KYIV, Ukraine — The White House annoyed and embarrassed Ukraine’s president by releasing his comments in a private conversation with President Donald Trump — and may have violated the Ukrainian constitution.
The rough transcript of Trump’s call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy released Wednesday shows that Trump pressed Ukraine to “look into” his Democratic political rival Joe Biden. The July 25 call is now at the center of a U.S. impeachment probe.
Story Continued Below
“I think such things, such conversations between heads of independent states, they shouldn’t be published,” Zelenskiy told reporters at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. He didn’t indicate whether the White House warned him that his comments would be released.
But he also said that “no one can pressure me.” He sought to play down the situation involving Biden and his son’s activities in Ukraine, calling it just one of “many cases that I talk about with leaders of other countries.”
Before the White House released the rough transcript, Trump tweeted that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo had received permission from the Ukrainian government to do so. “They don’t know either what the big deal is. A total Witch Hunt Scam by the Democrats,” Trump tweeted Tuesday.
Ukrainian legal expert Roman Marchenko said if the Ukrainian government didn’t give its approval, the release could have violated constitutional protections of privacy in correspondence and phone calls. “What Trump did (in publishing the rough transcript) is a violation of Ukrainian laws,” Marchenko told The Associated Press.
The Ukrainian prosecutor general’s office, the office of former President Petro Poroshenko and other Ukrainian government officials wouldn’t comment to The Associated Press on the transcript or Biden on Thursday.
While the transcript was a bombshell for U.S. politics, it didn’t dominate the media landscape or daily conversation in Ukraine, where many are disillusioned with politics, corruption and Ukraine’s struggling economy.
“I think that Trump may put pressure on Ukraine, because the U.S. gives a huge amount of money to support Ukraine,” said Kyiv resident Serhiy Cheshyr.
Taras Semenyuk, political expert at the KyivStratPro consulting company, said the assumption that investigations can be ordered from on high “is a result of the weakness of our institutions.”
“The situation is very unpleasant for Ukraine. Ukraine loses its reputation,” he said.
Trump has sought to implicate Biden and his son in the kind of corruption that has long plagued Ukraine. Hunter Biden served on a Ukrainian gas company’s board at the same time his father as vice president was leading the Obama administration’s diplomatic dealings with Kyiv. Though the timing raised concerns among anti-corruption advocates, there has been no evidence of wrongdoing by either the former vice president or his son.
Zelenskiy told reporters on Thursday that he doesn’t know the details.
At their meeting on Wednesday in New York, Trump said he placed “no pressure” on the Ukrainian leader. But the rough transcript summarizing the call shows Trump repeatedly prodded Zelenskiy to work with the U.S. attorney general and Trump’s personal attorney to investigate Biden.
The call is the subject of a whistleblower complaint against Trump and the basis for Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s decision to open an impeachment inquiry.
Zelenskiy tried to smooth over tensions with Germany and France after the transcript revealed critical comments about German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron.
“I am grateful for any assistance to Ukraine from our European leaders, from Ms. Merkel, from Mr. Macron, and from others,” he said.
But he maintained his criticism of the Nord Stream 2 project for a pipeline to send Russian gas to Europe. He called it “a big threat to our energy security” and said Ukraine would lose billions of dollars.
Merkel’s office refused to comment on Trump’s remarks in the transcript that the German leader “talks Ukraine, but she doesn’t do anything.” Germany’s Foreign Ministry provided figures disputing Trump’s account, telling The Associated Press that since 2014, German direct support to Ukraine amounted to 1.18 billion euros, in addition to another 200 million euros through European Union support.