Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers America a Christmas message: But why was he here?

Ukraine's leader came to D.C. in the same week Congress referred Trump for prosecution. It's a powerful symbol

By Brian Karem


Published December 22, 2022 9:11AM (EST)

US President Joe Biden and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky meet in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, DC on December 21, 2022. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky meet in the Oval Office of the White House, in Washington, DC on December 21, 2022. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)

Longtime White House correspondent Brian Karem writes a weekly column for Salon.

I know the human mind is limited. 

Nothing in our religions or in science can adequately explain our existence, let alone explain the universe.

So I'd settle with understanding the last five days of news: That would be the updated 12 days of Christmas, that includes four DOJ referrals, three mice in the West Wing's men's room, two MAGA GOP congresswomen fighting with each other and one visit from Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Zelenskyy was at the top of the news Wednesday with a hastily announced visit to the White House and Congress. It all came together during the last 10 days, but at first no one was sure why it had to happen now and what it was all about.

A day before he came to Washington, Zelenskyy made an unexpected trip to Bakhmut, a city in the eastern Donetsk region of Ukraine where some of the bloodiest fighting in the war is taking place. He said it was the "hottest spot on the entire front line," with 800 miles of active fighting. 

The visit also came a few days after Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Belarus and either did or didn't (depending on what reporting you saw) strike a deal with President Alexander Lukashenko to provide either troops or more hardware to Putin's flagging war effort. 

Early speculation from some was that Zelenskyy's appearance in Washington was to counter Putin's visit to Belarus. Others thought Zelenskyy wanted to make an appearance in Washington to underscore Ukraine's need for ammunition and weapons as the inevitably hard and cold winter settles in.

Joe Biden said during his dual press conference with Zelenskyy on Wednesday afternoon that Putin was using the winter weather "as a weapon" to kill civilians by targeting infrastructure. For his part, Zelenskyy said he wanted to thank the American people and noted that Ukraine and the U.S. were closer allies than ever. That doesn't mean Biden and Zelenskyy see eye to eye on everything. Biden said there were some things that Ukraine wanted (offensive weapons) that the U.S. will not give because such things would escalate the violence and widen the war. He also said he wouldn't give weapons that would undermine NATO or our European allies. He didn't say what those were, but again, it isn't hard to guess that even though it's Christmas, Biden's not playing Santa Claus and delivering offensive weapons, even if Putin has been naughty and Zelenskyy has been nice.

It may be Christmas, but Joe Biden isn't delivering offensive weapons in Ukraine's stocking, even if Putin's been naughty and Zelenskyy's been nice.

All of this played out before Zelenskyy traveled to a joint session of Congress where he again pleaded his case. Never mind that more than one congressional member griped about staying in town this close to Christmas. Those who were there ultimately listened. Reps. Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz (call them the Putin caucus) didn't stand and cheer with other House and Senate members, but they showed up.

Still, none of this seemed to fully explain why Zelenskyy chose Wednesday as a day to visit. Biden said it was the 300th day of the war — but do you travel halfway across the world to mark the occasion? You've spoken by Zoom to everyone about everything you spoke to them about in person. Was it a plea to Congress not to abandon him? Was it about a possible resolution to the war? A diplomatic maneuver? Or was there another reason?

Upon his arrival to the White House I shouted, "What do you hope to accomplish while you're here?" No reply. Biden put his arm on Zelenskyy's shoulder and they turned and walked inside.

Was he trying to cement our resolve? He just got a Patriot missile battery and the U.S. will train Ukrainians to man it. He just got $45 billion more from the U.S., but reports said he showed up on American soil to shore up support. "I wish you peace," Zelenskyy said when asked what he wanted to say to the American people.

During the bilateral press conference, Biden said that all politics is "personal," a twist on the old Tip O'Neill saying: "All politics is local." Biden also said he looked Zelenskyy in the eye and could "see his soul" and that he trusted and believed Ukraine's leader. What did Zelenskyy tell him? We don't know. I certainly would like to hear what it was that touched our president so much.

At the end of the day Zelenskyy, still dressed in his war uniform, as he had been all day, heard bipartisan cheers as he spoke to Congress. He put his hand to his heart and thanked Americans for allowing him to visit. With the honesty and emotional integrity that Biden said he saw in the man, he impressed everyone with the resolve that only an embattled freedom fighter could muster.

He spoke of his "respect and gratitude" to the U.S. He thanked us for helping Ukraine and spoke of the "great privilege" he felt in speaking before Congress about his country that "against all odds and gloom and doom" is still standing. "Ukraine is alive and kicking," he stated. That brought thunderous applause and a standing ovation.

As it turns out, the reason for Zelenskyy's visit was as deep as this: The medium is the message. 

Merely by standing before Congress he illustrated his premise: "We defeated Russia in the minds of the world." He said that freedom was stronger, unity was stronger, Europe was stronger and "Russian tyranny has lost control over us."

As he stood before Congress preaching about American resolve, he united Democrats and Republicans as no president has been able to do in a generation. He compared the Ukrainian stand in Bakhmut to the 101st Airborne Division's stand against the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge.  That got another standing ovation.

Of course some didn't see it that way. Boebert and Gaetz, along with a few stragglers who still blame the Jan. 6 insurrection on everyone except Donald Trump — the only man who stood to benefit from it — stayed seated at key moments with smirks that gave away their privileged, ignorant nature.

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That brings us to the other big news event this week, standing in direct juxtaposition to Zelenskyy's appearance before Congress. On Monday, Rep. Jamie Raskin of Maryland read out the four criminal charges that the Jan. 6 House committee was referring to the Justice Department for the potential prosecution of Donald Trump.  

"Ours is not a system of justice where foot soldiers go to jail and the masterminds and ringleaders get a free pass," Raskin said.

Ranking member Liz Cheney, a Republican who voted with Trump 93 percent of the time during his administration, was more pointed. "This was an utter moral failure and a clear dereliction of duty," Cheney said of Trump's attacks on the peaceful transfer of power. "He is unfit for any office."

Liz Cheney used the legacy of Ronald Reagan to defend democracy. Forget it: Reagan's true legacy is Donald Trump.

The referrals include obstruction of an official proceeding, conspiracy to defraud the United States, conspiracy to make a false statement and inciting, assisting or aiding and comforting an insurrection. The last, should he be charged and convicted, would at least theoretically prevent Trump from ever running for office again. Zelenskyy dodged bullets to keep his government alive. Trump tried to incite an insurrection to kill the government he ruled at the time.

Cheney also used the visage and legacy of Ronald Reagan in an effort to defend democracy and the rule of law. You could describe that as an admirable effort to convert old-line Republicans to her cause, but to me that's where she crossed the line. Ronald Reagan's legacy is Donald Trump. It was Reagan who courted the far right, introduced supply-side economics, engineered the destruction of the free press and crushed a union during his time in office. His cheery autocracy led to the divisiveness that gave us Newt Gingrich, Matt Gaetz, Lauren Boebert, Louie Gohmert and others. He was no friend to democracy. He was not a shining example of bipartisanship — and probably couldn't get elected in the Republican Party as it exists today, even though he was one of its leading architects. He wasn't qualified to shine Zelenskyy's shoes. 

As for Liz Cheney, she may be the hero of the moment. She stood fast against Trump as he tried to shred the Constitution, but she's no Zelenskyy either. She's a far-right outgoing member of Congress whose only redeeming virtue is she cares about the blessings of liberty enshrined in the Constitution. That's not nothing, of course.

*  *  *

I walked into the men's bathroom in the West Wing on Wednesday,after Zelenskyy's appearance at the White House, still trying to figure out if there was a hidden meaning to his appearance. 

I didn't get it yet. I had the feeling I was missing something. 

I was also thinking about the difference between Zelenskyy, who could lose his life on any given day to a Russian missile or an Iranian drone, and Donald Trump, who essentially tried to do to American democracy what Putin and Russia are trying to do to Ukrainian independence and had been referred to the DOJ on four criminal charges just two days earlier — although it felt like a lifetime ago.

Cheney's pronouncement about Trump's unfitness for office echoed through my mind. Raskin's reading of the referrals felt like a drumbeat. Did our country deserve the praise Zelenskyy had given us? By the narrowest of margins did this country persevere after Trump tried to destroy it. We were hanging by a narrow thread just two years ago. I shook my head.

Then I looked down to see three mice in the bathroom, possibly playing poker or trading Christmas presents. I had to laugh. Mice in the White House are more ubiquitous than reporters, politicians and security cameras. They're more resilient than cockroaches and Keith Richards. They have survived Trump and their descendants will probably inhabit the building long after I retire.

My phone buzzed and I checked the news. It was the latest on the feud between Boebert and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene feud over Kevin McCarthy's bid to be House speaker. That means absolutely nothing to me, but I'm told it is symbolic of a huge split in the Republican Party.

But the symbol I kept thinking about was Zelenskyy. As he spoke before Congress he praised the world but gave his greatest praise to the United States, saying, "So much of the world depends on you."

In the last five days of news we've had four DOJ referrals, three mice in the men's room, two battling members of Congress and one heroic visit from the soldier-president of a distant land. He reminded us of the truth: We are still the bright light shining on the hill to which others aspire — or we can be if we want to be ...

So a Happy Festivus — for the rest of us.

By Brian Karem

Brian Karem is the former senior White House correspondent for Playboy. He has covered every presidential administration since Ronald Reagan, sued Donald Trump three times successfully to keep his press pass, spent time in jail to protect a confidential source, covered wars in the Middle East and is the author of seven books. His latest is "Free the Press."

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