But there was another possible “quo” in their conversation: a meeting with Trump. And signs are increasing that this was understood as perhaps the primary source of leverage.
Newly released text messages turned over to House investigators by former U.S. envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker suggest it was broadly understood that the White House was withholding a meeting that Zelensky desired as officials negotiated for Ukraine to pursue investigations that carried potential political benefits for Trump, one of which involved Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.
“Heard from White House,” Volker wrote to a top Zelensky aide, Andriy Yermak. “Assuming President Z[elensky] convinces trump he will investigate / ‘get to the bottom of what happened’ in 2016, we will nail down date for visit to Washington.”
Yermak also responds to Volker at one point and says, “Once we have a date we will call for a press briefing, announcing upcoming visit and outlining vision for the reboot of US-UKRAINE relationship, including among other things Burisma and election meddling in investigations.”
Democrats quickly pointed to the texts as evidence of a quid pro quo. But it’s not the first evidence that it was the key carrot that Trump’s White House was dangling in front of Ukraine and Zelensky.
In Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, the Ukrainian president suggested that he would pursue two investigations that Trump has requested. Zelensky said, according to the rough transcript, that his new prosecutor general “will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue” — the company for which Hunter Biden worked. He also appeared to confirm that Ukraine would pursue another investigation involving the origins of the probe into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
At that point, Trump said he would connect Zelensky with his personal lawyer, Rudolph W. Giuliani, and Attorney General William P. Barr.
Zelensky then quickly moved on to another matter: a meeting with Trump. And Trump seemed to indicate it would happen.
Here’s the transcript (emphases added):
ZELENSKY: I also wanted to thank you for your invitation to visit the United States, specifically Washington DC. On the other hand, I also wanted (to) ensure you that we will be very serious about the case and will work on the investigation. As to the economy, there is much potential for our two countries and one of the issues that is very important for Ukraine is energy independence. I believe we can be very successful and cooperating on energy independence with United States. We are already working on cooperation. We are buying American oil but I am very hopeful for a future meeting. We will have more time and more opportunities to discuss these opportunities and get to know each other better. I would like to thank you very much for your support.
TRUMP: Good. Well, thank you very much, and I appreciate that. I will tell Rudy and Attorney General Barr to call. Thank you. Whenever you would like to come to the White House feel free to call. Give us a date, and we’ll work that out. I look forward to seeing you.
After Zelensky suggested Trump could also visit Ukraine during an upcoming trip to Poland, Trump said, “Okay, we can work that out. I look forward to seeing you in Washington and maybe in Poland because I think we are going to be there at that time.”
On the surface, it seems to be just two world leaders exchanging pleasantries. But this is a big deal to Zelensky, and there is a lengthy backstory involving the Trump White House withholding the meeting.
As The Post reported previously, the new Zelensky administration has wanted a meeting with Trump in Washington since Zelensky was elected in April, and Trump resisted. Once Zelensky seemed to indicate he would do what Trump asked on the July 25 call, though, Trump said he would invite him.
Here’s what The Post reported about Ukraine’s efforts to secure the meeting and Trump’s resistance:
Trump refused to set a firm date for an Oval Office meeting with the newly minted Ukrainian president at the White House — a sit-down that Ukraine has urgently sought to demonstrate Washington’s backing as it fights a long-simmering war with Russian-backed proxies in its east.
U.S. officials and members of the Trump administration wanted the meeting to go ahead, but Trump personally rejected efforts to set it up, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
By the time Trump and Zelensky spoke during the July 25 telephone call, the meeting at the White House still hadn’t been set.
Giuliani, too, described the Ukrainians as being “embarrassed” at the lack of a meeting. And he said that, in a meeting with Yermak, the top Zelensky aide, in Madrid shortly after the Trump-Zelensky call, the aide again pushed for it:
Yermak, according to Giuliani, indicated that the Ukrainians were open to pursuing the investigations. The aide reiterated the Ukrainians’ plea for a meeting with Trump, a summit that would be an important signal to Russia of Washington’s support for Ukraine.
“I talked to him about the whole package,” said Giuliani, who has been lobbying Ukrainian officials to take up the investigations since the spring. Yermak did not respond to a request for comment.
In all, Giuliani said he has had about five conversations this year with Yermak, the aide to Zelensky. He said Yermak was concerned that Trump had not met with the Ukrainians and was “embarrassed” at the lack of a meeting — and wanted to make sure “nothing is wrong.”
So Ukraine badly wanted (and still wants) a meeting, but Trump wouldn’t give it to them. Then Trump asked for something, Zelensky seemed to agree to it, and Trump said he would grant the meeting. Shortly thereafter, as Giuliani worked through the details of the investigations with a Zelensky aide, the aide again emphasized the need for a meeting. And in the meantime, top diplomats were talking about this as if it was a quid pro quo — including one of them indicating that particular message came from the White House.
There is evidence in the text messages that military aid might have also been understood as the leverage, with interim chargé d’affaires Bill Taylor texting at one point, “I think it’s crazy to withhold security assistance for help with a political campaign.” But European Union Ambassador Gordon Sondland responded with a suspiciously carefully worded email denying that it as a quid pro quo — almost as if he suspected the texts might one day be released publicly.
The meeting, though, seemed to be what everyone understood as leverage. It has still not been set, but it’s also not clear that Ukraine has followed through on what Zelensky appeared to say. The planned statement that the two countries were working on was never released, and Zelensky last week denied applying pressure on his prosecutor general.
“We have an independent country and independent [prosecutor general],” Zelensky said in a news conference with Trump at the United Nations. “I can’t push anyone. That is the answer. I didn’t call somebody or the new [prosecutor general]. I didn’t ask him. I didn’t push him.”
But Zelensky also jokingly needled Trump in their joint appearance about the lack of a scheduled meeting in Washington.
“And I want to thank you for invitation to Washington,” he said. “You invited me, but I think — I’m sorry. I’m sorry. But I think you forgot to tell me the date. But I think in the near future.”
It seems there might have been more to that comment than a laugh line.