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Fareed Zakaria explains backstory of Zelensky plan to announce probes on CNN

CNN host Fareed Zakaria responded Sunday to a report from the New York Times that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was set to announce investigations into the 2016 election and the Bidens on his CNN show, prior to the Trump-Ukraine scandal and subsequent impeachment inquiry bursting into public view.

"Ever since Zelensky was elected president in April, my team and I have been interested in having him appear on the show. .... As we now know, for months the Trump White House had been mounting an intense campaign to force him to publicly announce ... investigations.
He had tried to resist and put them off in various ways, but ultimately decided he would have to give in, according to the Times. His team apparently concluded that since he was planning an interview with me anyway, that would be the form in which he would make the announcement. Though neither he nor any member of his team ever gave us any inkling of that."
— Fareed Zakaria

Context: The Times reports that Zelensky had been prepared to announce the probes on Zakaria's show on Sept. 13, succumbing to a months-long pressure campaign led by Trump's lawyer Rudy Giuliani. When the Trump administration released nearly $400 million in military aid amid outcry from senators and the initiation of an investigation by House Democrats, Zelensky's office reportedly canceled the interview.

Why it matters: The question of whether the aid was used as leverage to pressure Zelensky into announcing the investigations is at the heart of the impeachment inquiry.

  • Top Ukraine diplomat Bill Taylor testified last week that Trump wanted Zelensky in a "public box," telling the House Intelligence Committee: "Trump through Ambassador Sondland was asking for Zelensky to very publicly commit to these investigations. It was not sufficient to do this in private, that this needed to be a very public statement."
  • Taylor also testified that Zelensky and his aides believed it was a bad idea to interfere in U.S. elections, but that the Ukrainian president was still planning to go on CNN to announce the investigations Trump wanted.

What to watch: Zakaria noted that he is still hoping to do an interview with Zelensky, whom he described as "smart, energetic and with a much sharper feel for politics" than one may have expected.

Go deeper: Sen. Chris Murphy says Ukraine won't admit pressure because of reliance on U.S.