President Donald Trump is once again claiming that Ukraine's president has exonerated him of improperly using foreign policy for personal ends, conduct that is at the heart of the impeachment that the House Judiciary Committee will begin to consider on Wednesday. "The President of Ukraine has just again announced that President Trump has done nothing wrong with respect to Ukraine and our interactions or calls," Trump tweeted this morning. "If the Radical Left Democrats were sane, which they are not, it would be case over!"
Trump seems to have in mind a recent interview in which Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said "it just goes without saying" that his country's relationship with the United States is "not about a quid pro quo." Contrary to Trump's spin, Zelenskiy's comments do not show that Trump "has done nothing wrong." In fact, the interview, which was conducted by reporters from Time and three European publications, shows that Zelenskiy is desperate for U.S. support and keen to prevent the impeachment inquiry from threatening it.
Zelenskiy, like anyone else who follows the news, understands that Trump's impeachment in the Democrat-controlled House will almost certainly be followed by his acquittal in the Republican-controlled Senate, meaning the Ukrainian government will have to deal with Trump until January 2021 at least and quite possibly for another four years after that. Given that prospect, anything Zelenskiy says about Trump's alleged abuse of power in pressuring Ukraine to conduct investigations that would be politically useful to him has to be taken with a grain of salt.
During the interview, Zelenskiy emphasized the importance of U.S. support in Ukraine's confrontation with Russia over Crimea. "As for the United States," he said, "I would really want—and we feel this, it's true—for them to help us, to understand us, to see that we are a player in our own right, that they cannot make deals about us with anyone behind our backs. Of course they help us, and I'm not just talking about technical help, military aid, financial aid. These are important things, very important things, especially right now, when we are in such a difficult position."
Zelenskiy also said only the U.S. government has the influence to alter plans for a pipeline from Russia to Germany that would bypass Ukraine, depriving its government of some $3 billion in annual income from the transport of natural gas. "We don't have influence over the Europeans' decision," he said. "We don't have it, and that's it. I don't have any leverage. I can only count on the strong support that I see on this question from the United States of America."
Zelenskiy is worried that Ukraine's reputation for corruption, reinforced by Trump's comments on the subject, will deter vital foreign investment. "The United States of America is a signal, for the world, for everyone," he said. "When America says, for instance, that Ukraine is a corrupt country, that is the hardest of signals….Everyone hears that signal. Investments, banks, stakeholders, companies, American, European companies that have international capital in Ukraine, it's a signal to them that says, 'Be careful, don't invest.' Or, 'Get out of there.'…For me, it's very important for the United States, with all they can do for us, for them really to understand that we are a different country, that we are different people. It's not that those things don't exist. They do. All branches of government were corrupted over many years, and we are working to clean that up. But that signal from them is very important."
Given his country's dependence on the United States, Zelenskiy cannot afford to alienate Trump or Democratic supporters of Ukraine by seeming to take sides on the impeachment question. But he did object to the temporary freeze that Trump imposed on $391 million in congressionally approved military aid to Ukraine. "If you're our strategic partner, then you can't go blocking anything for us," he said. "I think that's just about fairness. It's not about a quid pro quo."
There is strong circumstantial evidence, of course, that Trump did have in mind a quid pro quo: Ukraine would get the military aid once it publicly committed to investigating former Vice President Joe Biden's alleged interference with a probe of Burisma, a Ukrainian energy company that employed Biden's son Hunter as a board member, as well as the bizarre theory that Ukrainians hacked Democratic National Committee emails during the 2016 presidential campaign and framed Russia for that crime. Several current and former administration officials have testified that the connection between the aid and the investigations was clear.
Trump himself has said that what he was seeking from Zelenskiy during a much-scrutinized July 25 telephone conversation was "very simple": "a major investigation into the Bidens," aimed at digging up dirt on a leading contender to oppose Trump in next year's presidential election. Trump broached that subject immediately after Zelenskiy expressed his gratitude for U.S. military aid and mentioned Ukraine's planned purchase of anti-tank missiles from the United States. "I would like you to do us a favor, though," Trump said at that point, before describing the investigations he wanted. And although Zelenskiy himself did not know about the aid freeze at the time of the call, other Ukrainian officials were already asking about it.
Zelenskiy has nothing to gain, and a lot to lose, by describing Trump's request as improper. "There was no blackmail" during the phone call, he said in October. "They blocked the military aid before we had our conversation, but we did not discuss it. Later we discussed it with the defense minister, and he said, 'We have a problem. They've blocked this money.'"
By that point, Zelenskiy must have surmised that the otherwise inexplicable aid freeze had something to do with the "favor" Trump wanted. And in case any doubt remained, Gordon Sondland, the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, has said he made the connection explicit in a conversation with a senior Zelenskiy adviser on September 1. Sondland also testified that a White House meeting between Zelenskiy and Trump was contingent on the investigations.
Zelenskiy is in an unenviable position, trying to protect the U.S.-Ukrainian relationship while standing at the center of a bitter partisan dispute. In that context, his statements about quid pro quos should be viewed as aspirational rather than factual.