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Ukraine president says 'no blackmail' in conversation with Trump

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Thursday, Oct. 10, 2019.

EFREM LUKATSK/AP

By YURAS KARMANAU, ANGELA CHARLTON AND LYNN BERRY | Associated Press | Published: October 10, 2019

KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine's president insisted Thursday that he faced "no blackmail" from President Donald Trump in their phone call that led to an impeachment inquiry.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his country will "happily" investigate allegations that it was Ukrainians, not Russians, who interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And he encouraged U.S. and Ukrainian prosecutors to discuss investigating a gas company linked to the son of former Vice President Joe Biden.

But Zelenskiy insisted he was not Trump’s puppet, and he appeared to be trying to put an end to questions dogging the new Ukrainian president since details of his July 25 call with Trump emerged.

He said it's in his country's interests to find out once and for all if there is any evidence of Ukrainian interference in the U.S. 2016 presidential election.

Zelenskiy denied suggestions that Trump pressured him in exchange for U.S. military aid to help Ukraine battle Russian-backed separatists. Congressional Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry in Congress believe Trump held up the aid to use it as leverage to pressure Ukraine and advance his domestic political interests.

In response to questions, Zelenskiy said he only learned after their phone call that the U.S. had temporarily blocked hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine.

"There was no blackmail," he said. "We are not servants. We are an independent country."

Trump tweeted Thursday that Zelenskiy's comment showed that there was no blackmail during the July call and "should immediately end the talk of impeachment!"

Zelenskiy said it was "wrong" of the White House to publish a rough transcript of the call and he will not publish the Ukrainian transcript. He said he "didn't even check" whether the Ukrainian transcript is the same, but "I think they match."

On Thursday, Zelenskiy repeatedly stressed he had no interest in interfering in the U.S. presidential election. "I don't want to be pulled into this because I understand that my words could impact the elections of the American people," he said.

Ukraine's top prosecutor last week said his office would review several cases related to the owner of the gas company where Hunter Biden sat on the board, and Zelenskiy on Thursday invited U.S. and Ukrainian prosecutors to cooperate, but insisted he would not interfere.

Trump has said the United States has an "absolute right" to ask foreign leaders to investigate corruption cases. Trump wants to investigate claims that Ukraine interfered in support of the Democrats in 2016, as opposed to the narrative that says Russia was behind the 2016 hacking of the Democratic National Committee. Some contend that the DNC hack was based on fabricated computer records and designed to cast blame on Russia but really was initiated from Ukraine.

Zelenskiy said Ukraine would investigate because otherwise we "can't say yes or no" as to whether there was any such interference.

He said he thought the July call would lead to an in-person meeting with Trump, and wanted the American leader to come to Ukraine. Zelenskiy said the "key question" for him was to try to persuade the White House to "change its rhetoric" about Ukraine as a corrupt and untrustworthy country.

Trump said the military aid was frozen because of concerns about corruption in Ukraine. The money was released in September.

Asked what Ukraine did to persuade the U.S. to release the aid, Zelenskiy said: "We have many diplomatic contacts. And in case we need to find a solution to questions of this level, questions about our country's security, we use all our powerful possibilities." He didn't elaborate.

A TV and film comedian, Zelenskiy overwhelmingly won the presidency in April on promises to fight corruption and end the five-year conflict with Moscow-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. He's treading carefully to ensure continued support from the U.S. while trying to make peace with powerful neighbor Russia.

Most of the questions at Thursday's unusual media event related to the Russia conflict or Ukraine's economic troubles.

Zelenskiy also joked about Trump's Twitter missives, saying he doesn't expect a change in U.S.-Ukrainian relations in the future, "but if there is, we'll learn about it on Twitter."

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Inna Varenytsia in Kyiv contributed to this report.
 

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