KYIV, Ukraine — Ukraine's president insisted Thursday that he faced "no blackmail" from President Donald Trump in their phone call that led to an impeachment inquiry, distancing himself from the U.S. political drama and trying to claw back his own credibility.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy said for the first time that his country will "happily" investigate the conspiracy theory pushed by Trump that it was Ukrainians, not Russians, who interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. And he encouraged U.S. and Ukrainian prosecutors to discuss investigating a gas company linked to the son of Trump's Democratic rival Joe Biden, although no one has produced evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the former U.S. vice president or his son.
While responding to Trump's requests, Zelenskyy insisted he was not his puppet, and he appeared to be trying to put an end to questions that have dogged the new Ukrainian president since details of his July 25 call with Trump emerged.
He said U.S. officials have presented zero evidence of Ukraine's interference in 2016, but it's in his country's interests to find out once and for all what happened.
In an all-day "media marathon" held in a Kyiv food court, Zelenskyy played down suggestions that Trump pressured him in exchange for U.S. military aid to help Ukraine battle Russian-backed separatists. Democrats leading the impeachment inquiry in Congress believe Trump held up the aid to use it as leverage to pressure Ukraine and advance his domestic political interests.
Responding to questions from The Associated Press, Zelenskyy said he only learned after their phone call that the U.S. had blocked hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid to Ukraine.
"There was no blackmail," he said.
"We are not servants. We are an independent country."
Zelenskyy met with journalists in groups of 10 on the second floor of a hip food hall built in an old factory in Ukraine's capital. While he fielded questions in Ukrainian, Russian and English from journalists sitting with him around a table, others sat below eating.
At one point, he leaned over the railing to see a woman who shouted up that she had not yet received the government subsidies she needs to pay her utility bills and he promised to help. The event appeared to wrap up after more than 10 hours, but Zelenskyy then returned to the table and resumed answering questions from a new group of journalists.
The July call embarrassed the 41-year-old president because it showed him as eager to please Trump and critical of European partners whose support he needs to strengthen Ukraine's economy and to end the conflict with Russia.