The meeting is a high-wire act for both leaders as Zelensky tries to avoid angering the U.S. president or his Democratic opponents while Trump tries to disarm allegations that have generated a formal impeachment inquiry by the Democrat-controlled House.
At issue is a July phone call between Trump and Zelensky in which Trump is said to have brought up investigating former vice president Joe Biden, a potential 2020 presidential opponent, and his son. Days before the phone call, Trump ordered a hold on the aid for Ukraine, which has been fending off Russian-backed separatists in the country’s east.
Trump has denied the suggestion that he linked the disbursement of U.S. military aid to Ukraine’s willingness to investigate Biden’s son, saying Tuesday that he withheld the aid over his concern that European countries were not contributing enough to help support Ukraine.
“My complaint has always been, and I’d withhold again and I’ll continue to withhold until such time as Europe and other nations contribute to Ukraine because they’re not doing it,” Trump told reporters.
Zelensky is just one of a dozen leaders Trump is meeting in New York on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, but the tête-à-tête became a focal point of the global gathering after a whistleblower from the U.S. intelligence community raised allegations about Trump’s behavior.
The Trump administration has blocked Congress from seeing the complaint. But Trump authorized the release of a transcript of the call, which is expected to be made public hours before his meeting with Zelensky.
“For the Ukrainians, this is a nightmare,” said Sam Charap, a Russia expert at the Rand Corporation. “They are in damage-control mode: trying to minimize the controversy and not openly embracing one or another U.S. partisan position. They want Trump’s support in his capacity as president of the United States but do not want to be seen as partisan.”
John Herbst, a Ukraine expert at the Atlantic Council, said the two leaders have an incentive to conduct a “calm and peaceful meeting,” but anything is possible.
“Both sides have an interest in stressing that they have a good formal relationship: Zelensky because he needs a relationship with the United States, and President Trump because the events of the past several days have cast a cloud over him and he needs to demonstrate that he and Zelensky get along.”
“Sometimes President Trump is impulsive, so we can’t be certain of what happens,” he added.
Whatever apprehensions the Ukrainians may have, they do not appear to be shared by Trump. In recent days, the president has expressed confidence to his aides that the transcript would eventually be released, and would embarrass his critics and political opponents, according to people familiar with the matter.
Instead, the furor intensified and now there are concerns in the administration that the transcript may be received publicly as confirmation of the darkest interpretation of what happened.
“It’s an incredible miscalculation,” one of the people said. While Trump did not feel a sense of urgency about releasing the transcript, some of his advisers have been pressing him harder to do so, particularly as talk of impeachment gained momentum among House Democrats.
On Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry of the president, dramatically raising the stakes and setting up a constitutional clash between Congress and the executive branch.
“The actions of the Trump presidency have revealed the dishonorable fact of the president’s betrayal of his oath of office, betrayal of our national security and betrayal of the integrity of our elections,” Pelosi said in brief remarks.
Trump has admitted that he asked Zelensky to probe Biden’s son, who has connections to a business that was under investigation, but he denied exerting any pressure on him.
Hunter Biden served for nearly five years on the board of Burisma, Ukraine’s largest private gas company, whose owner came under scrutiny by Ukrainian prosecutors for possible abuse of power and unlawful enrichment. Hunter Biden was not accused of any wrongdoing in the investigation. As vice president, Joe Biden pressured Ukraine to fire the top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who Biden and other Western officials said was not sufficiently pursuing corruption cases. At the time, the investigation into Burisma was dormant, according to former Ukrainian and U.S. officials.
Devlin Barrett and Ashley Parker in Washington contributed to this report.