AP Photo/Evan Vucci
- One of the GOP's key defenses of President Donald Trump in the impeachment inquiry is that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has said he did not feel pressured by Trump in a July 25 phone call.
- During the call, Trump urged Zelensky to launch investigations into his political rivals that could give him an advantage in the 2020 US presidential election.
- Impeachment inquiry witnesses, congressional lawmakers, and Ukraine experts said Zelensky would never admit to feeling pressured because of Ukraine's culture and his need to keep the US on his side.
- US assistance to Ukraine is vital as it contends with an ongoing conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region.
- That's why it doesn't matter if Zelensky says he was pressured. He was.
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"I would like you to do us a favor."
Trump said this right after Zelensky mentioned US security assistance to Ukraine, and right before urging his Ukrainian counterpart to launch investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden and a bogus conspiracy theory on the 2016 election.
The call alarmed US officials and led to a whistleblower complaint that accused Trump of using the power of his office to solicit foreign interference in the 2020 election. The complaint spiraled into the impeachment inquiry, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has accused Trump of bribery and abuse of power.
Zelensky said he didn't feel pressured, but he would never say otherwise because Ukraine needs the US on its side
Zelensky has publicly stated he did not feel pressured by Trump during the call and insisted there was "no blackmail." Republicans such as Reps. Jim Jordan and John Ratcliffe have leaned heavily on this as they've sought to defend the president against damning allegations in the impeachment inquiry.
But there's a gaping hole in this line of defense, as it leaves out vital context and ignores the fact Zelensky's hands are tied by the necessities of his job.
Ukraine is heavily reliant on US assistance amid the ongoing conflict with pro-Russian separatists in the Donbas region.
The current top diplomat to Ukraine, Bill Taylor, underscored Ukraine's reliance in US assistance in his testimony to House investigators. Taylor was on the frontlines of the Ukraine conflict less than a week before he testified.
Taylor said: "Even as we sit here today, the Russians are attacking Ukrainian soldiers in their own country and have been for the last four years. I saw this on the front line last week; the day I was there a Ukrainian soldier was killed and four were wounded."
Taylor added: "The security assistance we provide is crucial to Ukraine's defense and to the protection of the soldiers I met last week."
The bloody conflict is precisely why Zelensky in the July 25 call thanked Trump for the US government's "great support in the area of defense" before indicating his country is eager to receive more assistance. "We are ready to continue to cooperate for the next steps," Zelensky said.
At the time of the July 25 call, Trump had recently put roughly $400 million in congressionally-approved security assistance on hold. Ukrainian officials inquired about the frozen US security aid on July 25 (the same day of the call), according to testimony to House investigators from Laura Cooper, a deputy assistant secretary at the Defense Department. This suggests Ukraine knew that the aid was on hold at the time of the Trump-Zelensky call.
Trump also has a documented record of lashing out at both real and perceived critics. If Zelensky spoke out publicly against Trump, it could have major consequences for him and Ukraine — particularly as he seeks a resolution to the conflict in eastern Ukraine. Zelensky is set to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris to discuss the conflict next month, and US support to Ukraine is important leverage in such talks.
'The Ukrainians were very concerned about the security assistance'
The efforts to pressure Zelensky into launching investigations went well beyond the July 25 phone call, including evidence that Trump used a White House meeting as leverage in addition to the security assistance.
Multiple witnesses in the impeachment inquiry, including Trump's handpicked US ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, have testified under oath that Trump wanted Zelensky to publicly commit to investigations.
Sondland testified that he indicated to a top aide to Zelensky that the release of military aid was conditioned on such an announcement. He also said there was an explicit quid pro quo linking the White House meeting Zelensky wanted with the investigations.
"I know that members of this committee frequently frame these complicated issues in the form of a simple question: Was there a 'quid pro quo'?" Sondland said. "With regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes."
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images
With that said, the security assistance to Ukraine was eventually released, which Republicans have also pointed to as a sign Zelensky was not pressured.
But David Holmes, a top staffer in the US embassy in Ukraine, offered testimony undercutting this argument.
"Although the hold on the security assistance may have been lifted, there were still things they wanted that they weren't getting, including a meeting with the president in the Oval Office," Holmes said of Ukraine.
He added: "Whether the hold, the security assistance hold, continued or not, Ukrainians understood that that's something the president wanted and they still wanted important things from the president. So I think that continues to this day. I think they're being very careful. They still need us now going forward."
Taylor also testified that it would be viewed as a sign of weakness in Ukraine and damaging politically for Zelensky to admit to pressure from Trump.
The career diplomat and decorated US Army veteran said: "[Zelensky] cannot afford to be seen to be deferring to any — any foreign leader ... He knows that the Ukrainian people expect him to — to be clear and defend Ukrainian interests."
In another sign that Zelensky felt pressured, Taylor testified that Zelensky planned to announce the investigations on CNN, but pulled back after the security assistance was released.
Taylor, who also served as the US ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009, said: "I know that the Ukrainians were very concerned about the security assistance, and I know that they were prepared or preparing to do — to make a public statement that is with a CNN interview, that that was being planned."
'Zelensky was indeed feeling the pressure'
Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, met with Zelensky in September.
In a letter to House investigators, Murphy detailed a conversation he had with the Ukrainian president regarding his concerns over efforts from Trump's personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, and others to urge him to become involved in domestic US politics.
Murphy wrote: "President Zelensky said he understood, and represented to us that he had no desire to interfere in a US election. I interpreted Zelensky's answer to my question as a concession of the premise of my question—that he was receiving improper overtures from Giuliani to interfere in the 2020 election."
The Democratic senator further said Zelensky "did not contradict the facts I laid out in my question, and instead simply relayed his desire to say clear of becoming enmeshed in American politics." Murphy added that he interpreted this as "confirmation that Zelensky was indeed feeling the pressure I described."
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