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Zelensky’s Remarks About Trump, In Context


President Donald Trump said the impeachment inquiry should be “case over” because Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told reporters “very strongly that President Trump did absolutely nothing wrong.” But that’s not what Zelensky said.

In an interview with Time magazine and three European news outlets published on Dec. 2, Zelensky was asked to “clarify this issue of the quid pro quo.” Zelensky responded by saying he “never talked to the president from the position of a quid pro quo,” and he mildly chastised Trump for temporarily holding up military aid to his country.

“We’re at war,” Zelensky said. “If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us. I think that’s just about fairness. It’s not about a quid pro quo. It just goes without saying.”

Speaking to reporters before leaving for a NATO Summit in London, Trump said Zelensky’s comments “should end everything” with the impeachment probe.

Trump, Dec. 2: If you noticed, there was breaking news today. The Ukrainian president came out and said very strongly that President Trump did absolutely nothing wrong. That should be case over. But he just came out a little while ago and he said President Trump did absolutely nothing wrong. And that should end everything.

Zelensky’s comments were not as definitive as Trump proclaimed.

We reached out to the White House to ask which of Zelensky’s statements Trump was referring to, but we got no response. Here, however, is Zelensky’s response to the question about U.S. security  aid to Ukraine and a quid pro quo:

Reporter: When did you first sense that there was a connection between Trump’s decision to block military aid to Ukraine this summer and the two investigations that Trump and his allies were asking for? Can you clarify this issue of the quid pro quo?

Zelensky: Look, I never talked to the president from the position of a quid pro quo. That’s not my thing. … I don’t want us to look like beggars. But you have to understand. We’re at war. If you’re our strategic partner, then you can’t go blocking anything for us. I think that’s just about fairness. It’s not about a quid pro quo. It just goes without saying.

Zelensky also chided Trump for calling Ukraine a corrupt country, a characterization that he said sends a “signal” to the international financial community, “Be careful, don’t invest.” Zelensky allowed that, “All branches of government were corrupted over many years, and we are working to clean that up.”

Those comments from Zelensky came in response to questions about how he views the role of the U.S. in the peace process between Ukraine and Russia.

Reporter: How do you see the U.S. role in the peace process? How has it changed in the last few months, and how do you see it going forward?

Zelensky: First off, I would never want Ukraine to be a piece on the map, on the chess board of big global players, so that someone could toss us around, use us as cover, as part of some bargain… As for the United States, 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.

The United States of America is a signal, for the world, for everyone. When America says, for instance, that Ukraine is a corrupt country, that is the hardest of signals. It might seem like an easy thing to say, that combination of words: Ukraine is a corrupt country. Just to say it and that’s it. But it doesn’t end there. 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.’ This is a hard signal. 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.

Reporter: Yet last week President Trump said on live television that Ukrainians are corrupt, and they steal money. Do you have a plan for changing his mind?

Zelensky: I don’t need to change his mind. During my meeting with him, I said that I don’t want our country to have this image. For that, all he has to do is come and have a look at what’s happening, how we live, what kinds of people we are. I had the sense that he heard me. I had that sense. At least during the meeting, he said, ‘Yes, I see, you’re young, you’re new, and so on.’

Back in early October, Zelensky told reporters, “There was no pressure or blackmail from the U.S. I had no idea the military aid was held up [at the time of his July 25 call with Trump]. When I did find out, I raised it with [Vice President] Pence at a meeting in Warsaw” on Sept. 1. (On the July call, Trump asked Zelensky to open up a corruption investigation of Joe and Hunter Biden, and to look into CrowdStrike, a cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic National Committee to determine who hacked into its servers during the 2016 election.)

But at no point in this more recent conversation did Zelensky say, “President Trump did absolutely nothing wrong.” That may be Trump’s interpretation of Zelensky’s words, but it is not what the Ukrainian president said.