CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article incorrectly described Serhiy Leshchenko as a current advisor to Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskiy. Leshchenko advised Zelenskiy’s transition team following his election in April but has since been distanced by the administration. He is no longer advising Zelenskiy.
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When Ukrainians voted to elect comedian Volodymyr Zelenskiy as their next president in the spring of 2019, the fledgling administration was eager to to have a meeting with Kyiv’s most important benefactor -- the United States, according to a former adviser to Zelenskiy.
But after weeks of discussions with American officials, Ukrainian officials came to understand there was a condition for any meeting with Trump, the former adviser said.
"Ukrainian officials were asking for a meeting with Trump for along time. As I remember, it was a clear fact that Trump wants to meet only if Biden case will be included,” said Serhiy Leshchenko, an anti-corruption advocate and former member of Ukraine's Parliament, who had been a former adviser to Zelenskiy but has recently been distanced from the administration. "This issue was raised many times. I know that Ukrainian officials understood."
Asked if it had been understood as a condition, Leshchenko said, "Yes."
Leshchenko is a respected anti-corruption campaigner who has sometimes been at the center of the saga in Ukraine involving Trump's demands that Biden be investigated. As a journalist and MP in 2016 he helped publish secret accounts logs showing allegedly illegal payments from the former president of Ukraine's political party and that included the name of Trump's then-campaign manger Paul Manafort. After the logs' existence were reported, Manafort stepped down as campaign manager. Recently, Giuliani has attacked him over his role in that incident and sought to suggest he helped set off the Russia investigation into Trump.
A well-known reformer, when Zelenskiy was elected in April, Leshchenko advised his team during the transition. But since at least May, the administration began distancing itself from him reportedly because of concerns about being seen as too close to him while he was attracting criticism from Giuliani.
Leshchenko on Thursday sought to back track his comments, telling ABC News that he did not know if officials had viewed discussing Biden as a precondition for a meeting and that he had meant it was just obvious that Trump had wanted to talk about it.
The Trump administration’s alleged insistence that the two leaders discuss a prospective investigation into Biden, one of the president’s political opponents, would cast his July 25 conversation with Zelenskiy in a new light.
During the call, a rough summary of which was released by the White House Wednesday, Trump repeatedly encouraged Zelenskiy to work with Attorney General William Barr and his personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, to probe Biden’s role in the dismissal of the country’s prosecutor general, Viktor Shokin, in 2016.
In an interview with ABC News in April 2019, Shokin said he believed Biden pressured the government to fire him because he was leading an investigation into Burisma, a Ukrainian oil and gas company where Biden’s son, Hunter, had a seat on the board of directors.
But the assertion that Biden acted to help his son has been undercut by widespread criticism of Shokin from several high-profile international leaders, including members of the European Union and International Monetary Fund, who said Biden's recommendation was well justified and that Shokin had been removed because of widely shared concerns he was obstructing efforts to root out entrenched corruption in his office and Ukraine’s judicial system.
During a bilateral meeting with Trump on Wednesday in New York, Zelenskiy reaffirmed that he has no interest in getting Ukraine involved in U.S. politics and denied that Trump had pressed him to investigate Biden.
"I'm sorry, but I don't want to be involved in ... elections of USA," Zelenskiy said. "No, you heard that we had, I think, a good phone call. It was normal, we spoke about many things, and you read it that nobody pushed it, nobody pushed me."
Fallout from the release of a transcript chronicling Trump’s July phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart has sparked partisan furor in the United States. But in Ukraine, according to Leschenko, the prospective investigation was part of an effort by a Ukrainian official to curry favor with the Americans.
The source of the proposed investigation was Shokin’s successor as prosecutor general, Yuri Lutsenko, who fed the idea to Giuliani and has spoken about it publicly before he was removed from his post this summer.
Leshchenko and another former senior Ukrainian law enforcement official said they believe that Lutsenko invented the investigations that Giuliani pushed as part of an effort to keep his job.
In early 2019, Lutsenko’s position as prosecutor general was under threat after Zelenskiy -- who was then heavily ahead in the polls -- promised to remove him if elected president. Leshchenko and the other official said Lutsenko had then sought out Giuliani in a desperate bid to try to enlist the Trump administration in the hope it would somehow protect him.
"We understood that he was just trying to protect his position in the new administration using this scandal," Leshchenko said. "And he put Ukraine on this battlefield."
Leshchenko and other Ukrainian officials said that as far as they were aware no investigation was ever opened into Biden. They said that if the Trump administration suspected that Biden and his son had broken the law, then U.S. authorities should submit a formal request that Ukraine investigate through the usual channels.
"If there will be a request from the American side, we’ll look at it," Anton Gerashchenko, who was appointed Ukraine’s deputy interior minister on Wednesday, told ABC News. He said that as far as he was aware no formal request had ever been made.
Leshchenko himself has been attacked by Lutsenko and Giuliani, who have alleged he played a role in the origins of the Russia investigation into Trump that Giuliani has claimed were sown in Ukraine by Democrats and their allies there.
The attacks focus on Leshchenko's publishing parts of the secret accounts books, which belonged to the party of Ukraine's former president Viktor Yanukovych, who was toppled by mass protests in 2014. Giuliani and Lutsenko alleged that Leshchenko acted unlawfully in helping publish the parts of the ledgers involving Manafort, and while Lutsenko was still prosecutor general, a court in Kyiv in December convicted Leshchenko of illegally harming the interests of Ukraine. Leshchenko appealed that judgment, however, and in May a court in Kyiv cleared him of any wrongdoing and ordered he be paid compensation, he said.
The saga with Giuliani, Leshchenko said, had placed Ukraine in a very difficult position. The the key thing now was for Zelenskiy’s administration to remain neutral and not appear to take sides either with the Democrats or Republicans, he said.
"The best way for Ukraine is to be neutral," he said. "Ukraine has done nothing wrong."