Robert Reich: Two Notable Presidential Conversations With Zelenskyy – OpEd


The two men most likely to square off for the presidency of the United States next Election Day have held notably different conversations with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

On July 25, 2019, then President Donald Trump spoke with Zelensky from the White House residence, ostensibly to congratulate Zelensky on his election. 

During that conversation, Trump reminded Zelensky that “the United States has been very good to Ukraine.” 

Trump knew full well that Zelensky was desperate for some demonstration of support from the American president. Some 13,000 of Zelensky’s people already had been killed in the five-year conflict between Russian-backed separatists and government forces in Ukraine. Nonetheless, just days before phoning Zelensky, Trump froze nearly $400 million of U.S. aid to Ukraine. 

Trump continued:

“I would like you to do us a favor, though, because our country has been through a lot and Ukraine knows a lot about it…. There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution, and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution, so if you can look into it …. It sounds horrible to me.… I will have Mr. Giuliani give you a call and I am also going to have Attorney General Barr call and we will get to the bottom of it.”

Zelensky did not want to offend Trump but did not commit to helping Trump dig up dirt on the son of the person most likely oppose Trump in the 2020 election.

Fast forward. On February 20, 2023, the first anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Joe Biden spoke directly with Zelensky in Kyiv, noting that “Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands.” 

For Trump, Ukraine was a pawn to get dirt on Biden before the 2020 election. 

For Biden, Ukraine is a critical ally in America’s fight against global tyranny. 

Trump’s goal in speaking with Zelensky in 2019 was the aggrandizement of Donald Trump. That was to be expected. As president Trump had no agenda except to feed his monstrous ego. Trump described his 2019 call with Zelensky as “perfect” because Trump saw nothing wrong in suggesting that continuing U.S. support for Ukraine should hinge on Zelensky helping him win reelection.

Yet that phone call posed a direct challenge to American democracy. The use of presidential power to solicit a foreign nation’s help in getting reelected is not only barred by law and the Constitution; it undermines public trust in our system of self-government. 

Biden’s goal in speaking with Zelensky in Kyiv was the opposite — to strengthen democracy against authoritarianism. As Biden explained, he made the dangerous trip because “I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about U.S. support for Ukraine in the war. It’s not just about freedom in Ukraine. It’s about freedom of democracy at large.”

As Biden said the next day in Warsaw, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine had tested “all democracies.” Over the last year “the democracies of the world have grown stronger, not weaker. But the autocrats of the world have grown weaker, not stronger.”

For Biden, American policy — both foreign and domestic — should be premised on protecting democracy from authoritarian forces seeking to undermine it, whether that force is Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump.  

Biden’s speech in Warsaw came just hours after Putin gave his own address in Moscow. Putin characterized the war in Ukraine as an existential struggle against the West, which he claimed started the war. 

In response, Biden charged that “Putin chose this war,” and that “every day the war continues is his choice. ”  

By traveling to Kyiv, the oldest president in American history also demonstrated the stamina and grit of someone decades younger. Biden departed Andrews Air Force Base outside Washington D.C. early Sunday morning, landed in Poland, took a 10-hour train ride from the Polish border, and arrived in Kyiv-Pasazhyrsky station roughly 24 hours after leaving Washington. 

He then met with Zelensky at Marinsky Palace, joined him in laying a wreath at the Wall of Remembrance at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, and stopped by the U.S. embassy to meet with staff, before heading back to the Polish border by train, and then on to Warsaw. 

The undertaking required courage and determination. Biden is the first president since Abraham Lincoln to venture into a war zone not under the control of American forces.

Donald Trump’s notorious conversation with Zelensky in 2019 required neither stamina, nor grit, nor courage. It did show determination — but not to protect democracy. It showed Trump’s fanatical resolve to remain in power, democracy be damned. 

Robert Reich

Robert B. Reich is Chancellor's Professor of Public Policy at the University of California at Berkeley and Senior Fellow at the Blum Center for Developing Economies, and writes at Reich served as Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration, for which Time Magazine named him one of the ten most effective cabinet secretaries of the twentieth century. He has written fifteen books, including the best sellers "Aftershock", "The Work of Nations," and"Beyond Outrage," and, his most recent, "The Common Good," which is available in bookstores now. He is also a founding editor of the American Prospect magazine, chairman of Common Cause, a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and co-creator of the award-winning documentary, "Inequality For All." He's co-creator of the Netflix original documentary "Saving Capitalism," which is streaming now.

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