It was Trump who sought the first laugh when he sat down Wednesday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the comedian turned anti-corruption crusader thrust last week into the center of an American political maelstrom.
"He's made me more famous and I've made him more famous," Trump joked as they started their meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. "I think the press would probably like to stay in the meeting but we have lots of witnesses."
"It's better to be on TV than by phone," Zelenskiy replied. The furor in Washington all stems from their July 25 call in which Trump sought dirt on former Vice President Joe Biden, which is now at the center of Democrats' efforts to remove the president from office.
The meeting between Trump and the newly elected Zelenskiy was on the books well before reports of a whistleblower complaint referencing that call put Ukraine and impeachment at the fore of the national conversation. The burgeoning political controversy was front and center Wednesday, as Trump asked Zelenskiy to root out corruption in his country — and complained about corruption in the U.S. on the part of his political opponents.
They were seated in dark leather chairs, Trump leaning forward and Zelenskiy slumped back. The hotel conference room was packed with press and aides jostling for space. Where other world leaders tend to be reserved as Trump fields questions from the press, Zelenskiy held his own, commanding his own turn before the cameras and stressing Ukraine's independence and autonomy.
"I'm sorry, we don't need help, we need support," Zelenskiy pushed back as Trump called on Europe to do more to help Ukraine. "Real support." And when Trump expressed hope that Ukraine and Russia could "get together and solve" their years-long conflict after Russia's annexation of Crimea, Zelenskiy couldn't hide his skepticism from his face.
Zelenskiy's unease at being in the center of the impeachment inquiry was clear. He told reporters "nobody pushed me" during his call with Trump, which he described as "normal." "I'm sorry, but I don't want to be involved to democratic open elections of USA," he added.
Zelenskiy thanked Trump for inviting him to Washington, joking, "I think you forgot to tell me the date." He invited Trump to Ukraine, saying that former President Barack Obama, "how to say it in English, didn't find time."
Trump responded with a laugh that he would try, before reminiscing that when he owned the Miss Universe contest, a woman from Ukraine won.
Miller reported from Washington.