On July 25, 2019, President Donald Trump asked Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for a favor.
Zelensky has been in office for less than two months. A former comedian had ousted the incumbent by pledging to eradicate systemic corruption. His country had already been fighting Russian-backed militias in the east for five years; American assistance was crucial to preventing a rebel victory.
Meanwhile, Trump was skyrocketing. He just dodged a bullet – again – by successfully spinning the report of then-Special Counsel Robert Mueller to prove that “there was no collusion”. Freed from the Russia investigation, he has set his sights firmly on the 2020 election and what Zelensky can do to improve his odds.
The similarities between Zelensky and Trump seem shallower now than they did then.
As of Monday, it’s been 963 days since that phone call, and the reversal of fortune between the two men since then couldn’t be more clear. It’s been 901 days since the full contents of “Trump’s perfect call” with Zelensky were reluctantly announced. It’s been 817 days since the House of Representatives impeached Trump over the scheme behind his call for Zelensky. It’s been 18 days since Russia invaded Ukraine, turning Zelensky into an unexpected war hero.
When Zelensky was running for office, the prospect of a country electing a man who played the president on television led to comparisons with our own decision to appoint a man to the White House best known for playing a businessman on television. They had no background in politics. Both turned to their innate showmanship during their campaign, lending their own elections Feeling like a circus Sometimes.
In everyone’s interest, the similarities between Zelensky and Trump now seem shallower than they did then.
Zelensky and his advisors knew before he was sworn in that the US president would be a concern. Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, has spent the past few months searching for evidence that Ukraine, not Russia, meddled in the 2016 US presidential election. The former Ukrainian attorney general who disgraced former Vice President Joe Biden has been filling Giuliani’s ear with a potential scandal surrounding Mr. Biden Hunter, who has been doing business in the country.
Just hours after the call between Trump and Zelensky, Ukrainian officials in Washington heard rumors that the United States was withholding $391 million in military aid approved by Congress. The rumors were true. Back in Ukraine, the request had already been fulfilled: all Zelensky had to do was announce that Biden was under a criminal investigation. An international scandal would spoil Biden’s presidential run before it even began; Ukraine will get the help Trump ordered and the long-awaited meeting at the White House.
Zelenskyy became a meme in the literal sense of the word.
Three years ago, a supposed friend forced Zelensky to stay in the corner. With his back against the wall, he gave in to Trump’s demands. Zelensky was scheduled to sit down for an interview with CNN on September 13 to announce the Bidens investigation — but implementation was delayed when three House committees announced that a whistleblower had informed Congress about the call in July. Soon after the congressional investigation began, Zelensky’s team quickly canceled the interview, and military assistance was finally released.
Today, Zelensky has been forced into a corner by a known enemy. This time, he refused to back down. For nearly three weeks, Zelensky received world accolades for his leadership in the face of Russian military onslaught. He remained in Kyiv, defiantly making video headlines for Ukrainians, Russians and the world, rallying their support and promising to stand up for his homeland.
Before the war, Zelensky’s approval rating at home was about 25 percent. Now it’s sitting near 91 percent. Zelensky was met with a similar response abroad: he was warmly welcomed by the British Parliament; His passionate plea for help from the European Union caused weary officials to shy away from years of passive acceptance of Moscow’s behavior. This week, he will address both the Canadian Parliament and a joint session of the US Congress. It became a meme in the literal sense of the word, and now it is known and recognized all over the world more than any previous Ukrainian leader.
In September 2019, just hours after the White House released the full transcript of their July phone call, Zelensky and Trump met face-to-face for the first time on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. In a brief appearance before the press, Trump insisted that “there is no pressure.” Zelensky agreed that “nobody pushed him.” We can now appreciate the acting skills on display that day as a blackmailer with none of the cards trying to avoid alienating the leader of the most powerful country in the world.
Trump has remained defiant throughout the investigation process, relying on congressional Republicans to defend him during hearings. His faith rewarded. In the House of Representatives, the Trump wing of the Republican Party condemned Ukraine as a hopelessly corrupt country. They promoted conspiracy theories and carelessly justified bullying by Giuliani idiots. They insisted, “there was no trade-off,” and even if there was, there was nothing Trump had done as commensurate with an offense under criminal law.
No Republican member of the House of Representatives voted in favor of the charges against Trump, despite overwhelming evidence. By the time the Senate began its trial, a trial in which Republicans did not allow new witnesses to be called, the outcome was clear. Only one Republican, Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, will vote to convict Trump. Trump will remain in office for another year, still bent on overhauling the 2020 election to ensure his victory, which led to his second impeachment.
Today, the Republican Party has decided that Ukraine is a bastion of democracy under siege thanks to the weakness of the Biden administration. Gone are the Russian talking points about Ukrainian wrongdoing in 2016. There is no longer any mention of Trump’s willingness to put his political future at the expense of Ukraine’s ability to defend itself. It is a symptom of pathological hypocrisy and intentional short-term memory loss.
When Zelensky and Trump spoke in July 2019, neither of them were where they would have been expected just five years ago. Both men had their careers running in front of the camera, before voters gave them the heft of leadership. One chose to build their brand which collapsed in the process; The other chose to build his country, which withstood strongly in the face of destruction. While Trump remains a laughingstock at home and abroad, Zelensky weeps big men with his speeches.
In short, in the years since their call, Zelensky has managed to get what Trump always realized but never achieved: respect.