Barely 100 days into his tenure as the leader of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky has been abruptly thrust into the center of a U.S. political scandal stemming from his post-election phone call with President Trump in July.
The 41-year-old political novice – better known in his native country for his comedy and portrayal of the president on a TV show – is embroiled in an impeachment debate in the U.S. over whether Trump abused his presidential powers and sought help from Ukraine to undermine former Vice President Joe Biden, and help his re-election.
Zelensky, who has a law degree from the Kryvyi Rih Institute of Economics, had no political background when he sought to unseat former Ukrainian leader Petro Poroshenko earlier this year. Despite the law degree, he never worked professionally in the legal field.
Campaigning on the idea of a unified Ukraine, Zelensky rode a wave of support in the country’s west and east – areas that are traditionally polarized – on his path to the presidency.
He pledged to finally end the war in the country’s eastern region and root out corruption amid widespread fury over soaring prices and falling living standards. His campaign mirrored that of his character in the widely regarded television show “Servant of the People.”
In the show, Zelensky played a political novice who vows to fight the country’s corrupt elite.
Zelensky won a runoff election vote in April by a landslide, winning 73 percent of the vote, while Poroshenko got 24 percent.
After the election win, Trump and Zelensky had a call on July 25, where the American president congratulated his Ukrainian counterpart for his win. In the call – as highlighted in a declassified transcript released by the White House on Wednesday – Trump broached the subject of Biden and his son, Hunter.
While the memo shows that Trump sought a review of Biden family dealings in the Eastern European nation, it does not show Trump explicitly leveraging military aid as part of a quid pro quo, as Democrats have suggested in pressing forward with impeachment.
In the days before the phone call, Trump ordered advisers to freeze $400 million in military aid for Ukraine, prompting speculation that he was holding up the money as leverage for information on Biden.
Trump has denied that charge but acknowledged pressing Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board of a Ukrainian energy company.
Ukraine has been a focus of U.S. interest, and recipient of millions of dollars in American aid, since a pro-Western government took power in 2014 and Russia annexed Ukraine's Crimean Peninsula, throwing its weight behind separatists fighting in eastern Ukraine.
The country has energy resources that have made it a magnet for people looking for business opportunities such as Biden’s son Hunter.
It has a messy political scene that has turned it into a lucrative destination for political consultants and lobbyists such as former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who was convicted last year on charges related to his political consulting work in the country.
In his diplomatic debut, Zelensky addressed the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, steering clear of the controversy regarding the phone call and its fallout.
He made no mention of the matter as he called for wide international support for his country, 5 years after Russia annexed Crimea.
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky holds a bullet as he addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. (AP)
He warned that in an interconnected world, “there is no more ‘somebody else’s war.”
“Millions of human lives have become the price for negligence, silence, and inaction or unwillingness to relinquish ambitions," he said. "Every leader bears his share of responsibility not only for the destiny of his own country but for the whole world."
On Tuesday night, while at the U.N., Zelensky met with Trump. The Ukrainian leader tweeted a photo of him, Trump and their wives, Olena Zelenska and first lady Melania Trump.
The snapshot was paired with a caption saying the two leaders “talked” at a reception last night. Official talks are expected to continue Wednesday.
Fox News' Alex Pappas, Travis Fedschun, The Associated Press contributed to this report.