Trump twists Ukraine leader's comments as he calls for an end to the impeachment inquiry

Key Points
  • President Trump seizes on the words of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who said he never spoke to Trump "from the position of a quid pro quo."
  • Trump claims Ukraine's president says he did "nothing wrong," and impeachment should be "case over."
  • In fact, Zelenskiy directly criticizes Trump for freezing U.S. aid to Ukraine.
President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a campaign rally in Bossier City, LA, November 14, 2019.
Tom Brenne | Reuters

WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump on Monday seized upon the words of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who said in a new interview that he never spoke to Trump "from the position of a quid pro quo."

"Breaking News: The President of Ukraine has just again announced that President Trump has done nothing wrong with respect to Ukraine and our interactions or calls," Trump tweeted.

Trump tweet

According to Trump, his Ukrainian counterpart had absolved him of the central question in the ongoing House impeachment inquiry. Democrats in the chamber are probing whether Trump conditioned foreign aid to Ukraine and a White House visit on Zelenskiy's willingness to launch investigations into Trump's political rivals.

But what the president tweeted is not what Zelenskiy said.

Time magazine was one of four outlets that interviewed the Ukrainian president simultaneously, and reported that Zelenskiy's comments were in response to a question that specifically mentioned "quid pro quo," the Latin term for "this for that."

Question: "When did you first sense that there was a connection between Trump's decision to block military aid to Ukraine this summer and the two investigations that Trump and his allies were asking for? Can you clarify this issue of the quid pro quo?"

Zelenskiy's answer: "Look, I never talked to the President from the position of a quid pro quo. That's not my thing. … I don't want us to look like beggars. But you have to understand. We're at war. If you're our strategic partner, then you can't go blocking anything for us. I think that's just about fairness. It's not about a quid pro quo. It just goes without saying."

From the whole quote, it's clear that Zelenskiy did not say Trump had "done nothing wrong," as the president claimed in his tweet. On the contrary, the Ukrainian president criticized Trump for freezing congressionally appropriated military aid to Ukraine, which is at war with Russian-backed separatists.

The White House has so far been unwilling to explain why the aid was frozen for two months, while Trump and a small group of his envoys pressured Ukraine to publicly launch two investigations, one into the son of former Vice President Joe Biden, and another into a debunked conspiracy theory that Ukraine interfered in the U.S. presidential election in 2016.

Earlier this fall, an Office of Management and Budget official, Mark Sandy, revealed in a sworn deposition that two OMB staffers had resigned this past summer, at least in part out of frustration with the lack of any official justification for holding up hundreds of millions of dollars in promised aid to Ukraine.

Zelenskiy, meanwhile, has been forced to walk a tightrope over the past three months. He is trying to balance his insistence that he will resist attempts to unduly influence his government with his need to appease Trump, who provides aid that Ukraine desperately needs to fight Russia's annexation of Crimea and its attempts to seize even greater swaths of Eastern Ukraine.

Monday was not the first time that Trump has cherry-picked from Zelenskiy's words to argue that the Ukrainian president believes he did nothing wrong.

"There was no blackmail," Zelenskiy said during an interview in early October. "[The U.S.] blocked this money and nobody asked us anything."

The comment was in response to a question about Zelenskiy's now infamous July 25 call with Trump, in which the U.S. president asked Zelenskiy to do him "a favor," by investigating Biden and the 2016 conspiracy theory.

Zelenskiy's willingness to deny that he had been asked for anything, despite a White House rough transcript of the July call that quotes the president specifically asking for investigations, underscores the lengths Ukraine's president will go to to stay on Trump's good side.

In that instance, when Trump learned of Zelenskiy's comments he tweeted, "The President of the Ukraine just stated again, in the strongest of language, that President Trump applied no pressure and did absolutely nothing wrong. He used the strongest language possible. That should end this Democrat Scam, but it won't, because the Dems & Media are FIXED!"

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