Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky holds a bullet as he addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly on Wednesday. Credit: Richard Drew | AP

WASHINGTON — The July 25 phone call that the White House released Wednesday was embarrassing for the leader at the heart of it. It showed him to be solicitous and willing to bend the rules in exchange for personal gain. Some might even say it showed him to be corrupt.

That leader was Volodymyr Zelensky.

Lost in much of the media coverage about how bad this might be for President Donald Trump was how bad it is for the new Ukrainian president — and how unenviable a position Trump has put him in. As a case study in the perils of foreign leaders playing the mercurial U.S. president’s game, it’s tough to do better than what we saw Wednesday.

Elected in April on an anti-corruption platform, Zelensky on the call appears to accede to Trump’s request that he meddle in his country’s law enforcement process to secure the specific investigations Trump asked for. He even suggests that the new prosecutor general (who had not been named at the time) would be at his disposal in that regard.

“The next prosecutor general will be 100 percent my person, my candidate, who will be approved by the parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September,” Zelensky said, according to the rough transcript. “He or she will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned in this issue.” (The “company” was the company that employed Hunter Biden.)

Later, Zelensky again repeated: “I also wanted [to] ensure you that we will be very serious about the case and will work on the investigation.”

At another point, Trump complained about how Europe doesn’t do enough for Ukraine and specifically targeted German Chancellor Angela Merkel as doing “almost nothing for you.” Zelensky then seemed to agree with Trump’s premise, at least in part, saying, “They are not working as much as they should work for Ukraine.” Zelensky also said:

“I did talk to Angela Merkel, and I did meet with her. I also met and talked with [French President Emmanuel] Macron, and I told them that they are not doing quite as much as they need to be doing on the issues with the sanctions. They are not enforcing the sanctions. They are not working as much as they should work for Ukraine. It turns out that even though logically, the European Union should be our biggest partner but technically the United States is a much bigger partner than the European Union, and I’m very grateful to you for that because the United States is doing quite a lot for Ukraine. Much more than the European Union especially when we are talking about sanctions against the Russian Federation.”

And at other points, Zelensky is obsequious to Trump. He suggests he learned from Trump’s campaigning skill. He says Trump is “absolutely right — not only 100 percent, but actually 1,000 percent.” He talks about how he once stayed at Trump Tower. He also jokes about how Trump’s plane “is probably much better than mine.”

Zelensky is already playing clean-up. In his joint appearance with Trump, Zelensky said he never leaned on his prosecutor general, despite suggesting he would make sure the situation was looked into.

“We have an independent country and independent [prosecutor general],” Zelensky said. “I can’t push anyone. That is the answer. I didn’t call somebody or the new [prosecutor general]. I didn’t ask him. I didn’t push him.”

Separately, Zelensky also told Ukrainian media that he was blindsided by the rough transcript, because he believed the White House would release only Trump’s side of it and not his own.

“I personally think that sometimes such calls between presidents of independent countries should not be published,” Zelensky told Ukrainian media in a briefing, according to Reuters. “I just thought that they would publish their part.”

He is also trying to patch things up with European leaders, suggesting he didn’t mean what he said about them failing Ukraine, and that it came at a tough time.

Zelensky was really tossed in the cauldron here. Like Trump, he’s a political novice who grabbed the country’s highest office. Ukraine is also a country with a demonstrated recent history of corruption that happens to occupy a very important geographic position, as it’s next to Russia. Managing relations with the West while holding off Vladimir Putin is already a difficult prospect.

But then you layer Trump on top of that. Trump has a way of doing his most controversial things out in the open — or in a way that eventually finds its way into the public sphere. Generally, when you are a foreign leader such as Zelensky, you will say the right things on these phone calls and try not to commit to too much, but you’ll believe that nobody will ever see what you talked about.

Yet through a combination of Trump asking for something problematic (an investigation of his election rival) and his White House’s dicey decision to withhold the whistleblower complaint, Trump has effectively forced the disclosure of stuff like the July 25 phone call.

That’s not to say Zelensky isn’t at fault; he didn’t have to agree to Trump’s premises and requests. However, Trump wields tremendous power in this and every other diplomatic relationship he is party to. Even if it was never stated directly as a quid pro quo, it had to be in Zelensky’s mind that failing to launch these investigations could imperil U.S. military aid or something else that Ukraine relies upon. It would also, importantly, hurt his chances of landing the meeting with Trump that he so badly desires for his own political stock back home.

That power imbalance, combined with Trump’s tendency to go where most politicians never would, is a toxic mix for foreign leaders who have to work with him. We’ll have to see how wounded Zelensky might be domestically in the days to come. But nothing about this is good for him, and he’s got Trump to thank for making it worse.