The Ukrainian president said Thursday that there was no pressure from the White House during his now-infamous July phone call with President Trump, who had asked him to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden as well as a theory that Ukraine had interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
“There was no pressure or blackmail from the U.S.,” Volodymyr Zelensky said during a 14-hour series of meetings with Ukrainian and international journalists that were broadcast live from Kyiv on social media and several television channels.
“This call influenced only one thing. We needed to secure a meeting, that it was necessary to meet with the president,” he said. “I wanted to show him our team, our young team. I wanted to get him into Ukraine.”
Zelensky said that he had no evidence to say whether Ukraine interfered in the 2016 election but that it was in his country’s best interest to conduct a thorough investigation.
“It is very important for us, because we will never interfere in the elections of any country in the future,” he said.
The news conference did little to clarify whether the Ukrainian government would investigate Biden or his son Hunter, who sat on the board of the gas company Burisma in 2014. The country’s top prosecutor has said he plans to reopen an investigation into the company, but he has not detailed the focus of that inquiry.
More than 300 journalists from around the world attended the media event, asking questions on subjects as diverse as his role in Trump’s impeachment inquiry and resolving the conflict with Russia-backed militias in eastern Ukraine.
The former comedic actor with no previous political experience took office in July after a landslide election victory in which he promised to combat corruption and end the war in the east.
Last month, Zelensky found himself in the center of a domestic U.S. political scandal after the July 25 phone call between the two leaders was made public and became the basis for an impeachment inquiry against Trump.
Democrats have accused Trump of pressing Zelensky for a quid pro quo by asking for a “favor” that would open an investigation into Biden — a leading candidate for the Democratic nomination to face Trump in the 2020 presidential election — in exchange for releasing nearly $400 million in military aid.
The U.S., along with the European Union and other nations, has supported Kyiv’s fight to counter Russian President Vladimir Putin’s support for the eastern militias in a war that began in 2014 and has killed13,000.
Zelensky said he had no idea the military aid was held up at the time of the call. When he discovered that it was on hold, he raised it with Vice President Mike Pence at a meeting in Warsaw, he said.
“And after this meeting, the U.S. unlocked the aid and added $140 million. That’s why there was no blackmail,” he said.
At home in Ukraine, Zelensky has been criticized by journalists for being inaccessible to the media. On Thursday, his team sought to dispel that idea and show that he intended to be a different kind of president for a country that has been challenged by decades of corruption and governments run by politicians deeply entangled in the country’s oligarchy.
Zelensky’s team announced late on Wednesday that he would be holding what they called a “press marathon” that would start at 10 a.m. The chosen venue was the Kyiv Food Market, one of the capital’s hip new food halls. The modern venue recently opened in a renovated, centuries-old factory complex, Arsenal, which once produced weapons, among other things.
The journalists were placed into groups of seven to 10 people and scheduled for 20- to 30-minute sit-down sessions with the president, at which they sat at a long dining table on the food hall’s second-floor balcony. Questions were not taken in advance and there were no limits set on the line of questioning.
The event was in stark contrast to Putin’s annual events, in which as many as 1,200 Russian and international journalists sit in an auditorium for sometimes four hours as Putin takes preapproved questions from Kremlin-selected media.
Zelensky told reporters he was not afraid of meeting Putin either in direct talks or at a peace summit known as the Normandy format tentatively scheduled with leaders of Russia, Germany and France at the end of the month.
Ukraine accuses Putin of conducting an aggressive campaign against it since the Maidan street revolution of 2014 led to the ouster of a Kremlin-friendly president and firmly put the nation of 45 million on a path out of Moscow’s perceived sphere of influence. Moscow annexed Crimea from Ukraine months later.