In wake of impeachment, U.S. senators to visit Ukraine

FILE PHOTO: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskiy speaks during a joint news conference after a Normandy-format summit in Paris, France December 10, 2019. REUTERS/Charles Platiau/Pool

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Three U.S. senators will meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kiev on Friday, seeking to reinforce the importance of his country as a strategic U.S. ally after he found himself at the center of President Donald Trump’s acrimonious impeachment trial.

“The U.S.-Ukraine relationship is as important now as ever,” Republican Senators Ron Johnson and John Barrasso and Democratic Senator Chris Murphy said in a statement on Wednesday announcing their trip.

“The future of Ukraine matters to the United States and we must make sure Ukraine knows that we view them as a strategic ally,” they said.

Johnson and Murphy last met with Zelenskiy in Kiev on Sept. 5, as his government was dealing with Trump’s decision to freeze nearly $400 million in security assistance.

Murphy told reporters at a news conference in Washington with Johnson on Sept. 10 that Ukrainian officials did not have a full understanding of why the money might be withheld, and that they had brought up the issue in every meeting during their trip.

That decision, and Trump’s telephone call with the Ukrainian leader to discuss it, became central to an investigation of Trump that led to his impeachment by the Democratic-led House of Representatives late last year.

The Republican-led Senate acquitted Trump last week. His defense argued that the money had been withheld because of corruption in Ukraine, not to put pressure on Zelenskiy. Trump insisted his call with Zelenskiy had been “perfect.”

Democratic impeachment managers contended that Trump withheld the money to put pressure on Zelenskiy to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democratic rival to Trump as he seeks re-election this year, and Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, who was on the board of a Ukrainian company.

Johnson is chairman, and Barrasso and Murphy are members, of a Senate subcommittee on Europe and Regional Security Cooperation.

Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Alistair Bell