Questions about the nature of President Donald Trump’s relationship with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky have prompted the House of Representatives to launch an impeachment inquiry. But in his first in-person appearance with the leader he allegedly pressured to investigate his political rivals, Trump appeared more interested in matching Zelensky up with another unlikely ally: Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“I really hope that Russia—because I really believe that President Putin would like to do something—I really hope that you and President Putin can get together and solve your problem,” Trump said at the United Nations on Wednesday, as Zelensky sat stone-faced. “That would be a tremendous achievement, and I know that you’re trying to do that.”
“You’ve really made some progress with Russia,” Trump added, telling Zelensky that “it’d be nice to end that whole disaster.”
The prospect of such a friendship is, in a word, unlikely. Ukraine and the Russian Federation have been engaged in a slow-motion war since Putin’s invasion and subsequent occupation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea in 2014, which has resulted in the displacement of 1.5 million Ukrainians and thousands of deaths. Speaking at the United Nations, Trump said that while he thought that Ukraine should possess Crimea, he blamed the loss of the region on President Barack Obama.
“It’s just one of those things,” Trump said of the annexation.
In freewheeling remarks that occasionally dipped into ranting conspiracism, Trump defended himself allegations of impropriety in a July phone call with Zelensky, in which he asked the newly elected Ukrainian president to investigate Joe Biden, the former vice president and Trump’s potential re-election opponent. In the phone call, a putative transcript of which was released on Wednesday morning, Trump offered Zelensky the assistance of personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Attorney General William Barr in his quest for dirt on Biden and his son.
“A lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great,” Trump said at the time. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it... It sounds horrible to me.”
That phone call—as well as the existence of a whistleblower complaint filed with the intelligence community’s inspector general allegedly regarding Trump’s attempts to obtain information on a political rival—has prompted a flood of congressional Democrats to come out in support of launching an impeachment inquiry against the president. Those efforts culminated on Tuesday evening with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announcing that she would back such an inquiry.
Zelensky, looking uncomfortable, issued a weak denial in response to a question about whether he felt pressured to support an investigation into Biden in exchange for hundreds of millions of dollars in congressionally appropriated military aid to the country, which Trump had withheld ahead of their phone call.
“I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be involved in democratic open elections, elections of USA,” Zelensky said. Of the phone call, Zelensky called it “normal.”
“I think, and you read it, that nobody pushed me,” Zelensky added.
“In other words, no pressure,” Trump interjected. “I appreciate the answer.”