Former Ukrainian Ambassador Steven Pifer Breaks Down the Trump-Zelensky Phone Call

zelensky cropped President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters on Sept. 25, 2019. Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images.

Although the first in-person meeting between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on September 25 at the United Nations General Assembly looked like a “normal first meeting,” the question of whether Trump was pushing Zelensky during a July 25 phone call to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden remains, former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Steven Pifer told Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) Director Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast.

It’s important to look at the context of what was happening between the U.S. and Ukraine on July 25, Pifer told McFaul. For one thing, Trump had put nearly $400 million in military aid for Ukraine on hold before the call took place. In addition, the two countries were in the midst of planning a meeting between the two leaders at the Oval Office at the time.

“Those are big things for Zelensky, particularly at the beginning of his term in office,” said Pifer, who is a William J. Perry fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation. “If he can show that he delivers on the assistance and also on the photo op with the American president — that looks really good at home. And it’s also a good message to send to the Russians: ‘I’ve got a relationship with the Americans.’”

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Pifer noted that Trump’s attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has played a peculiar role in this situation. For several months, according to Pifer, Giuliani has been talking about “a story that has long been debunked.” That story — which alleges that in 2015, Joe Biden asked the Ukrainian government to fire its prosecutor general who had at one point been investigating Burisma Holdings, a Ukrainian company on which his son, Hunter Biden, sat on the board  — has “zero evidence” of being true, said Pifer.

“If anything, the Ukrainian prosecutor general offices were hampering investigations into Burisma Holdings,” Pifer pointed out. “And everybody wanted to see [former prosecutor general] Viktor Shokin gone — he was not doing his job. Giuliani has taken these two pieces and has tried to create an appearance of some big scandal, but there really is nothing there.”

Pifer added that he could not recall another instance during the span of his career when a private individual has been so deeply involved in what appears to be a “diplomatic or national security matter.”

“I believe this is damaging to American diplomatic efforts with Ukraine because you have an embassy there that is trying to pursue American interests,” he said. “For example, we want Ukraine to do more on reform, and we want Ukraine to help put pressure on Iran. And you have Giuliani coming in with a very different agenda.”

Related: Read Pifer’s recent blog post for the Brookings Institution: "The Dueling U.S. Foreign Policy Approaches to Ukraine Pose a Risk for Kyiv.”