Saturday 19 October 2019

'No blackmail' - Ukraine President speaks out on phone call that sparked Trump impeachment probe

Volodymyr Zelenskiy with Donald Trump (Evan Vucci/AP)
Volodymyr Zelenskiy with Donald Trump (Evan Vucci/AP)

Yuras Karmanau

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has said there was "no blackmail" in the phone call with US President Donald Trump that helped spark an impeachment inquiry.

Mr Zelenskiy said he only learned after their July 25 phone call that the US had blocked hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine.

"We didn't speak about this" during the July call, Mr Zelenskiy said, saying the military aid was not the "theme" of the conversation.

He spoke during an unusual, all-day "media marathon" in a Kiev food court amid growing questions about his actions as president.

Mr Trump asked Mr Zelenskiy during the call to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden, according to a rough White House transcript.

Congressional Democrats believe Mr Trump was holding up the aid to use as leverage to pressure Ukraine and advance his domestic political interests ahead of next year's US presidential election.

READ MORE: 'He's picked a fight with the wrong guy' - Joe Biden calls for Donald Trump to be impeached

Mr Trump said the military aid was frozen because of concerns about corruption in Ukraine, but the move prompted congressional outcry and the money was released in September.

The July call is central to the impeachment inquiry, and embarrassed Mr Zelenskiy because it showed him as eager to please Mr Trump and critical of European partners.

Mr Zelenskiy would not say whether the Ukrainians have a different version of the transcript or whether the White House version accurately reflects the content of the leaders' conversation.

The Ukrainian president said he thought the call would lead to an in-person meeting with Mr Trump, and wanted the American leader to come to Ukraine.

READ MORE: 'You're not above law and you will be held accountable' - Pelosi warns Trump

National fight: Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Bloomberg
National fight: Nancy Pelosi. Photo: Bloomberg

Mr Zelenskiy said the "key question" for him was to try to persuade the White House to "change its rhetoric" about Ukraine as a corrupt and untrustworthy country.

He said he had "several calls" with Mr Trump, but bristled at repeated questions about their relationship.

"We are an independent country, we have relations with many countries," not just the US, he said.

Mr Zelenskiy is notably trying to end a five-year conflict with Russia-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine, and is treading carefully to ensure continued support from the US while trying to make peace with powerful neighbour Russia.

In the July call, Mr Trump sought help on two fronts.

The first involves Mr Trump's claims that Ukraine allied with the Democrats in a plot to derail his 2016 presidential campaign.

No evidence of such a plot has emerged.

At the same time, Mr Trump is also pushing Ukraine to investigate any potential wrongdoing by Mr Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.

READ MORE: US House Democrats seeking way around White House on impeachment

Mr Trump has said the US has an "absolute right" to ask foreign leaders to investigate corruption cases, though no-one has produced evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the Bidens.

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