9 min read

Zelensky’s message to America

Volodymyr Zelensky addresses Congress at a fragile time for the U.S.-Ukraine relationship.
Zelensky’s message to America
(Office of the House Speaker)

Good morning! It’s Thursday, December 22, 2022. The 2024 elections are 684 days away.

❄️ I hope all of you are staying warm. Per the National Weather Service, a “once in a generation” winter storm is sweeping across the U.S. today, with about 65% of Americans currently under weather warnings or advisories.  

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“Your money is not charity”: Zelensky thanks U.S., presses for more aid

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky spoke to a joint meeting of Congress and huddled with President Biden at the White House on Wednesday, in a whirlwind 10-hour visit to Washington that was his first journey outside of Ukraine since Russia launched its brutal invasion 10 months ago.

Throughout his address, Zelensky repeatedly thanked the U.S. — from Biden and bipartisan leaders on Capitol Hill to “every American family which cherishes the warmth of its home and wishes the same warmth to other people” — while also urging lawmakers to approve more aid.

“We have artillery, yes. Thank you. We have it,” Zelensky said. “Is it enough? Honestly, not really.”

Zelensky’s visit offers an opportunity to take a step back and consider the full sweep of his arc on the world stage. The story is a striking one, on both the individual and geopolitical levels. Zelensky’s career began as a comedian, playing the Ukrainian president in a TV show bearing the same name (“Servant of the People”) as the political party he now leads.

His first introduction to American politics was as a bit player in former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment, which centered around Trump’s 2019 phone call to Zelensky demanding that Ukraine investigate the Biden family in exchange for military aid to defend against threats from Russia.

Two and a half years later, Zelensky would become a wartime leader, as those same threats from Russia rose to the level of a full-scale invasion and the same political rival that Trump had wanted investigated had taken his spot in the White House.

American intelligence agencies expected that Ukraine would last only a few days against Russia, and offered to evacuate Zelensky and his family. “I need ammunition, not a ride,” he famously responded.

Instead, Ukraine has survived for the 300 days since, even regaining some of the territory Russia occupied in the beginning of the war. Zelensky, initially viewed by the U.S. as naïve and inexperienced, has been hailed for his heroic leadership and was named the 2022 “Person of the Year” by Time magazine.

Russia’s military, meanwhile, has been accused of committing repeated war crimes throughout the conflict, including torturing, raping, and executing civilians, many of whom have been found in mass graves in several cities.

Vice President Harris and Speaker Pelosi holding a Ukrainian battle flag behind President Zelensky. (Screengrab)

As Zelensky paid tribute to on Wednesday, Ukraine’s survival has been in no small part because of the American “ammunition” he requested in those early days. Over at The Atlantic, journalist-historian Anne Appelbaum imagines what might have happened had the U.S. refused to offer assistance:

“Kyiv would have been conquered in just a few days. Zelensky, his wife, and his children would have been murdered by one of the hit squads that roamed the capital city.”
“Ukraine would now be pockmarked with the concentration camps, torture chambers, and makeshift prisons that have been discovered in Bucha, Izyum, Kherson, and all the other territories temporarily occupied by Russia and liberated by the Ukrainian army. A generation of Ukrainian writers, artists, politicians, journalists, and civic leaders would already be buried in mass graves. Ukrainian books would have been removed from schools and libraries. The Ukrainian language would have been suppressed in all public spaces. Hundreds of thousands more Ukrainian children would have been kidnapped and transported to Russia or trafficked farther around the world.”

It is unclear, however, what the future of U.S. aid to Ukraine will be. Only about 85 House Republicans — out of 213 — attended Zelensky’s address on Wednesday; several, including Reps. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL), repeatedly stayed seated during bipartisan standing ovations for the Ukrainian leader.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who is favored to become House speaker in the next Congress, reiterated after the speech that Republicans will not support a “blank check” for Ukraine once they move into the House majority next month. The GOP is expected to push for greater accountability into the Ukraine aid program, although some members have called for blocking assistance outright.

Congress is expected to approve $44.9 billion in additional Ukraine aid as part of the omnibus spending package this week, which will push total U.S. support for Ukraine since the invasion above $100 billion. Biden announced during Zelensky’s visit that a new $1.9 billion aid package, already approved by lawmakers, will include the sophisticated Patriot air defense system for the first time.

“Your money is not charity,” Zelensky promised during his address. “It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”

Asked afterward if he found anything in Zelensky’s speech compelling, Gaetz responded: “I loved the fashion choices.” Zelensky wore the olive-green military shirt that has become his signature.

Presidents Biden and Zelensky answering questions from reporters. (White House)

After the pomp and circumstance of his American visit, Zelensky now returns to the realities of war on the ground in Ukraine. Although Zelensky projected that “Ukrainian courage and American resolve” would make 2023 a “turning point” in the war effort, U.S. officials reportedly expect the conflict to continue as a stalemate in the new year.

According to the New York Times, “as Russia improves its defenses and pushes more soldiers to the front lines,” officials expect Ukraine will have difficulty recapturing more territory, creating a scenario “in which neither army can take much land despite intense fighting.”

At the White House on Wednesday, Biden promised Zelensky that the U.S. and Ukraine would remain united as the war grinds on, although the two leaders have been divided at times on the specific weapons the U.S. should send.

“The American people have been with you every step of the way, and we will stay with you,” Biden said. “We will stay with you for as long as it takes.”

🚨 What else you should know

1. State Sen. Jennifer McClellan was declared the Democratic winner in a quick “firehouse primary” this morning to run in a February special election to succeed the late Rep. Donald McEachin (D-VA). Democrats had been worried that a twice-disbarred, anti-abortion state senator would win the nod in the safe-blue seat; instead, McClellan is now poised to become Virginia’s first Black woman in Congress.

2. Sam Bankman-Fried, the founder of crypto exchange FTX, is expected to appear in court in Manhattan today after being extradited to the U.S. from the Bahamas. Bankman-Fried, a major Democratic donor, has been indicted on criminal charges including wire fraud, money laundering, and campaign finance violations.

  • Plus: Two top FTX executives pleaded guilty to fraud on Wednesday; both are cooperating in the investigation into Bankman-Fried.

3. The House January 6th committee’s report, originally slated to come out Wednesday, is now poised to be released today. The panel did release the transcripts of interviews with Michael Flynn, Roger Stone, Alex Jones, and dozens of others — although not much information was revealed since those witnesses mostly pleaded the Fifth. Read the transcripts

  • Related: “Informant warned FBI weeks before Jan. 6 that the far-right saw Trump tweet as ‘a call to arms’” [NBC]

4. Hours before Zelensky’s speech, the Senate confirmed Lynne Tracy as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia. Tracy, the first woman to hold the post, previously served as the U.S. ambassador to Armenia and as the No. 2 American diplomat in Moscow. She was approved in a 93-2 vote, with Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Mike Lee (R-UT) alone in dissent.

5. “Designated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced late Wednesday that he has successfully formed a new coalition, setting the stage for him to return to power as head of the most right-wing Israeli government ever to hold office.” [AP]

6. “China is likely experiencing 1 million Covid infections and 5,000 virus deaths every day as it grapples with what is expected to be the biggest outbreak the world has ever seen, according to a new analysis.” [Bloomberg]

7. “Pelosi’s California home didn’t receive security review in four years before October’s violent attack, Capitol Police chief says” [CNN]

8. And finally, the weirdest story of the week gets even weirder: It has already been shown that Rep.-elect George Santos (R-NY) was likely lying about his education and work experience. Now new questions are even emerging about his claims of being openly gay and Jewish.

Former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu is about to return as prime minister. (World Economic Forum)

🗓 What your leaders are doing today

All times Eastern. Click on an event’s time to watch or listen to it.

Executive Branch

President Biden will receive his daily intelligence briefing (9 am) and a briefing on the coming winter storms (10:15 am).

Vice President Harris has not yet released her public schedule for the day.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has no press briefing scheduled for the third consecutive day this week. She generally holds briefings every weekday that the president is in Washington.

Legislative Branch

The Senate will convene (8 am) and hold a vote on confirmation of Franklin Parker to be Assistant Secretary of the Navy for Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

The chamber is then slated to vote on 17 amendments to the $1.7 trillion omnibus spending package. If everything goes according to plan, the Senate will then hold a final vote on the package itself. List of amendments receiving a vote

The spending bill briefly appeared in jeopardy Wednesday night due to a dispute over a GOP amendment that would extend Title 42, the pandemic-era policy that allows officials to quickly expel migrants at the southern border. The two parties struck a deal to hold a vote on the amendment, alongside another amendment that will boost border spending and give Democrats an off-ramp to oppose the first.  

The House will convene (9 am) and vote on at least two pieces of legislation:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi will hold her weekly press conference, most likely her last as speaker (10:45 am).

Judicial Branch

The Supreme Court is out this week.

👋 Before I go...

Here’s one more story I found interesting: Jenna Bush Hager, the daughter and granddaughter of presidents, has gone from being the “nation’s most scrutinized underage drinker” to “one of the most powerful figures in literature today,” or so says the New York Times.

Hager may be a classic “nepo baby,” but she has turned her perch as co-host of the fourth hour of NBC’s “Today” show into a role as possibly America’s top literary tastemaker. Publishing experts told the Times that Hager’s “Read with Jenna” series is the first real successor to “Oprah’s Book Club”; Hager’s selections routinely go from being unknown tomes to shooting to the top of bestseller lists.

“Once known for her last name, Ms. Hager has become as famous for her first,” the NYT reports, “the five letters glowing in ‘Today’-show orange across the signature purple sticker that novelists plot feverishly to slap onto their book covers.”

Click for the Times piece on Hager, an interesting read on the unexpected power of her book club and how she makes her influential selections (including with help from some fellow Bush family members).

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— Gabe