WASHINGTON — Before he became Ukraine’s real president, Volodymyr Zelensky played a goofball, accidental president on TV with a knack for fumbling through absurd situations.
That may help explain why he’s now cheerfully acting as if his trip to New York, and meeting today with President Trump this afternoon, isn’t freighted with historic peril.
Judging by Zelensky’s breezy public comments, it’s as if the crisis now engulfing the White House isn’t really happening. Addressing a reporter from the U.S.-backed news service, Voice of America, in New York near the East River ahead of his Trump sit-down Wednesday, Zelensky declared the situation totally cool.
REPORTER: There is a very big controversy, you know.
ZELENSKY: It’s OK. We’re ready for anything.
He should hope so. Trump’s July 25th conversation with Zelensky is at the core of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry into the president. Democrats are demanding to know more about whether Trump pressured Zelensky to launch a corruption investigation of Trump’s 2020 rival Joe Biden, while withholding military aid as a lever of influence.
The White House released an account of the call between the two leaders on Wednesday that revealed Trump did indeed ask Zelensky to “look into” Biden’s actions while vice president with regard to Ukraine, in language that was immediately seized upon by Democrats in Congress.
Yet you’d hardly know of such earth-shaking developments judging by Zelensky’s Twitter account. There, you’ll find a cheerful-looking photo of the two besieged leaders and their wives meeting Monday at a brief formal photo op, cool as cucumbers.
The chummy photo follows up on a perplexing statement from Zelensky’s office, in which he calmly announced plans to invite Trump to Ukraine.
“I expect us to have awesome relations with the United States,” Zelensky was quoted as saying. “I expect us to invite Donald Trump to visit Ukraine.”
There was no mention at all of the controversy swirling around his ties to Trump’s White House.
Tap-dancing through a minefield
Zelensky’s happy-go-lucky routine signals the tricky situation in which the young, inexperienced Ukrainian president now finds himself.
The former comic’s forced, white-knuckle calm reflects an apparent strategy to try to maintain support from both Republicans and Democrats through a dicey political crisis.
“Zelensky’s people don’t want to provoke anyone in Washington, because they’re worried about the consequences,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, Ukrainian political analyst and head of the Penta think tank in Kiev. “They’ve held the position that they should try to maintain their neutrality.”
Ukraine relies on American diplomatic and military support in its bloody conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the east. That support could be jeopardized if Zelensky is seen as swinging too far to one side or the other in the current dispute between Democrats and Republicans.
For years, Ukraine has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in the U.S. Congress, and Zelensky appears to be desperately trying not to screw that up, analysts said.
“The worst thing he can do right now is jeopardize the US military aid going forward by getting actively involved in the fracas going on in D.C.,” said David Szakonyi, an expert on post-Soviet affairs at George Washington University in Washington. “He’s in a really tricky position, and he’s surrounded by landmines.”
Now, it remains to be seen whether he can maintain his act through his meeting with President Trump in Manhattan on Wednesday afternoon.
His position may change after he meets Trump, said Fesenko, who has closely observed Zelensky’s leadership style.
“Zelensky’s people don’t want to provoke anyone in Washington, because they’re worried about the consequences”
Fesenko described Zelensky as “intuitive” in his leadership decisions, especially about other people, and said he would expect Zelensky to hold back from making firm decisions about how to interact with Trump until they got to know each other better in person.
“He relies on his intuition to understand other people,” Fesenko said. “If Zelensky suddenly decides that he likes Trump, and wants to help him, he may go ahead and do it.”
Cover: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy attends a news conference dedicated to the start of the Ukraine's High Anti-Corruption Court (HACC) work in Kiev, Ukraine. Stringer / Sputnik via AP