, Trump repeatedly emphasizes that the United States has been very generous to Ukraine and other European countries have not.
Zelensky is just one of a dozen leaders Trump is meeting in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, but the tête-à-tête became a focal point of the global gathering after a whistleblower from the U.S. intelligence community raised allegations about Trump’s behavior.
Administration officials are discussing the possibility of providing the complaint to Congress in the coming days.
“For the Ukrainians, this is a nightmare,” said Sam Charap, a Russia expert at the Rand Corp. “They are in damage-control mode: trying to minimize the controversy and not openly embracing one or another U.S. partisan position. They want Trump’s support in his capacity as president of the United States but do not want to be seen as partisan.”
John Herbst, a Ukraine expert at the Atlantic Council, said the two leaders have an incentive to conduct a “calm and peaceful meeting,” but anything is possible.
“Both sides have an interest in stressing that they have a good formal relationship: Zelensky because he needs a relationship with the United States and President Trump because the events of the past several days have cast a cloud over him, and he needs to demonstrate that he and Zelensky get along.”
“Sometimes President Trump is impulsive, so we can’t be certain of what happens,” he added.
Whatever apprehensions the Ukrainians may have, Trump in recent days had expressed confidence to his aides that the transcript would eventually be released and would embarrass his critics and political opponents, according to people familiar with the matter.
Since the release of the tape, the White House has distributed talking points to lawmakers calling any suggestion of a quid pro quo a “myth.” But some officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, worried about the wisdom of release the transcript.
“It’s an incredible miscalculation,” one of the critics of releasing the transcript said.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a formal impeachment inquiry of the president, dramatically raising the stakes and setting up a constitutional clash between Congress and the executive branch.
“The actions of the Trump presidency have revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections,” Pelosi said.
Even before the transcript was released, Trump admitted that he asked Zelensky to probe Biden’s son, who has connections to a business that was under investigation, but he denied exerting any pressure on him.
Hunter Biden served for nearly five years on the board of Burisma, Ukraine’s largest private gas company, whose owner came under scrutiny by Ukrainian prosecutors for possible abuse of power and unlawful enrichment. Hunter Biden was not accused of any wrongdoing in the investigation. As vice president, Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire the top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who Biden and other Western officials said was not sufficiently pursuing corruption cases. At the time, the investigation into Burisma was dormant, according to former Ukrainian and U.S. officials.
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