Politics

Zelensky’s “Perfect Phone Call” With Trump in 2019 Explains a Lot Right Now

Zelensky smiles and gestures beside Trump smiling at him, both men seated with Ukrainian and U.S. flags behind them.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and U.S. President Donald Trump meet in New York on Sept. 25, 2019, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. Saul Loeb/Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a comedian turned statesman, has helped rally the world around his nation’s cause in the face of Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

Prior to the war, though, many doubted that he would be able to mount any defense of his country in the face of Russian aggression, let alone a full-out attack. One common refrain about the Ukrainian leader was that he was “in over his head,” as editor-in-chief Olga Rudenko of the Kyiv Independent put it in an op-ed in the New York Times. But within hours of Russia’s invasion, Rudenko was among the many who had reassessed the 44-year-old vaudevillian actor turned world leader, stating on Twitter: “President Volodymyr Zelensky has made many really bad mistakes, and I’m sure will make many more, but today he’s showing himself worthy of the nation he’s leading.”

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The original criticism of Zelensky—largely surrounding failures to crack down on corruption domestically—was surely fair. But there should have been at least one indication that he would be able to step up to the moment: Zelensky’s adept navigation, in 2019, of the impossible situation of being blackmailed by the president of the United States, as the president of Russia pointed its guns directly at his nation’s heart.

It’s worth revisiting Zelensky’s central role in Donald Trump’s first impeachment to understand how—against the odds—Ukraine came out of the episode with continued bipartisan support to receive U.S. military aid.

Zelensky became president in May 2019, and almost immediately, Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani began a pressure campaign to try to force him to announce an investigation of a Ukrainian gas company associated with Joe Biden’s son Hunter, as part of an apparent effort to weaken Biden ahead of the Democratic presidential primaries. Giuliani also pushed Zelensky to announce an investigation into convoluted conspiracy theories that it was actually Ukraine that had meddled in the 2016 election, as a way to distract from Russia’s actual campaign to boost Trump.

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In a July 22, 2019, call, Giuliani told top aides to Zelensky: “All we need from the president is to say, ‘I’m gonna put an honest prosecutor in charge, he’s gonna investigate and dig up the evidence that presently exists and is there any other evidence about involvement of the 2016 election,’ and then the Biden thing has to be run out.”

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Giuliani went on to say that doing this “would clear the air really well” and “make it possible, I think, for me to talk to the president to see what I can do about making sure that whatever misunderstandings are put aside.” This would be “a good thing for having a much better relationship,” Giuliani said.

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All of this was happening as Zelensky was desperate for some demonstration of support from the U.S. president, as 13,000 of Zelensky’s people had been killed in the five-year conflict between Russian-backed separatists and government forces in Ukraine.

Three days after Giuliani’s call, Zelensky was granted what turned out to be his infamous July 25 phone call with Trump. During that call, the president increased the pressure for Ukraine to “do us a favor” and do “whatever you can do” to “look into” “Biden’s son” and Biden “bragging that he stopped the prosecution” of Burisma, the company associated with Hunter Biden. Trump brought this up in direct response to requests from Zelensky for a meeting and “to buy more Javelins from the United States for defense purposes.”

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While Zelensky spent most of the call sucking up to Trump and vaguely affirming the president’s statements, he notably showed true backbone in refusing to commit to any tangible action against Biden for Trump. The president left the call unsatisfied, which resulted in Trump withholding $400 million in military aid from Zelensky for months afterward.

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Aside from the corrupt nature of Trump’s demand, there were strategic reasons that Zelensky could not acquiesce during that call. Zelensky could not risk being seen taking sides in a U.S. political food fight, for fear of alienating one party or another when his country needed united support from Americans. “You need Trump to like you, and you need this visit, but you also need to retain bipartisan support for Ukraine. You can’t get involved in a conflict between Democrats and Republicans,” Volodymyr Fesenko, a veteran political analyst in Kyiv, told the New Yorker at the time.

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If Zelensky had launched a corrupt political probe of Biden’s son at Trump’s request, he would have lost support among Democrats.

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Keep in mind, during that call, Zelensky did do everything he could to get on Trump’s good side, short of promising to actually give into Trump’s corrupt demand. Zelensky spent most of the phone call stroking Trump’s ego, saying that he was emulating Trump in his own approach to politics and even repeating his catchphrase “drain the swamp.” “You are a great teacher for us and in that,” Zelensky fawned. Once the rough transcript of the call was released following a whistleblower complaint, Zelensky was ridiculed for that obsequiousness and received further blowback for echoing Trump’s criticisms of Europe, directly disparaging major allies at Trump’s behest. The call, though, was perfect, in that Zelensky did everything he could to try to curry favor with the U.S. president—without giving into corrupt demands that could doom his country down the road.

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Revelations surrounding a whistleblower complaint in September 2019 were the clear impetus for the scandal, as it played out in the U.S., as well as the ultimate release of the $400 million in aid. But it seems clear that Zelensky also played a key role in bringing the matter to light. The week before Democrats launched an investigation into the withheld aid, Zelensky told Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy that Giuliani had pressed him to investigate Biden and that the security aid was still being withheld. He essentially tattled on Trump’s personal attorney as a last resort.

At the same time, Zelensky’s fingerprints were largely kept off of the exposure of the embarrassing—potentially criminal—Trump blackmail scheme, which was largely credited to the whistleblower. Indirectly, Zelensky brought about Trump’s impeachment and earned the release of the aid to his nation without appearing to do so in a way that would infuriate Trump.

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And after the early details of the quid pro quo campaign were exposed, Zelensky went out of his way to continue to appease Trump and protect his own country. When Trump and Zelensky finally had their face-to-face meeting the day the rough transcript of their call was released, the Ukrainian president was asked if Trump had pressured him to investigate the Bidens.

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Zelensky played dumb and fudged the truth, but also gave Trump what he wanted this time. “You heard that we had, I think, good phone call. It was normal. We spoke about many things and I—so I think, and you read it, that nobody push it, pushed me.” Trump translated that as “no pressure” and said straight to Zelensky’s face, “I appreciate the answer.”

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Again, this broken-English half-denial was misleading, as testimony and phone recordings later demonstrated. But it didn’t matter. Zelensky had done what he needed to do to alienate neither Republicans nor Democrats. He stuck to this line throughout the impeachment saga, saying at various times “there was no pressure or blackmail from the U.S.” and “it’s not about quid pro quo.” While these statements were incredibly misleading, they also did not directly address specifics of the situation about whether Trump had blackmailed him. At the same time, they gave Trump exactly what he wanted as part of his impeachment defense.

Ultimately, Zelensky accomplished his overarching goal: He appeared to refrain from interfering in American domestic politics. Only later—once Biden was in office and Trump was out—did top Ukrainian officials publicly acknowledge the full scope of the blackmail campaign and even, apparently, release recorded evidence of it.

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What was the result of Zelensky’s adept handling of the episode that could have ended in greater disaster for him and his country? Bipartisan support in Washington for military aid to Ukraine that hadn’t been there before. In 2020, the year after Trump’s first impeachment, Congress approved $250 million in security aid to Ukraine and the sale of 150 Javelin anti-tank missiles, along bipartisan lines. Trump did not, apparently, try to block the move. Last year, President Joe Biden changed the posture of the Obama administration, which had been to not arm the Ukrainians, and approved the release of $125 million in military aid and a new round of Javelin sales. This was again achieved on a bipartisan basis.

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Finally, in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress increased security aid to Ukraine from $250 million to $300 million, again on a bipartisan basis. Congress is currently considering sending more to Ukraine as it tries to fend off Putin’s invasion, while political support for arming Ukraine and sanctioning Russia has gone through the roof in the last week.

Meanwhile, Zelensky’s performance on the international stage has inspired players across Europe—even some famously neutral ones—to pledge military assistance to the fighting Ukrainians.

Maybe if Trump were still president, he would have held a grudge against Zelensky for not corruptly helping his campaign against Biden. Maybe the world would not have rallied around Ukraine, and maybe Putin would already be in Kyiv. Even with Biden in office, the Russians still seem likely to overtake the Ukrainian armed forces in the long run if Putin continues to escalate his already brutal military campaign.

Still, against all expectations, Zelensky has helped give his country a fighting chance at survival. It shouldn’t be surprising—he’s done it before.

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