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Zelenskyy finally gets the White House respect he sought, earned

Watching Volodymyr Zelenskyy, it was hard not to wonder how much better off Ukraine would be if Donald Trump had treated our ally as well as Joe Biden has.

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It’s not uncommon for American presidents to welcome counterparts from abroad to the White House. It’s far less common for foreign heads of state to address members of Congress in a joint gathering of lawmakers in the U.S. House chamber.

But by any fair historical standard, nothing about yesterday was normal. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, nearly a full year into a brutal war sparked by a Russian invasion, arrived in the midst of crisis circumstances, reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s arrival in Washington, D.C., around Christmas 1941.

If U.S. and Ukrainian officials hoped to send a signal to the world about the strength of our alliance, the message was unmistakable. NBC News reported, for example, on a striking Oval Office meeting midday.

In an extraordinary face-to-face meeting at the White House on Wednesday, President Joe Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy that the U.S. “will stay with you as long as it takes” as the country enters what promises to be a brutal winter of war with Russia. Biden pledged “unequivocal and unbending support,” saying the U.S. will give Ukraine the Patriot missile battery it has requested to counter Russian missile and air attacks and much more.

Soon after, the Ukrainian leader made his way to Capitol Hill, where Zelenskyy was hailed as a hero, “entering the House chamber Wednesday evening to thunderous and lengthy applause, as lawmakers of both parties rose to their feet while some unfurled a large blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.”

As part of his remarks, the president told American lawmakers, “Your money is not charity. It is an investment in global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”

The comments echoed the sentiment endorsed by Biden and many leading U.S. officials. Indeed, there was no request for anything reciprocal from Ukraine — because nothing about our current collective conditions is transactional. The White House and congressional leaders recognize U.S. support as money well spent, not just for Ukrainian interests, but in the interests of democracy, international stability and rules-based order around the world.

For Zelenskyy, the hero’s welcome was clearly heartening. It was also painfully overdue.

In fact, watching the war-time leader yesterday, it was hard not to wonder how much better off Ukraine would be right now if Donald Trump had treated our ally as well as Biden has.

Almost immediately after his election in 2019, Zelenskyy, fearing unprovoked Russian aggression, desperately looked for ways to strengthen Ukraine’s relationship with the United States. After receiving a congratulatory call from Trump soon after his victory, Zelenskyy told the then-president that if an American leader could travel to Kyiv for his inauguration, it would be “a great, great thing for you to do.”

As a Washington Post report noted yesterday, Trump did not go, and neither did then-Vice President Mike Pence, though he was originally supposed to. The Post’s analysis added that we later learned that Pence’s trip was canceled “after an aide to Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani allegedly told the Ukrainians that the vice president’s attendance was contingent upon Zelensky announcing an investigation into Joe Biden.”

As we’ve discussed many times, it was just three months later when Trump and Zelenskyy spoke again. According to an official White House call summary, the Ukrainian leader broached the subject of military aid with his American counterpart, at which point the Republican replied, “I would like you do us a favor, though.”

What followed was a scheme in which Trump tried to leverage security assistance to an ally in the hopes that Zelenskyy and his government would help the American president cheat ahead of the 2020 U.S. elections. This was an illegal extortion scheme for which the then-president was impeached.

It came against a backdrop of Trump personally forcing out a capable U.S. ambassador in Ukraine and spreading baseless propaganda about Ukraine.

As outrageous as Trump’s misconduct appeared at the time, it looked worse after Vladimir Putin launched his invasion. Kevin Madden, a Republican strategist, told NPR earlier this year, “There’s just a lot of evidence that Trump was wrong on this issue [Ukraine] and that in many ways, we undermined the NATO alliance and we undermined Zelenskyy’s position in the eyes of Russia and Putin.”

Under Trump, Zelenskyy was extorted, weakened and made more vulnerable. Under Biden, the Ukrainian leader has been celebrated, supported, and given the White House meeting he’s long wanted.

By all appearances, Zelenskyy was pleased by the support he received yesterday. For Americans embarrassed by the previous administration, there was also a degree of satisfaction in seeing the United States reclaim its role as the preeminent global leader.