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Ukrainian President Zelensky publicly splits from Trump — and scorches his military aid delay

President Donald J. Trump participates in a bilateral meeting with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zalensky Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019, at the InterContinental New York Barclay in New York City. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's comments in a new interview revealed the devastating impacts of the events that led to the impeachment proceedings of President Donald Trump. And his new message came as a sharp rebuke to those Republicans who have used the foreign leader in their defense of the White House.

Zelensky sharply criticized Republicans, who have repeatedly disparaged Ukraine as supremely corrupt in the impeachment proceedings, for their insults.

“When America says, for instance, that Ukraine is a corrupt country, that is the hardest of signals,” he told reporters, according to Time Magazine's account.

Zelensky said these smears make it much more difficult for his country to rely on foreign help as he tries to forestall Russian incursions, which the U.S. foreign policy establishment believes is in the American interest. It's true, as is widely acknowledged, that Ukraine has had and continues to struggle with corruption. But despite Trump and the GOP's denigration of the country, the administration's interagency process repeatedly and unanimously found that under Zelensky, Ukraine has taken impressive strides in fighting corruption.

Casting Ukraine as corrupt, however, is part of Trump's defense at accusations that he improperly withheld military aid and a White House meeting from Zelensky as part of an effort to induce it to launch investigations into Trump's political rivals.

Trump cited Zelensky's comments on Monday as a defense against the impeachment case, claiming: "The President of Ukraine has just again announced that President Trump has done nothing wrong with respect to Ukraine and our interactions or calls."

But that wasn't accurate, and it didn't reflect the context of Zelensky's comments. Zelensky did deny, Time reported, that "he and Trump ever discussed a decision to withhold American aid to Ukraine for nearly two months in the context of a quid pro quo involving political favors," and he has made similar claims in the past. As I and others have previously argued, though, Zelensky's claims on this matter he can't be taken at face value. MSNBC's Steve Benen, for instance, explained:

...Zelensky’s assessments of Trump’s misdeeds aren’t altogether relevant to the impeachment inquiry. After all, it’s not as if the Ukrainian leader is in a position to publicly condemn Trump as guilty – especially with a Republican-led Senate unlikely to remove the American president from office.

Nevertheless, Zelensky sharply parted with Trump and criticized him.

Revealingly, Zelensky said:

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.

Here, Zelensky makes pretty clear that his denial of the quid pro quo isn't really about exonerating Trump. He said he "never talked to the President from the position of a quid pro quo." This is hard to defend as a factual matter — the call record between Trump and Zelensky from July 25 demonstrates that Zelensky was seeking to placate the U.S. president in return for political help. But admitting that he was interacting with Trump "from the position of a quid pro quo" would make him look weak — like a "beggar," as he said explicitly. That's why he doesn't want to admit what is obvious — that Trump was using leverage to get what he wanted out of Zelensky.

As I've previously argued, multiple reports and public evidence show that Zelensky faced extreme pressure from Trump to do what he wanted — and he very nearly gave the U.S. president everything he asked for until the whole scheme was exposed. I've also argued that the evidence clearly shows Trump was soliciting a bribe from Zelensky.

And Zelensky's new comments emphasize why what Trump did exerted so much pressure on him. "We're at war," he said. "It just goes without saying."

From the U.S. perspective, the major concern in impeachment should be about Trump's abuse of his office and open corruption. Trump used the White House for his own personal and political gain and corruptly aimed a foreign government's law enforcement at U.S. citizens to interfere in an election. Many argue that this violates multiple criminal statutes, but regardless, it's undoubtedly impeachable. This should be unacceptable to everyone in the United States, even as the policy matter the corruption related to — lethal aid to Ukraine — is legitimately a subject for political debate.

But Zelensky's perspective as the leader of Ukraine show's why he's not as concerned about the domestic implications of Trump's actions. U.S. elections just aren't his concern — so it's true that for him, "It’s not about a quid pro quo." It's about "fairness." He's concerned with the welfare of his country, as he should be, and he thinks Trump treated him quite badly.

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