NPR’s Mary Louise Kelly speaks with Time correspondent Simon Shuster about his interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Let’s talk once again about that now-famous July 25 phone call. You know the one – the president of the United States, the president of Ukraine, the I-would-like-you-to-do-us-a-favor-though call. In the weeks and months since, we have heard a lot from one of the parties on that call – President Trump – far less from President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, which is why we were interested to read that Zelenskiy sat down for an hour this past weekend with reporters from four publications, among them Simon Shuster of Time, who joins us now from Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
SIMON SHUSTER: Hi.
KELLY: So what does President Zelenskiy make of his country finding itself at the center of all of this attention – front page news every day here in the U.S.?
SHUSTER: He is decidedly not happy about it. And while all of this has been going on in the U.S. with the public impeachment hearings and the testimony and various officials, especially defenders of Trump, constantly dragging Ukraine through the muck, he and many of his advisers have essentially gone quiet. So this interview was quite a good opportunity to talk about a lot of things. What was most on his mind were the peace talks that he has coming up in a week or so, peace talks that are intended, at least, to end the war that has been going on between Ukraine and Russia.
KELLY: This was a sit-down interview at his office there in Kyiv. Did he seem angry? Did he seem resigned? What was his expression?
SHUSTER: Well, that was maybe my main takeaway from the interview. I first met him on the campaign trail back in March, when he was a sort of a scrappy young comedian running for president, and he was extremely optimistic. He actually asked me about President Trump, and we talked for a bit about his expectations of getting along with Trump. And he essentially said, yeah, don’t worry about it. We’ll figure it out. I’m sure, you know, with a smile and a joke, I’ll win him over.
That kind of optimism was gone this time around. It’s only been six or seven months now since he was inaugurated, and, you know, he seemed rather cynical. The headline of our interview is “I Don’t Trust Anyone At All,” and he repeated that statement, actually, twice during the interview. And he seemed to feel quite alone, especially heading into these very difficult negotiations with Vladimir Putin of Russia.
KELLY: I read from some of the excerpts that you released he was also very focused on how the conversation here in the U.S. continues to link his country, Ukraine, and corruption. What did he say about that?
SHUSTER: Yeah, that’s one moment in the interview when he really seemed down. That seemed to really hurt him and upset him. One of the things that has happened in the last few months is that the words Ukraine and corruption have been repeated endlessly. And he’s…
KELLY: It’s what President Trump says his goal was. It was fighting corruption and pressuring Ukraine to clean up its act.
SHUSTER: Exactly. And President Zelenskiy by no means denied during the interview that Ukraine has a massive corruption problem. But he did express real concern about the fact that President Trump himself and many of his allies constantly bang this drum about Ukraine being a thoroughly corrupt country that steals all the assistance that it’s given and so on. You know, these statements have been coming out for some weeks throughout the impeachment process.
He said that that does a lot of harm. You know, it may seem to these individuals who are saying this that it’s just sort of an idle phrase – you know, Ukraine is corrupt – but that sends a real damaging signal, President Zelenskiy said, to investors, to international banks. So that’s the point where he really pushed back the hardest, I think, on some of the fallout from the impeachment process.
KELLY: So what does President Zelenskiy believe was happening on that July 25 phone call? Does he think there was a quid pro quo?
SHUSTER: He said no. He said that he never went into a conversation with President Trump from a position of quid pro quo. That’s just not the way he was thinking about it. That’s not the way he operates. And he says…
KELLY: What was his understanding of the favor he was being asked to do – the famous, I would like you to do us a favor, though, line in the White House readout of that call?
SHUSTER: He refused to be drawn into that, and I can understand why. It was enough, I think, for him to step out even at this juncture while the impeachment inquiry is still ongoing. And he wouldn’t be drawn into the back-and-forth between Republicans and Democrats about what exactly Trump meant and what he wanted.
You know, he did say, I never thought about this as a quid pro quo because I refuse to allow Ukraine to be a pawn on the chessboard of great powers and, he said, empires that want to use us as cover, to throw us around. And he said, you know, going into a conversation from the position of a quid pro quo would put Ukraine in the position of somebody’s instrument, and he refused to be drawn into that kind of conversation.
KELLY: That is Simon Shuster, a Time correspondent based in Berlin. We reached him in Kyiv via Skype. Thanks so much.
SHUSTER: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.