A July 25 phone call between Zelensky and President Trump is now at the center of a whistleblower complaint that has pitted Congress against the White House and prompted House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to launch an impeachment inquiry into Trump.
The White House released a rough transcript of the call on Wednesday, around the same time that Zelensky, a political newcomer, addressed the General Assembly. This created an awkward situation for the Ukrainian leader, who criticized some European counterparts in the call.
He said later that day he did not realize the White House intended to publish his side of the conversation. “They said they wanted to publish. I just thought they would publish their part,” the comedian-turned-president said at a news conference at the United Nations.
Oleksiy Goncharenko, a Ukrainian opposition lawmaker from the party of former president Petro Poroshenko, has asked Zelensky’s office to release its own transcript of the call, Reuters reported.
In a Facebook post, Goncharenko called it “strange that the [Ukrainian] President’s Office did not publish this transcript simultaneously with the White House.”
According to the White House’s rough transcript of the call, Trump said the United States has been “very very good to Ukraine” and slammed European countries for allegedly not doing enough, saying “Germany does almost nothing for you.”
Zelensky replied by saying Trump was “absolutely right. Not only 100 percent, but actually 1000 percent.” He praised Trump and went on to say he met both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron and told them: “They are not working as much as they should work for Ukraine.”
Those comments were not well received in Europe.
“To say that I consider this to be incomprehensible would perhaps be a mild way to put it,” Elmar Brok, who was recently appointed special adviser on Ukraine for outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, told The Washington Post on Thursday.
Trump’s comments, Brok said, were “factually completely inaccurate.”
Brok pointed to a free-trade agreement between the European Union and Ukraine, which he said has boosted Ukrainian exports to the E.U. in recent years. The United States has not struck a similar agreement with Ukraine.
Since 2014, the E.U. and European financial institutions have also mobilized more than $16 billion in loans and grants for Ukraine, E.U. officials said Thursday.
“In these five years, we have put together for Ukraine the largest support package in the history of the European Union,” Carlos Martin Ruiz de Gordejuela, a spokesman for the European Commission, said at a news conference. He declined to comment specifically on the July call between Trump and Zelensky.
After Trump and Zelensky discussed European support for Ukraine, the rough transcript of the phone call indicates that Trump pressed Zelensky to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney General on an investigation of former vice president Joe Biden’s involvement in Ukraine during his time in office.
Biden, who is now a front-runner for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president, threatened to withhold U.S. loan guarantees from Ukraine unless a top prosecutor was fired, citing allegations that the prosecutor was not cracking down on corruption. It was the same position that a number of other Western countries took at the time. Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was serving on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that had been scrutinized by Ukrainian authorities, but no evidence has emerged that Biden pushed for the prosecutor to step down to benefit his son.
The anonymous whistleblower raised concerns that Trump used his position as president to pressure Ukraine to investigate Biden, one of Trump’s political rivals, ahead of the 2020 election.
Brok said Trump’s alleged suggestion to “use [Ukraine’s] judiciary for political purposes” was “insanity” — especially after years of Western efforts to strengthen Ukraine’s rule of law.
“I don’t know how this can be topped,” Brok said, referring to the political damage he said Trump’s interactions with Ukraine have created.
Michael Gahler, a German foreign affairs spokesman for the influential European People’s Party in the European Parliament, described Trump’s Ukraine moves as “something that would be unimaginable” in Germany.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Zelensky seemed intent on walking back some of the criticism he expressed privately to Trump in July, saying that “E.U. countries help us tremendously.”
Gustav Gressel, acting director of the wider Europe program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, said it was common knowledge even before the transcript was released that Zelensky had personal grievances against Merkel.
Shortly before the April presidential vote in Ukraine, Merkel invited then-President Poroshenko to Berlin, but she did not invite Zelensky. “The Germans know that Zelensky took this personally,” Gressel said, adding that the relationship between the two countries has improved since the time of the phone call.
“It’s a kind of an embarrassment in the diplomatic sphere, but then again, if you engage with Trump you have to expect embarrassment,” Gressel said.
Brok also defended Zelensky, saying that when he recently spoke with the Ukrainian leader and other top Ukrainian officials, he left with a more positive impression of Ukraine’s perspective on E.U. support than what the White House transcript shows of the July call.
He said Zelensky may have agreed with Trump in July because “as a Ukrainian president, he does not want to ruin relations with any U.S. president, given [Ukraine’s] security situation.”
Gahler of the European People’s Party similarly accused Trump of abusing “a position of power,” which essentially forced Zelensky into criticizing Europe.
“I see Zelensky in a victim role,” said Gahler.
Andrew Weiss, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said he does not expect “a single phone call and glib attempts to build a rapport with Donald Trump” to significantly damage Ukrainian-European relations.
Still, he said, “being sucked into a U.S. political crisis the scale of which hasn’t been seen since the Watergate era is a net negative for any country.”
Quentin Ariès in Brussels contributed to this report.