Ukraine’s new president Volodymyr Zelenskiy was already worried about pressure from Donald Trump to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden more than two months before the phone call that has led to the Trump impeachment inquiry, sources close to the case say.
Mr Zelenskiy gathered a small group of advisers on May 7 in Kiev for a meeting that was scheduled to discuss energy supplies.
Instead, the group spent most of the three-hour meeting discussing the insistence from Mr Trump and his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani that they should investigate Mr Biden, and the advice from the pair on how to avoid becoming entangled in the US elections.
The meeting came before Mr Zelenskiy was inaugurated but about two weeks after Mr Trump called to offer his congratulations on the night of the Ukrainian leader’s April 21 election, according to three people familiar with details of the meeting, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.
The full details of what the two leaders discussed in that Easter Sunday phone call have never been publicly disclosed, and it is not clear whether Mr Trump explicitly asked for an investigation of the Bidens.
The three people’s recollections differ on whether Mr Zelenskiy specifically cited that first call with Mr Trump as the source of his unease. But their accounts all show the Ukrainian president-elect was wary of Mr Trump’s push for an investigation into the former vice president and his son Hunter’s business dealings.
Either way, the newly elected leader of a country wedged between Russia and the US-aligned NATO democracies knew early on that vital military support might depend on whether he was willing to choose a side in an American political tussle. A former comedian who won office on promises to clean up corruption, Mr Zelenskiy’s first major foreign policy test came not from his enemy Russia but the country’s most important ally, the United States.
The May 7 meeting included two of Mr Zelenskiy’s top aides, Andriy Yermak and Andriy Bogdan. Also in the room was Andriy Kobolyev, head of the state-owned natural gas company Naftogaz, and Amos Hochstein, an American who sits on the Ukrainian company’s supervisory board. Hochstein is a former diplomat who advised Biden on Ukraine matters during the Obama administration.
Mr Zelenskiy’s office in Kiev did not respond to messages on Wednesday seeking comment. The White House would not comment on whether Mr Trump demanded an investigation in the April 21 call.
The White House has offered only a bare-bones public readout on the April call, saying Mr Trump urged Mr Zelenskiy and the Ukrainian people to implement reforms, increase prosperity and “root out corruption”.
In the intervening months, Mr Trump and his proxies have frequently used the word “corruption” to reference the months-long efforts to get the Ukrainians to investigate Democrats.
Mr Trump has said he would release a transcript of the first call, but the White House had no comment Wednesday on when, or if, that might happen.
After news broke that a White House whistleblower had filed a complaint about his July 25 call with Mr Zelenskiy, Trump said the conversation was “perfect” and that he had asked his Ukrainian counterpart to do “whatever he can in terms of corruption because the corruption is massive.”
During the call, Mr Trump asked Mr Zelenskiy for “a favour,” requesting an investigation into a conspiracy theory related to a Democratic computer server hacked during the 2016 election campaign.
Mr Trump also pushed Mr Zelenskiy to investigate Mr Biden and his son. Trump then advised Mr Zelenskiy that Mr Giuliani and Attorney General Bill Barr would be contacting him about the request, according to a summary of the call released by the White House.
Within days, Giuliani flew to Madrid to meet privately with Mr Yermak, the Zelenskiy aide who was in the May 7 meeting.
Mr Trump has denied an investigation of Mr Biden was a condition for releasing military aid as a quid pro quo. But on Tuesday, the senior US diplomat in Ukraine at the time, Ambassador William Taylor, starkly contradicted the president, saying Mr Trump had demanded that everything Mr Zelenskiy wanted, including the aid and a White House meeting, was conditional on a public vow that he would open an investigation.