Six months later, Zelensky still hasn’t made it. Instead, the coveted visit has become embroiled in an impeachment inquiry in which Trump is accused of holding an Oval Office sit-down hostage — along with hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine — to a public pledge by Zelensky to try to dig up dirt on Democrats.
Today, it is unclear whether such a meeting would help or hurt Zelensky as he tries to consolidate power and demonstrate to the world that the United States has Ukraine’s back in the midst of a war with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country. In the meantime, Zelensky is trying to arrange a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Beyond the iconic northern facade of the White House, the real power in the building resides in the West Wing, and the oval-shaped room with a southern exposure, that has been the president’s official office since it took on its current form in 1934, under Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Chase Untermeyer, a senior aide during the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, once compared the West Wing to “a very cushy, high-end funeral parlor,” with thick carpets and fine furniture, where “everything is at a very low level of tension” and quiet prevails. The Oval Office has traditionally been a formal sanctuary, where only the invited can enter.
Trump, unlike most of his predecessors, has used the office as more of an open-door reception room where he holds court. “I use the room,” Trump told Time magazine while he personally conducted a tour in early 2017, “I use it a lot.”
One tradition Trump has continued is the use of the room as a space to formally greet foreign leaders. As they sit in armchairs before the fireplace, the media is generally invited in for photographs and the exchange of pleasantries, before being quickly ushered out.
Where Trump has differed from other modern presidents, however, is his use of such encounters as a stage to showcase his own views on the issues of the day, inviting questions from reporters who crowd behind the couches. More often than not, those issues have nothing to do with the bilateral concerns of his visitor, who usually is reduced to the role of a supporting player in a nonspeaking part.
Just last month, Trump left a clearly chagrined Finnish President Sauli Niinisto to stare alternately at the ceiling and the floor as Trump railed against the impeachment investigation. Barely two weeks later, Italian President Sergio Mattarella sat silently before the Oval Office fireplace as his interpreter struggled to keep up with Trump’s half-hour rant on European trade unfairness, tariffs, Turkey, China, Iran and the Democratic presidential debates.
But despite Trump’s often cavalier treatment, new leaders, especially from supplicant countries “that are trying to have good footing in the international arena, see a meeting with the U.S. president in the Oval Office at the White House as the ultimate sign of endorsement and support from the United States,” George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state, said in testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, which is leading the impeachment inquiry.
For Zelensky, more than most other visitors, successful optics and conversation on the Oval Office stage were seen as critical to Ukraine’s survival. “It would primarily boost his leverage to negotiate with Vladimir Putin about the Russian occupation of 7 percent of Ukrainian territory,” Kent testified.
While substantial support from European nations was also important to Kyiv, only the United States has a military that could challenge Russia’s vast capabilities, and it has been the only sizable country providing lethal defensive military aid to Ukraine.
U.S. endorsement made a formal meeting with Trump all the more important for the message of resilience the Ukrainians wanted to send to Putin, particularly as Zelensky headed into possible renewed peace negotiations over the war in Ukraine’s east that has left more than 13,000 people dead.
Initially unaware of Trump’s desire for him to publicly announce investigations into the Democrats as the U.S. 2020 election approached, Zelensky’s team believed that if Trump would just spend some time with the new Ukrainian leader, he would see that continuing to provide support was in the interest of the United States.
When Trump mentioned the desired investigations in a July 25 phone call between them, Zelensky said there were no limits on his zeal to investigate all corruption.
“We are great friends, and you, Mr. President, have friends in our country, so we can continue our strategic partnership,” Zelensky said. “I also plan to surround myself with great people and in addition to that investigation, I guarantee as the president of Ukraine that all the investigations will be done openly and candidly.”
An actor known for his affable personality, Zelensky was certain that he could build a rapport with the U.S. president, who also has a background in the entertainment world. Trump would be won over in a meeting, and any misconceptions about Ukraine would quickly be dispelled, according to a Ukrainian official close to Zelensky, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Like Trump, Zelensky came into office as a political neophyte and placed emphasis on the possibility of developing personal relationships with foreign leaders.
But as the year dragged on, the U.S. administration refused to set a date for a visit. When it was revealed in late August that Trump had put a hold on military aid to Ukraine that had been appropriated for 2019, Zelensky’s team believed more than ever that a meeting would allow the Ukrainian leader to clear the air.
“He wanted to return Ukraine back to the agenda of Trump and the administration,” said the Ukrainian official, who added that Zelensky hoped to use his window of opportunity as a “fresh face” in Ukraine to reset the relationship.
The quest for a meeting became the north star of Ukraine’s diplomacy toward the United States. By midsummer, it wasn’t only the need to clear the air regarding Trump’s possible misconceptions about the country and its new leader that was driving the desire for the meeting, but it was also the need to show Russia that Trump still stood behind Ukraine after its change in government.
By the time the two men met briefly at the United Nations in late September, the hold on security aid had been lifted, but the impeachment inquiry was about to begin. Zelensky made clear he still wanted to meet, thanking Trump for the invitation to Washington but noting that “you forgot to tell me the date.”
Amid awkward laughter from their reporter-dominated audience, Trump pointed at his staff. “They’ll tell you the date,” he said.