Trump demurred, saying he would look into it but that “at a minimum” a “very, very high level” person would attend.
“Again thank you, and we’re looking forward to your visit or to the visit of a high-level delegation,” Zelensky replied. He then touted the many virtues of his country, adding, “so, if you can come, that would be great. So, again, I invite you to come.”
On the call, Trump said he had heard good things about Ukraine — and that Ukraine always had good Miss Universe contestants when he owned the pageant. He invited Zelensky to come to the White House. Zelensky thanked him.
“I think that it will still be great if you could come and be with us on this very important day of our inauguration,” Zelensky added. Given how impressive the election results were, he added, “it will be absolutely fantastic if you could come and be with us on that day.”
Over and over, Zelensky made the point: He wanted Trump at his inauguration.
Trump’s contribution didn’t extend much beyond offering his congratulations. It certainly didn’t include his offering “the unwavering support of the United States for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity” or his expressing “his commitment to work together with President-elect Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people to implement reforms that strengthen democracy, increase prosperity, and root out corruption.”
That phrasing is how the White House described the conversation at the time, now revealed to be nearly entirely inaccurate. Trump didn’t mention corruption at all, in fact, despite his and his defenders’ insistences that he was focused on the issue. That he didn’t mention corruption, though, isn’t surprising; he rarely did before it became central to his defense in the impeachment inquiry.
The inquiry centers on whether Trump leveraged his position for political benefit, withholding things desired by Ukraine to get the country to announce new investigations that could benefit him personally. Contrary to what Trump has asserted, the transcript of the April 21 call hardly dispels concerns.
It would have been hard for Trump not to have picked up on what Zelensky hoped to get from the United States. Zelensky, by reiterating his desire for a high-profile American presence, unknowingly gave Trump leverage.
At the time of the call, Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani was already actively engaged in trying to gin up questions about former vice president Joe Biden’s efforts in Ukraine. Giuliani had interviewed a number of Ukrainian officials. and debunked allegations against Biden had already been published by a writer connected to Giuliani. There was already an effort to undermine then-Ukraine Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch for being insufficiently loyal to Trump. And only days after the two leaders spoke, Trump himself was publicly making the unfounded claim that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 election, a claim he had made previously.
Trump, in other words, was already focused on Ukraine as an issue. And here, out of the blue, the incoming president of Ukraine makes very clear that he wants something from Trump.
Vice President Pence was originally going to attend the inauguration, held on May 20. By then, Yovanovitch had already been recalled, and Giuliani claimed that she was “part of the efforts against the president.” The New York Times had published a report focused on Biden and Ukraine. A planned visit to Ukraine by Giuliani had been scotched following public outcry about his apparently wanting to encourage the country to launch probes useful to his client, Trump. (The information he sought could “be very, very helpful to my client, and may turn out to be helpful to my government,” Giuliani told the Times.)
With all of this in the mix, Pence's planned trip to Ukraine was changed. A whistleblower within the intelligence community who was told about Trump's interactions with and decision-making about Ukraine later described what they'd learned about that change.
“I learned from U.S. officials that, on or around 14 May, the President instructed Vice President Pence to cancel his planned travel to Ukraine to attend President Zelenskyy’s inauguration on 20 May; Secretary of Energy Rick Perry led the delegation instead,” the whistleblower wrote, using an alternate spelling of the president’s name. “According to these officials, it was also ‘made clear’ to them that the President did not want to meet with Mr. Zelenskyy until he saw how Zelenskyy ‘chose to act’ in office.”
In mid-May the whistleblower also claims to have heard that “a meeting or phone call between the President and President Zelenskyy would depend on whether Zelenskyy showed willingness to ‘play ball’ on the issues that had been publicly aired” by Giuliani and others.
That Perry was sent instead of Pence is important. On May 23, Perry, U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and Ukraine special envoy Kurt Volker — all of whom attended the inauguration — attended a meeting at the White House in which they were tasked with working with Giuliani on Ukraine. It was a duty Sondland in particular embraced, as later testimony made clear. A White House meeting — the one proposed by Trump in the first call — soon became a central point of leverage as Trump’s aides sought to get Ukraine to announce the new probes.
There's no indication in the rough transcript of the April 21 call that Trump specifically told Zelensky that attendance of a high-profile representative at the inauguration depended on Ukraine launching an investigation into Biden. What is indicated is that Trump's relationship with Zelensky began with the incoming Ukrainian president inadvertently offering his American counterpart the first of several points of leverage, should Trump seek to use them.
Trump, it seems, did so.