WASHINGTON – When President Donald Trump spoke on the phone with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in late July, the Ukrainians had a lot at stake. They were waiting on millions in stalled military aid from the United States, and Zelensky was seeking a high-priority White House meeting with Trump.
Trump told his Ukrainian counterpart that his country could improve its image if it completed corruption cases that have “inhibited the interaction between Ukraine and the USA,” according to a readout of the call released by Kiev.
What neither government said publicly at the time was that Trump went even further — specifically pressing Ukraine’s president to reopen a corruption investigation involving former Vice President Joe Biden’s son, according to two people familiar with the call, which is now the subject of an explosive whistleblower complaint.
Days after the two presidents spoke, Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, met with an aide to the Ukrainian president in Madrid and spelled out two specific cases he believed Ukraine should pursue. One was a probe of a Ukrainian gas tycoon who had Biden’s son Hunter on his board. Another was an allegation that Democrats colluded with Ukraine to release information on former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort during the 2016 election.
“Your country owes it to us and to your country to find out what really happened,” Giuliani said he told the Ukrainian president’s aide, Andriy Yermak, during the Madrid meeting. Yermak, according to Giuliani, indicated that the Ukrainians were open to pursuing the investigations. The aide reiterated the Ukrainians’ plea for a meeting with Trump, a summit that would be an important signal to Russia of Washington’s support for Ukraine.
“I talked to him about the whole package,” said Giuliani, who has been lobbying Ukrainian officials to take up the investigations since the spring. Yermak did not respond to a request for comment.
New revelations about the dual channels of pressure on Ukraine — one from the president and one from his personal attorney — are fueling questions about whether Trump used his office to try to force a foreign country to take actions damaging to his political opponents.
Giuliani said he has kept the president informed of his efforts in Ukraine for months. But he declined to say specifically what he has told the president.
In a tweet Saturday, Trump said the conversation he had with Zelensky was “perfectly fine and routine.”
“Nothing was said that was in any way wrong,” he wrote.
National security experts said Trump’s pressure on Ukraine was highly inappropriate.
“This is requesting assistance from a foreign government to tarnish your political rival and opening the door to outside interference in our politics and elections,” said David Kramer, a former State Department official responsible for Russia and Central Europe during the George W. Bush administration.
Giuliani said Trump did not threaten to withhold U.S. funds for Ukraine if the country did not investigate Biden and Democrats.
“He didn’t do that. President Trump didn’t do that,” Giuliani said last week.
However, the Trump administration has held Zelensky at arm’s length since his election in April.
Trump refused to set a firm date for an Oval Office meeting with the newly minted Ukrainian president — a sit-down that Ukraine has urgently sought to demonstrate Washington’s backing as it fights a long-simmering war with Russia-backed proxies in its east.
By the time Trump and Zelensky spoke during the July 25 telephone call, the meeting at the White House still hadn’t been set. Soon after, it was disclosed that the White House had put a hold on $250 million in military aid for Ukraine after Trump ordered a review of the assistance package.
Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., told Zelensky this month in a Kiev meeting that the aid was being held back because Trump was concerned about corruption and thought the Europeans should provide Ukraine more assistance, according to an aide to Johnson.
A former senior administration official who repeatedly discussed the issue with Trump said that the president thought “what we were doing in Ukraine was pointless and just aggravating the Russians.”
“The president’s position basically is, we should recognize the fact that the Russians should be our friends, and who cares about the Ukrainians?” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Meanwhile, throughout the spring and summer, Giuliani was pressing the Ukrainian government behind the scenes, gathering information about Biden and briefing Trump on his findings, he said in interviews with the Washington Post.
At one point this year, Giuliani had planned a trip to Ukraine, but it was scuttled amid criticism about the propriety of his visit. Instead, he has made his case in phone calls and meetings in New York and Madrid.
Giuliani said he was operating in his personal capacity as Trump’s lawyer, although he said the State Department help put him in touch with Yermak.
U.S. Embassy officials in Kiev repeatedly expressed concerns about the contacts between Giuliani and Ukrainian officials. They have not been privy to most of the discussions, and at times, have only learned later from the Ukrainians, who said they were unsure if Giuliani was officially speaking for the U.S. government, according to two officials with knowledge of the matter.
In all, Giuliani said he has had about five conversations this year with Yermak, the aide to Zelensky. He said Yermak was concerned that Trump had not met with the Ukrainians and was “embarrassed” at the lack of a meeting — and wanted to make sure “nothing is wrong.”
Yermak told the New York Times last month that the government was committed to fairly investigating possible crimes but all decisions had to wait until the country had a new top prosecutor.
People close to Zelensky have told American officials that if there is a case to pursue, they will follow it and the law — an attempt by Zelensky and his aides to avoid getting drawn into a partisan political fight in the United States.
“For us, the important thing is to not get involved,” said one Ukrainian official earlier this summer, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
“There is nothing good that can come from this,” he added. “I don’t want us to be used.”