KYIV, Ukraine – The White House annoyed and embarrassed Ukraine’s president by releasing his comments in a private conversation with U.S. President Donald Trump – and may have violated the Ukrainian constitution too.
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.
“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 he’s “not afraid” of the publication and that “no one can pressure me.” He sought to play down the investigation into Biden and his son’s activities in Ukraine, calling it just one of “many cases that I talk about with leaders of other countries.”
Ukrainian legal expert Roman Marchenko said the release could have violated the Ukrainian constitution’s privacy protections.
“According to Ukrainian law, if approval for publication wasn’t given by the Ukrainian side, then there is a criminal responsibility for violation for the privacy of correspondence and phone calls,” Marchenko told The Associated Press. “What Trump did (in publishing the transrcripts) is a violation of Ukrainian laws.”
However Marchenko said it was doubtful that Zelenskiy’s office would seek legal action against the White House.
The Ukrainian general prosecutor’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 the Biden probe 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.
While acknowledging that the Biden investigation is very “high-profile” in the United States, Zelenskiy told reporters, “I don’t know the details of this case.”
“Different leaders talk to me at many international meetings about various criminal cases,” the Ukrainian president said, noting other examples from Italy and Turkey. “I talk about such cases every day.”
At a meeting with Zelenskiy 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, a former U.S. vice president.
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 toward 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 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.
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