Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s attempt to put questions about his phone call with U.S. President Donald Trump behind him will go down as one of the most ambitious efforts in the long history of managing political messages.
Mr. Zelensky’s team dubbed it a “press marathon,” and for more than 14 hours on Thursday, the rookie Ukrainian leader – who previously had a reputation for avoiding media scrutiny – sparred with a changing cast of journalists from Ukraine and around the world, meeting them 10 at a time around a wooden table on the second floor of a trendy food market near the centre of Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital. More than 300 journalists were scheduled to get time with Mr. Zelensky during the all-day event.
In a performance that recalled the hours-long annual news conferences given by Russian President Vladimir Putin – albeit in much more intimate surroundings (Mr. Zelensky had hamburgers and pizza delivered to those journalists lucky enough to be given a lunchtime slot) – the Ukrainian leader tried to find the disappearing middle ground between the Democrat and Republican narratives about his July 25 phone call with Mr. Trump, which has become the subject of impeachment hearings in Washington.
Mr. Zelensky said on Thursday that he had felt no pressure and “no blackmail” during his conversation with Mr. Trump – an answer that Mr. Trump immediately posted on his Twitter account, claiming it exonerated him. “This should immediately end the talk of impeachment!” Mr. Trump wrote.
But Mr. Zelensky also said that it would be up to the U.S. judicial and legislative systems to determine whether Mr. Trump had violated any U.S. laws during the call.
“If I, as President of Ukraine, comment on [the legality of] Mr. Trump’s conversation, then this is interference, first in your legislative system, and it will be interference with your future elections,” Mr. Zelensky said in a response to a question from an American reporter. A native Russian-speaker, he spoke predominantly in Ukrainian, though at times he attempted to answer questions from international reporters in his rapidly improving English.
U.S. Democrats have seized on a rough transcript of the call – which saw Mr. Trump reply to a request for more U.S. military assistance for Ukraine with a request for Mr. Zelensky to do him “a favour” and investigate a company that employed Hunter Biden, the son of former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden – as evidence that Mr. Trump had put pressure on a foreign leader to dig up dirt on a domestic political rival. Joe Biden is a leading contender for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential election.
Mr. Zelensky – tieless in a dark grey suit – said he would be willing to open a “joint investigation” into Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that in 2014 hired Hunter Biden onto its board of directors. He said he’d also support an investigation of alleged Ukrainian interference in favour of Hillary Clinton, Mr. Trump’s opponent in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. But he avoided saying when those investigations might happen, or how they’d be carried out.
He tried to back away from a comment attributed to him in the White House transcript of the call, in which Mr. Zelensky is quoted saying that Ukraine’s new prosecutor-general would be “100 per cent my guy” and would look into the Burisma case. Mr. Zelensky, who says he spoke in Ukrainian during the call, said the White House transcript inaccurately reflected his statement that the new prosecutor would be “a 100-per-cent honest man.”
Multiple investigations have been opened in Ukraine into Burisma – a company controlled by Mykola Zlochevsky, an oligarch close to former president Viktor Yanukovych – over the past five years, only to be closed without charges each time. None of the previous investigations apply to the period when Hunter Biden was serving on Burisma’s board.
Mr. Zelensky said he didn’t know at the time of the call that Mr. Trump had frozen more than US$391-million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine for several weeks this summer – a period during which the call took place – a move interpreted by Democrats as upping the pressure on Kyiv to investigate the Bidens. “I had no idea the military aid was held up. When I did find out, I raised it with [U.S. Vice-President Mike] Pence at a meeting in Warsaw,” Mr. Zelensky said on Thursday. “After the meeting, America unblocked it.”
Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Pence met in the Polish capital on Sept. 1. All but US$30-million of the U.S. aid was released in mid-September.
After the record-setting media day – during which Mr. Zelensky took only 10-minute breaks between sessions with journalists – the Ukrainian President can now claim to have answered all the questions the world’s media could throw at him (albeit in a format that ensured he’d be asked the same questions repeatedly, allowing him to give the same answers again and again). But the impeachment hearings mean that Ukraine will remain a central player in the U.S. drama through the 2020 presidential election and beyond.
At one point, the 41-year-old former comedian appeared to accuse reporters of trying to trick him into an answer that would make headlines in the U.S. “I understand you and what you want – I clearly understand, directly. And you have to know that I understand, so I will not change any answers,” he told a reporter from BuzzFeed News.
The Ukrainian reporters present were more focused on domestic issues, including Mr. Zelensky’s ties to oligarch Ihor Kolomoisky, who owns the TV channel that helped propel Mr. Zelensky to countrywide fame ahead of his May election win with a show called Servant of the People, on which he played a fictional President of Ukraine. While Mr. Zelensky acknowledged regular contacts with the oligarch – Mr. Kolomoisky’s former lawyer is Mr. Zelensky’s chief of staff – he said that Mr. Kolomoisky knew that Mr. Zelensky would always put the national interests first.
Another recurring topic was Mr. Zelensky’s effort to pursue a peace deal with the Russian-backed separatists who control the Donbas region of southeastern Ukraine. While his plan to make peace with the Kremlin has led to accusations of “capitulation” from his predecessor Petro Poroshenko, Mr. Zelensky said he had been elected – defeating Mr. Poroshenko by a wide margin – with a mandate to end a war that has taken more than 13,000 lives since 2014. “I’m not ready to lose the lives of more people,” he said.
But the deference Mr. Zelensky showed to Mr. Trump on the July 25 call raises questions about how he would fare in one-on-one negotiations with Mr. Putin, the former KGB agent who has ruled Russia for two decades. Mr. Zelensky has been accused by Ukrainian analysts of letting Mr. Trump push him around on the call.
“I think when people talk on the phone, they change their tone of conversation, depending on the results they want to get,” Mr. Zelensky said in response to a question from The Globe and Mail about whether he’d behave the same way in a conversation with Mr. Putin. “I will choose the way that I speak to the President of the Russian Federation.”
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