Petro Poroshenko, who was Ukraine’s president until May and dealt with both the Obama and Trump administrations, said in a rare interview with The Times on Tuesday that he never felt pressure from President Trump or his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani to open questionable corruption investigations into former Vice President Joe Biden.
Neither, Poroshenko added, did he ever feel that Biden’s 2016 demand that Ukraine fire an embattled top prosecutor stemmed from anything improper or personal on Biden’s part.
Speaking at his political party headquarters in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, Poroshenko said that if Trump or his allies had made such a demand, he would have immediately dismissed it.
“If they asked, I would have said, sorry, there is an official channel for that,” Poroshenko said.
But he added that if federal prosecutors working in his government had received such requests — as former prosecutor general Yuri Lutsenko claims he did — he would not necessarily have been informed.
Trump has acknowledged that he pressed Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, to open investigations into Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Trump has promoted unsubstantiated allegations that the former vice president pushed Ukraine to fire its then-top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, in an effort to protect Hunter Biden.
Numerous Ukrainian officials, including Lutsenko, have said there is no evidence to support the claim.
At the time of the July 25 phone call in which Trump asked Zelensky for the Biden investigation — which Trump referred to as a “favor” — the U.S. president had also put a hold on $400 million in aid to Ukraine. Those actions are now the subject of a House impeachment inquiry. Trump insists the withholding of the aid was not related to his request that Ukraine investigate one of his leading 2020 political rivals.
Zelensky, in a brief news conference Tuesday, repeated his assertion that he could not be pressured into opening a corruption investigation. He added he had never met or communicated with Giuliani, who has been subpoenaed by House Democrats and ordered to produce documents related to his dealings with Ukraine.
“There are many people abroad and in Ukraine who would like to pressure me,” Zelensky said. “However, I am president of independent Ukraine and I think it is impossible to influence me.”
According to a White House memo describing the July 25 call, Zelensky appears eager to cooperate with Trump and agrees that his government will meet with Giuliani during the attorney’s next visit to Ukraine. “I just wanted to assure you once again that you have nobody but friends around us,” Zelensky told Trump, according to the White House account.
Asked if Ukraine possesses its own account of the phone call with Trump, Zelensky said it was “the same text.” He did not elaborate.
“I understand the President Trump topic is the hottest for you,” he told the gathering of Ukrainian and U.S. journalists in the presidential headquarters. “And for us, the hottest topic is after all our country, our independence, the return our of [imprisoned] people and our territories.... What concerns President Trump, I have said it all already, and you have read it.”
Poroshenko warned that the cascading U.S. political scandal and Zelensky’s much-criticized awkward response to Trump’s pressure threaten to harm traditionally strong bipartisan support for Ukraine in the U.S. Congress as well as in parliaments throughout the West.
“Ukraine should not be involved,” he said in the interview. “I hate the idea that mistakes involved Ukraine in an internal political matter.” Although he said both American and Ukrainian sides shared blamed, he did not dispute a generally held notion that Zelensky, a former actor who won an upset victory against Poroshenko, is a political neophyte who was caught off guard by Trump.
The great beneficiary of any flagging in international support for Ukraine, Poroshenko said, will be Russian President Vladimir Putin, who seized the country’s Crimean peninsula in 2014 and backs separatists fighting a war in eastern Ukraine.
“Now is a decisive moment for Ukraine,” he said, expressing alarm that Washington or other capitals might start to ease sanctions against Moscow and force Kyiv into a “capitulation” that allows the Russian military presence to stand.
Poroshenko, who made cultivating Presidents Obama and Trump a priority, was given a red-carpet treatment on his first visit to the Trump White House in early 2017 and had several other meetings with Trump in New York and Europe on the margins of international summits.
He said he spoke to Giuliani only a couple of times and found him to be very “pro-Ukraine,” championing potentially lucrative investment in the former Soviet republic by U.S. companies and advocating that Trump do more to bolster Ukraine’s economy and defense.
Wilkinson is a Times staff writer and Loiko a special correspondent.