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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy Makes U.N. Debut Amid Controversy With Trump


Ukraine's new president has been in office less than six months, and he is already caught up in an American political drama. Volodymyr Zelenskiy sat down today with President Trump in New York just hours after the White House released an account of their recent call.


PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKIY: It's better to be on TV than by phone I think.


SHAPIRO: Democrats say the notes from that call show President Trump was pressuring Zelenskiy to dig up dirt on Trump's Democratic rival, Joe Biden. Trump denies that, and Zelenskiy clearly wants to move on, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: President Trump often criticizes the Obama administration for what he sees was a reluctance to help Ukraine after Russia annexed Crimea and fomented a separatist conflict in the east of the country.


TRUMP: If you remember, you lost Crimea during a different administration, not during the Trump administration.

ZELENSKIY: So you have chance to help us.

TRUMP: That's right. But that was during the Obama administration that you lost Crimea.

KELEMEN: As Trump harped on his grievances about Democrats, Zelenskiy said he doesn't want to be involved in U.S. election politics. He's been trying to end a war, and this was his U.N. debut. In his speech to the U.N. General Assembly today, the comedian turned politician talked about the human cost of the conflict in Ukraine.


ZELENSKIY: (Through interpreter) I do realize every country present here has its own challenges to tackle, and the problems of others should not worry you more than your own ones. But I understand this is life, but in the modern world where we live, there is no more somebody else's war.

KELEMEN: Zelenskiy came to office in May. He's already overseen a dramatic prisoner exchange with Russia that raised hopes of a new round of diplomacy to end the conflict. French president Emmanuel Macron reinforced that in his U.N. speech.


PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Through interpreter) President Zelenskiy has taken the first steps. President Putin has responded in kind. The progress over the past few weeks have been made and here we know what should be the next steps.

KELEMEN: The next steps, Macron says, is for the diplomatic group that's been trying to resolve the war in Ukraine to get back together. Germany and France have taken the lead. The U.S. has an envoy, Kurt Volker, working on this as well, but he's also been tied up in politics, helping Trump's lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, reach out to the Ukrainians. Giuliani wants the Ukrainians to investigate Joe Biden and his son. Trump is defending Giuliani's involvement and urging Ukraine to crack down on corruption. Zelenskiy says that is one of his priorities.


ZELENSKIY: We have independent country and independent general security. I can't push anyone, you know?

KELEMEN: And Zelenskiy says he didn't feel pressure from Trump in that phone call that was in the news today or when the president withheld U.S. military aid to Ukraine.


ZELENSKIY: Nobody push it - pushed me. Yes.

TRUMP: In other words, no pressure.

KELEMEN: President Trump seemed to feel vindicated by the comments, brushing off questions about the growing calls in Washington for his impeachment. Trump had a long list of things he wants Ukrainians to look into, including whether it played a role in the start of the Robert Mueller investigation. As for the war, he said he hopes that Zelenskiy can work things out with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.