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2 Years Since Call With Trump, Ukrainian President Met With Biden At The White House

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Today at the White House, there was a meeting in the Oval Office that has been two years in the making. It started with a phone call, July 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DONALD TRUMP: My call was perfect. The president yesterday of Ukraine said there was no pressure put on him whatsoever, none whatsoever.

KELLY: Then newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was on the line with then President Donald Trump trying to secure a White House meeting. Trump used the conversation to press for dirt on a political opponent. He did not get what he wanted. He got impeached instead. Zelenskyy didn't get what he wanted either, at least not until today, when he met with that political opponent, Joe Biden. NPR's Scott Detrow joins us now from the White House.

Hey, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

KELLY: I'm trying to decide where to start. Talk about a meeting with a whole lot of baggage.

DETROW: I mean, it's hard to remember, given the pace of news in the past years, including an entirely separate impeachment. But Zelenskyy, just to refresh everyone, had desperately wanted to meet face to face with president, and according to the transcript of that key July 2019 call, Trump dangled the possibility of that meeting and also, a bit more vaguely, U.S. military support for Ukraine on the condition that Zelenskyy help him dig up dirt on Hunter Biden, who had been a member of a board of a Ukrainian energy company. Zelenskyy refused, of course. Trump was impeached, as you said. He was acquitted. A lot of history. To be clear, though, the White House had zero interest in addressing that history today. I tried to ask Press Secretary Jen Psaki about it during today's briefing.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

DETROW: The events, the man's phone calls that led up to the 2019 impeachment - I'm just wondering, did they factor in any way into the way the White House prepared for this meeting, specifically the fact that Hunter Biden was a key part of those conversations with the last administration and Zelenskyy? And did President Biden expect in any way, shape or form to address that dynamic in today's meeting?

JEN PSAKI: No.

KELLY: I can hear just how much she wants to talk about it, Scott. Did any news, any development actually come out of today's meeting?

DETROW: According to the White House, they finalized $60 million in what the White House frames as security assistance for Ukraine, which would include javelin missiles. Remember, Russia still controls Crimea and is a constant threat to Ukrainian independence. Biden reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine and its independence in that meeting today.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRESS CONFERENCE)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And the United States remains firmly committed to Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression.

DETROW: Though White House officials are sticking to the same noncommittal general language on whether they would want to see Ukraine eventually in NATO - that's something Ukraine wants, but Russia would certainly see as a major sign of aggression.

KELLY: And why was it that Ukraine, that President Zelenskyy wanted this Oval Office meeting so badly?

DETROW: Well, it was critically important in 2019, when he was a new leader and when President Trump was repeatedly expressing ambivalence about how much the U.S. would stand up for European allies against Russia. And even while Ukraine is not a NATO ally, Zelenskyy wants to project a close relationship with the United States, even if much of the White House focus right now is largely elsewhere, with a hurricane, the Afghanistan withdrawal and COVID, among many other things. This is still a big moment for Zelenskyy. He is just the second European leader to meet with Biden in the Oval Office, following German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

KELLY: And I suppose worth just noting the backdrop - constraining Russia is something the Biden administration does care about, does want to talk about. In fact, that's one of the reasons Biden has given for getting out of Afghanistan.

DETROW: Absolutely. He sees this existential struggle between Western democracy and the growing clout of authoritarian governments like Russia and China as the key issue in foreign policy of his administration.

KELLY: That is NPR's Scott Detrow at the White House for us.

Thank you, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.