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Impeachment Today Podcast: Is Ukrainian President Voldymyr Zelensky In Over His Head?

All of today's impeachment news, plus: How will the newly elected president of Ukraine handle the heat of US politics? We talk to Chris Miller in Kyiv to get the details.

Posted on October 28, 2019, at 12:12 p.m. ET

Gints Ivuskans / Getty Images

Ukrainian Presideny Volodymyr Zelensky drinks during a joint press conference with the President of Latvia.

It's Monday, October 28, 2019, 34 days since House Democrats began impeachment proceedings. Every morning, the Impeachment Today podcast will help you separate what’s real and groundbreaking from what’s just, well, bullshit.

In today's episode: House Democrats win access to the full, unredacted Mueller report, and all the grand jury testimony given during the Russia investigation. A State Department official is asking a federal judge to decide whether he should testify in the impeachment investigation. And we're asking: who is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, and is he in over his head?

You can listen to today's episode below, or check it out on on Apple Podcasts, the iHeartRadio app, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your favorite shows.

In a July phone call, Donald Trump asked the Ukrainian president for two favors, both related to US domestic politics, which is kind of bad. We know this because the White House released a transcript of the call, which if you read it, it says, that's exactly what happened. President Zelensky has said in public while sitting next to Trump that there was no pressure on him to deliver on those favors, but that's not what other officials have told reporters and Congress. They've testified that the White House made clear it would block the release of military aid to Ukraine until Trump got what he wanted. The House is now investigating.

This weekend was a busy one with a lot of news on a lot of fronts, so here's what happened. As far as impeachment goes. A district court has granted House Democrats full access to grand jury testimony given during the Russia investigation. They also will be provided the full unredacted version of Robert Mueller's final report released earlier this year. That decision is big for two reasons. First, it undermined one of the main arguments coming from the White House and Republicans in Congress. In their telling, because no vote has actually been taken in the House, there is no impeachment inquiry. If no inquiry exists, no need to see the grand jury materials. The judge basically said there is most certainly an inquiry and gave them until October 30th to turn over the documents to Congress. The administration will likely appeal the decision. This is also big because Democratic leaders have said previously that the inquiry will focus on the alleged quid pro quo pushed on Ukraine, but here's where things get interesting. Mueller in his report detailed several times where Trump could be seen as attempting to obstruct the investigation. The materials being turned over to Congress could bring those cases into play.

That takes us to our other story and it's one that made me go, "Wait, really" when I first heard it. Charles Kupperman was the deputy national security advisor up until last month. House Democrats subpoenaed him to testify on Monday, which is today, but the White House wrote a Kupperman saying, essentially, "My guy, don't do this." So Kupperman filed a lawsuit against both the White House and Congress. In his filing, he asked a federal judge to issue a ruling on which branch he should listen to, which I got to say kind of a bold move, but the chairs of the House committees running the inquiry did not see it that way. They sent Kupperman a letter warning him that he could definitely be held in contempt if he didn't show up. The letter also said that a no show could be seen as a potential obstruction of justice from the White House. As of late Sunday night there was no word on whether Kupperman would actually turn up for his testimony, so someone's bluff is getting called by the time you're listening to this. We'll talk about the fallout tomorrow. That was the news.

This was the noise. Former White House chief of staff John Kelly said on Saturday that he told Trump that he would wind up impeached if the president hired a yes man as Kelly's replacement. White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham in response told CNN, "I worked with John Kelly and he was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our great president." So that happened.

And now if you just want to know where today ranks in the grand scheme of things, we have today's reading from our Nixometer.

On our scale, a zero is a normal day in a normal White House and 10 is President Richard Nixon resigning and flying away in Marine One. This morning we're at a five. Other news managed to push impeachment from the top of the headlines this weekend, but there was enough uncertainty in the air about where things go next that everything's still feels unsettled. Okay, it's time for a quick break. We will be right back with more madness before you know it.

Welcome back. Every episode here on Impeachment Today, we take the time to dive into one aspect of the whole mess that really deserves our attention, a person, an event, or an idea. Today we're doing that in another edition of This Fucking Guy. Volodymyr Zelensky has been president of Ukraine for less than six months, but he's already caught in between a rock and a hard place as a key figure in the US impeachment saga. To talk to us about just who Zelensky is and how he's handled the global spotlight, we called up Chris Miller, who's reporting from Kiev, the capital of Ukraine. Hey, Chris.

Chris Miller:

Good morning.

Hayes Brown:

So up until a few weeks ago, you'd make pretty good money here betting whether a random person on the street could name the president of Ukraine, but now he's mentioned on the news all the time and is at the core of the biggest story in the US, so I wanted to talk to you about just who is this Zelensky character and where did he come from?

CM:

I think as recently as a couple of months ago or just a few weeks ago, I think that the biggest controversial is how exactly to spell his name and how many, how many y's were going to be used in it, and now here he is splashed across every front page in the world, it seems. It wasn't too long ago that he was not on this international political stage, but an actual comedy stage. Volodymyr Zelensky is not a politician, not in any way until he became president. He actually has been for the last 20-odd years a comedian. That's not a joke.

HB:

So let's fast forward, though to the last couple of years where Zelensky became a national figure in Ukraine for, and it's so wild this is true, for playing the president of Ukraine on television.

CM:

So their comedy troupe gets popular, they hit the big time, they get a big TV contract, and their stand up shows and improv shows and sketch comedy shows are broadcast on national television. Then in, I believe it was 2015, somebody among them has this brilliant idea. Look, what if we start a television show in which you, Volodymyr Zelensky, play an accidental president?

HB:

He's a neophyte, an entertainer, new to politics, who won the most powerful position in his country because of the role he played on television. How familiar. So as he navigates this, who were the people he surrounded himself with? Because one of the things that's been interesting as Trump has gotten used to the office is watching the cast of characters around him. Who's in Zelensky's orbit?

CM:

There's no shortage of colorful characters over here. First and foremost, I think, is this controversial oligarch by the name of Igor Kolomoisky. Zelensky is a new face in politics. He's a neophyte. People voted for him because he promised new faces. He is a new face himself, but he actually does have some baggage and this oligarch is part of that. Igor Kolomoisky is this oligarch who owns the TV channel that aired Zelensky's Servant of the People series and the comedy shows that his troupe performed, and one of the things that he can't seem to shake is this other sense that Kolomoisky is actually close to him personally. Critics of Zelensky even going as far as to say that Zelensky is not the real president, that he's the puppet and that Kolomoisky is the puppet master and he's the one who's actually pulling the strings.

CM:

The former government under President Viktor Yanukovych, the one that was ousted by the revolution, there's actually a guy who served in his government who is now Zelensky's chief of staff, and so this has been a one person that a lot of Ukrainians have really focused their attention on. It's not only that. It's also that this guy, the chief of staff, his name is Andriy Bogdan, happened to also be the personal lawyer for Igor Kolomoisky-

HB:

Oh, no.

CM:

... the oligarch who owns the TV channel.

HB:

Okay. Wow.

CM:

Zelensky has had to deal with allegations of corruption himself, of cronyism and besides himself being a new face, actually surrounding himself with some controversial older faces.

HB:

Meanwhile, shady characters are approaching him from the United States trying to push what has been referred to here as a shadow foreign policy. The AP has reported that even as he was preparing to take office, Zelensky was really worried about Rudy Giuliani's weird investigations and back channel requests from Trump, but not really from the US government. And then we have the phone call. So how has Zelensky handled himself in the face of all that?

CM:

Well, his tactic or strategy rather has been to avoid it at all costs?

HB:

Oh, a good strategy. Just run and hide. I refuse to talk about this.

CM:

He is a neophyte. He's not experienced at this, and a lot of the people around him also are people who came up with him in his comedy troupe or with him in business, so they also don't know what to do. They're really kind of figuring things out as they go. They have imposed this sort of policy of silence. They're really not talking on the record to reporters. They're not making a lot of public appearances. Like I said, they're trying to avoid the spotlight at all costs. You really can't blame them, right? I mean, the US is Ukraine's biggest financial backer. Ukraine is a country at war. It relies heavily on military aid from the US and financial assistance to push through reforms-

HB:

Including the $391 million that's at the core of this whole saga, this whole impeachment inquiry.

CM:

Exactly. While you're trying to stay out of the spotlight, you still have to deal with the US because you need this assistance. Zelensky knows that just about anything he says can be spun one way or another to fit a specific narrative in the US.

HB:

How has this been playing out for him? Has this strategy of his been working, this keep quiet and hope that it all kind of blows past him without Ukraine being seen as too much in Trump's camp or too much in the Democrats'? And how has this been playing out at home? I mean, Ukraine, I'm sure, is not appreciative of the fact that their business is all out there in the open like this, especially after the transcript was released.

CM:

Honestly, I think Zelensky's been playing this as good as he could play it. Ukrainians don't want to get caught in the middle of this. They've got their own problems here, but it also hasn't hurt Zelensky. Zelensky came into office having one more than 70% of the vote. It was the largest margin of victory ever in Ukraine's independent history, and he's had an approval rating of over 70% since taking office. He only dropped to below 70% and is hovering in the kind of mid-60s because of his push for peace in the east, which some have seen as a little bit controversial but has nothing really to do with the scandal that's embroiling Washington.

HB:

Okay, so let's jump ahead a year in the future. It's 2020 just before the US elections. What's your prediction for what things are like for Zelensky at this point, if you can make any predictions?

CM:

Man, I've been in Ukraine for a long time. Every time I made a prediction, something has come out of left field. I'm hesitant to make any prediction. I don't know.

HB:

That makes you the wisest of analysts.

CM:

I don't think that this Ukraine-US story is going to go away. I think Zelensky is going to continue to stay as far out of it as possible. I'll ... okay, I'll make a prediction. I will say that this White House visit that Zelensky has been wanting from Trump, I will bet you it will happen.

HB:

Oh, wow.

CM:

And I'll bet you it'll be super awkward.

HB:

Okay. That's a very, very good prediction. Really quickly, it is time for the kicker. We ask our guests to bring with them a tweet, a quote, a something that really sums up the moment that we're living through. Okay, Chris. What do you got for me today?

CM:

I haven't had a whole lot of time to look at anything other than news, but I saw this clip that I thought should be outrageous, but then I've watched it and I felt like it actually wasn't that far from reality. It was John Lithgow on The Late Show impersonating a wine-guzzling Rudy Giuliani claiming that the 2016 election was hacked by Hunter Biden who is actually a Men in Black-style alien being operated by a tiny Hillary Clinton in his neck.

HB:

Wow. Yep. You know what? That fits. All right. Chris, thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate you taking the time.

CM:

Thanks for having me.

Hayes Brown:

Up next, we have Testify the segment where we talk about who's testifying in Congress and what the hell to expect. Alexander Vindman is at least scheduled to appear on Tuesday, although there's still a chance the White House tries to stop him from testifying. He's currently the director of European affairs on the National Security Council, AKA he still works for the White House. Vindman was one of the five officials who attended President Zelensky's inauguration back in May. Two of his fellow attendees have already been questioned about their role in pushing Trump's domestic political favors on Ukraine. That means if he does speak against the White House's wishes, he could wind up filling in some of the gaps about what those early days of contact between the Trump and the Zelensky administrations looked like, at least officially.

Okay. That's it for today. We'll be back with more of whatever the heck awaits us tomorrow. Listen and subscribe on Apple Podcasts, the iHeartRadio app, Spotify, or wherever you listen. I don't have a quid pro quo to offer, but leave a rating or review and tell your friends as we figure this all out together.

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