Three Times Zelensky Mildly Pushed Back On Trump In New Interview

Ukrainain President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during an joint press-conference with Czech Republic Prime Minister Andrej Babis (not seen), following their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 19 November, 2019. Czech Republi... Ukrainain President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during an joint press-conference with Czech Republic Prime Minister Andrej Babis (not seen), following their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, on 19 November, 2019. Czech Republic Prime Minister Andrej Babis is on an official visit to Ukraine. (Photo by STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images) MORE LESS
December 2, 2019 2:32 p.m.

With the firing of more than 500 Ukrainian prosecutors, several of whom played key roles in Rudy Giuliani’s pressure campaign, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky sent a message to President Trump — that his promise to root out corruption in Ukraine may be more important than pleasing Trump.

The subtle push-backs continued during an interview with TIME Magazine and several European outlets published Monday. While the comedian-turned-president didn’t outright break with Trump on any given topic, Zelensky created some noteworthy distance between his country and the White House’s stance on issues relevant to the impeachment probe. Here are the highlights:

Zelensky mildly condemns Trump for withholding aid this summer

While he denied there was any quid pro quo associated with the withheld aid, Zelensky called out the U.S. for keeping aid from a country actively at war with Russia. Trump has made a number of claims about the hold on the military funds, initially suggesting he wanted European countries to pitch in more for Ukraine’s defense.

“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,” Zelensky told TIME and others present for the interview. “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.”

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The U.S. could do more to help bolster Ukraine’s global image

Zelensky appeared to call out the U.S. and Republicans for peddling conspiracy theories about Ukraine and 2016 election. Conservatives have been arguing for years that Ukrainian officials worked with the Democratic National Committee to try to bolster Hillary Clinton in 2016.

“The United States of America is a signal, for the world, for everyone,” Zelensky said when asked about the U.S.’s role in peace efforts between Ukraine and Russia. “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,” he continued. “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.”

Other counties can’t “toss us around” for their own benefit

Whether intentional or not, Zelesnky warned against other global leaders using Ukraine as a “piece” on the chess board to use for their own political or foreign policy purposes. It might be a stretch to suggest that messaging was targeted at Trump or Giuliani, but it’s notable that he called out the type of behavior that’s placed Giuliani and his pressure campaign in Ukraine at the center of the Trump impeachment inquiry.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Trump’s false claims of exoneration

While speaking to reporters on Monday, President Trump argued the Zelensky interview offered him some sort of exoneration, telling reporters that the Ukrainian president said he did “absolutely nothing wrong.”

“If you noticed there was breaking news today, the Ukrainian president came out and said very strongly that President Trump did absolutely nothing wrong,” Trump said Monday. “That should be case over.”

Zelenksy never says that.

Trump doubled down on Twitter later Monday.

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