NEW YORK — When President Donald Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky met formally for the first time on Wednesday in what was once viewed as a routine diplomatic sit-down but is now one of the most closely scrutinized encounters of Trump’s presidency, due to the swirling impeachment crisis.
Zelensky was asked by a US reporter whether he felt any pressure from Trump to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden.
“I think you read everything, so — I think you read text. I’m sorry but I don’t want to be involved to democratic open elections of USA,” he said, consulting with a translator momentarily.
“We had I think good phone call it was normal we spoke about many things. I think and you read it that nobody pushed me,” Zelensky added.
Trump reiterated that there was “no pressure.”
“You know there was no pressure,” he told reporters, then told Zelensky, “I appreciate the answer.”
Asked whether he wants Zelensky to do more to investigate Biden, Trump said, “No, I want him to do whatever he can.”
Trump then made unsubstantiated allegations about Biden, including that Hunter Biden flew on Air Force Two. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by either Joe or Hunter Biden.
“Whatever he (Zelensky) can do in terms of corruption because the corruption is massive. Now when Biden’s son walks away with millions of dollars from Ukraine, he knows nothing, and they hand him millions of dollars, that’s corruption. When Biden’s son walks out of China with $1.5 billion in a fund and the biggest funds in the world can’t get money out of China and he’s there with one quick meeting and he flies in on Air Force Two. I think that’s a horrible thing. I think it’s a horrible thing,” Trump claimed.
The 2:15 p.m. ET meeting was arranged well before the whistleblower controversy exploded into public view, according to people familiar with the plans. Aides initially did not view it as a major highlight of Trump’s agenda at this week’s United Nations meetings, which they expected would focus heavily on Iran and not on the questions of abuse of power.
Now, officials say they view the session as an important venue for Trump to counter Democratic accusations of wrongdoing.
Trump had previewed his defense in an appearance with reporters earlier Tuesday, insisting there was “no pressure whatsoever” in his phone call with Zelensky, despite a transcript showing Trump asked him to look into Biden and his son.
Speaking to reporters shortly after the “transcript” of the call was released, Trump denied any wrongdoing in the July conversation.
“It was going to be the all from hell. It ended up being a nothing call,” Trump said during a meeting on Venezuela on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.
Trump insisted a newly launched impeachment investigation was “the single greatest witch hunt in American history” and a “disgraceful thing.”
The evening before the meeting, Trump and Zelensky greeted each other at a diplomatic reception hosted by the American president for fellow leaders visiting New York for the annual United Nations meetings.
A photo posted by Zelensky on Twitter showed the two men with their spouses smiling broadly, without a hint of the controversy that now overhangs their relationship.
There have been conversations between US and Ukrainian officials this week about the matter, including over whether to release the log of the July phone call.
One official said there have not been extensive conversations between US and Ukrainian officials about what each leader will say during the open-press part of Wednesday’s meeting, though could not rule out more informal discussions, namely between Trump and Zelensky during the diplomatic reception or between Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and his Ukrainian interlocutors.
But Trump signaled Monday he believes Zelensky will back him up: “They don’t know either what the big deal is,” he said, referring to the Ukrainians, in a tweet.
Their sit-down on Wednesday was not originally meant to be their first meeting. Trump had agreed to meet Zelensky earlier this month in Poland, where he was planning to commemorate the anniversary of the outbreak of World War II.
When a hurricane forced him to cancel his plans, Vice President Mike Pence went in his place and met with Zelensky in Warsaw. Afterward, Pence was asked whether the Biden matter arose in the talks. He said no, but did turn quickly to the issue of corruption in Ukraine.
Trump and Zelensky have spoken by phone twice: once immediately following Ukrainian elections in April, and again in July. The latter conversation has become the focal point for Democrats after an intelligence whistleblower raised concerns about Ukraine and Russia.
In the months following Zelensky’s election, Trump showed little interest in meeting him, believing Ukraine to be an intractably corrupt country. He ascribed Russia’s annexation of part of the country to his predecessor, who he repeatedly blamed for “losing” Crimea.
But as Trump’s Giuliani began raising the issue of Biden and his son, Trump’s interest was piqued. He was also convinced by top national security aides, including then-national security adviser John Bolton, that engaging the new leader would be valuable in countering Russia.
Bolton was also among those aides pushing Trump to approve an aid package worth millions of dollars to Ukraine after it was put on hold. That package — and whether it was used as a bargaining chip in Trump’s attempts to push an investigation into the Bidens — has become a lynchpin in the impeachment inquiry.