This is not what Zelensky said. Asked by a reporter whether he “felt any pressure from President Trump to investigate Joe Biden and Hunter Biden” — an investigation Trump advocated in that call — Zelensky at first answered indirectly.
“I think you read everything,” Zelensky said to the reporter. “So, I think you read text. I — I’m sorry but I don’t want to be involved to democratic, open elections of U.S.A. No, you heard that we had, I think, good phone call.”
“It was normal,” he added. “We spoke about many things, and I think, and you read it, that nobody push it. Push me.”
Trump jumped in: “In other words, no pressure.”
Setting aside the difference between what Zelensky said and what Trump said he said — an admittedly minor difference — there’s a subtext to the exchange that itself may render Trump’s assertion false.
When he was testifying on Capitol Hill earlier this year, former Trump attorney Michael Cohen explained how Trump got people to do things.
“He doesn’t tell you what he wants,” Cohen said, describing how he came to understand what Trump wanted him to say in Russia-related testimony. “What he does is, again, Michael, there’s no Russia, there’s no collusion, there’s no involvement, there’s no interference. I know what he means because I’ve been around him for so long.”
Zelensky didn’t need to be around Trump for very long to know what Trump wanted. It was Zelensky, not Trump, who first raised the issue of an investigation into the Bidens during the call. Zelensky had already received the intended message from Trump’s team in the form of Rudolph W. Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney.
“I will personally tell you that one of my assistants spoke with Mr. Giuliani just recently and we are hoping very much that Mr. Giuliani will be able to travel to Ukraine and we will meet once he comes to Ukraine,” Zelensky said, according to the rough transcript of the call released by the White House. “I just wanted to assure you once again that you have nobody but friends around us. I will make sure that I surround myself with the best and most experienced people.”
“I also wanted to tell you that we are friends,” he continued. “We are great friends and you Mr. President have friends in our country so we can continue our strategic partnership.”
Zelensky later tried to ingratiate himself further with Trump by telling the president that he had stayed in a Trump Organization property when he had come to New York.
By the point in the conversation when Zelensky raised Giuliani, he’d already told Trump that Ukraine was likely to seek to buy more Javelin missiles as part of its military defense against Russian incursions into its territory. This is all intertwined: Ukraine’s defense depends in part on American assistance — assistance that at the time of the call was on hold. Zelensky’s tone makes clear the extent to which he’s seeking Trump’s blessing and assistance. Trump doesn’t need to say that he wants Zelensky to investigate Biden, because Zelensky already knows it and wants to make Trump happy.
Of course, Trump goes ahead and says it anyway.
Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) gave a speech last week in which he raised an important point about the nature of interactions between the United States and other countries — particularly other countries to which the United States gives aid.
“I don’t think it really matters whether the president explicitly told the Ukrainians that they wouldn’t get their security aid if they didn’t interfere in the 2020 elections,” Murphy said. “There is an implicit threat in every single demand that a United States president makes of a foreign power, especially a country like Ukraine that is so dependent on the United States.”
Trump made two requests of Zelensky: investigate the Bidens and dig around in a loosely strung conspiracy theory that, if true, would divert blame for 2016 election interference away from Russia. The latter Trump framed as a “favor” he was asking, to which Zelensky replied that the matter was “very important and we are open for any future cooperation.”
It’s the power imbalance that applies the pressure. The same power imbalance that prompted the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to offer a wan defense of Trump’s claim that Hurricane Dorian was poised to batter Alabama.
The same power imbalance that would make a police detective wary of an alibi offered by potential witnesses when their accused boss stands over their shoulder. In the case of Zelensky’s denial, Trump’s presence only heightened the existing imbalance. And while he tried to deflect — “I don’t want to be involved,” “I think you read everything,” he eventually said what Trump clearly wanted to hear: Nobody pushed him.
Perhaps this is how Zelensky really feels. Perhaps he really feels as though he and Trump were on level terrain in the call. Perhaps he wants to reflect that feeling to his constituents, who have no doubt had enough of larger countries pushing their leaders around.
Or perhaps Zelensky's comments during the press availability were another way in which he wanted to tell Trump that they are friends.
That it’s hard to know Zelensky’s true feelings is part of the point. Yes, Trump said that Zelensky said that he didn’t feel pressure. But you don’t have to see many episodes of “Law and Order” to understand the dynamics at play just under the surface in that moment.