Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky denied discussing a quid pro quo with President Donald Trump and criticized Trump’s rhetoric about Ukrainian corruption in an interview published Monday.
In the interview by Time Magazine, Zelensky denied that he and Trump discussed the withholding of military aid as being tied to political investigations Trump was asking for. But Zelensky did push back on any use of Ukraine as a piece “on the chessboard of big global players.”
Speaking to the magazine and European outlets, Zelensky touched on topics from Ukraine’s defense against Russia to U.S. aid. The former comedian and TV star built on his previous public comments that he did not face pressure from Trump.
“Look, I never talked to the president from the position of a quid pro quo. That’s not my thing,” Zelensky said. “I don’t want us to look like beggars.”
“But you have to understand. We’re at war,” he added. “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.”
Trump tweeted out that Zelensky’s comments had absolved him of any wrongdoing, and took it as an opportunity to push back against the House Democrats’ ongoing impeachment inquiry.
The Trump administration put a hold on about $400 million in military aid that was designated for Ukraine and approved by Congress. Trump is under investigation in the House of Representatives for allegedly pressuring Ukraine to investigate domestic political rivals and using the aid and a White House meeting as leverage.
Zelensky has previously said that he was not pressured. “Nobody pushed me,” Zelensky said while seated next to Trump at the United Nations in New York in September.
Multiple witnesses in impeachment hearings have detailed their knowledge of a push for an investigation into 2020 candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden, who once sat on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified that he did communicate a quid pro quo involving military aid in exchange for the announcement of certain investigations to a top Ukrainian official.
Zelensky also said that the United States’ public stance about Ukraine has an impact on how the country does business and is seen by other world leaders and companies: “First off, I would never want Ukraine to be a piece on the map, on the chessboard of big global players, so that someone could toss us around, use us as cover, as part of some bargain.”
“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,” he said.
“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,” Zelensky said.
One of Trump’s key defenses for his request for investigations from Ukraine is his concern about corruption in the country. His Republican allies in Congress have zeroed in on that point during impeachment hearings: If Ukraine has a history of corruption, isn’t it natural that Trump would hesitate in giving it aid?
“Why should we give money to a country that’s known corrupt? It’s a very corrupt country. I mean, I love the people in Ukraine. I know Ukrainian people,” Trump said in a recent interview with Fox and Friends.
Trump added, “Are we going to be sending massive amounts of money to a country, and they’re corrupt, and they steal the money, and it goes into everybody’s bank accounts? So you have to look at that.”
“I don’t need to change [Trump’s] mind,” Zelensky said. “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.”
As Zelensky pushed the importance of a ceasefire with Russia, he said he is wary of trusting political leaders like Russian President Vladimir Putin and doesn’t expect upcoming peace talks to end war: “I don’t trust anyone at all.”
Contributing: John Fritze and Deirdre Shesgreen, USA TODAY