Zelensky, 41, became a star in Ukraine for headlining the popular series, called “Servant of the People,” since 2015.
Now, he finds himself facing a new level of international scrutiny in his job in real life, meeting with President Trump on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Wednesday.
Earlier in the day, the White House released a rough transcript of a phone call between the two presidents. The July conversation between Trump and Zelensky is at the center of a huge controversy in Washington, after a whistleblower raised concerns about the call and the inspector general for the U.S. intelligence community said what the whistleblower described could have amounted to a violation of campaign finance law.
As The Washington Post reported, senior Justice Department officials have said prosecutors determined Trump’s conduct did not amount to a criminal offense. But on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) announced a formal impeachment inquiry into the president, accusing him of violating the Constitution in seeking help from a foreign leader to damage a political opponent. Trump confirmed a Washington Post report Tuesday that in mid-July he ordered the withholding of almost $400 million in aid to Ukraine, but that it was not part of an effort to coerce any action.
The memo released Wednesday showed that Trump asked Zelensky to cooperate with the U.S. attorney general to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, who worked on Ukraine issues while serving in the Obama administration. He is now a leading Democratic candidate for the 2020 presidential race.
Speaking next to Trump at the U.N. Wednesday, Zelensky denied he had been pressured during the call. “Nobody pushed me,” he said.
The Obama administration took a hard line against Ukrainian corruption, with Biden joining other Western leaders calling for the removal of the nation’s top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, who was seen as not being aggressive enough. Biden even threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. loan guarantees if Ukraine did not remove Shokin.
Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, was serving on the board of a Ukrainian-owned energy company, Burisma Holdings, whose owner, oligarch Mykola Zlochevsky, was a subject of one of the corruption probes. This raised speculation in some circles that the elder Biden was trying to ensure Shokin didn’t follow through with any investigation into that company, though no evidence has emerged that proves that was the case.
Shokin was ousted by the Ukrainian parliament in March 2016, more than three years before Zelensky took office as president. U.S. and Ukrainian officials have claimed that the investigation into Burisma was not ongoing when Shokin was forced out.
According to the transcript released by the White House on Wednesday, which is not a verbatim report of the call, Zelensky took a relatively light tone during the conversation, in which Trump congratulated him for his party’s win in parliamentary elections. Zelensky, a professional comedian, joked that he only heard from Trump when he had won an election.
“I think I should run more often so you can call me more often and we can talk over the phone more often,” the memo describes him as saying. He also flattered Trump, telling him that his campaign put to use lessons they learned from Trump’s own presidential run in 2016.
During the call, Zelensky mimicked some of Trump’s own terminology, saying he wanted “drain the swamp” to eliminate corruption in Ukraine as Trump often says about Washington. He also told Trump the last time he visited New York, he stayed at Trump Tower and repeatedly assured Trump has “friends” in Ukraine.
Trump told Zelensky he wanted him to speak with Attorney General William P. Barr about the tough stance Biden took on Shokin. “Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it. ... It sounds horrible to me,” Trump said, according to the memo.
A number of Democrats are now backing plans to begin an impeachment inquiry, citing Trump’s request that a foreign leader help him investigate Biden, one of his political rivals.
Nina Jankowicz, a fellow at the Wilson Center, said she was not particularly surprised by Zelensky’s approach on the call. “He’s a showman, he understands how flattery works,” she said. “He knew exactly what to say to make President Trump’s ears perk up.
“I think he was willing to do what was necessary to secure that aid, plain and simple, and to stay on Trump’s good side,” she said.
In some ways, Jankowicz said, Zelensky’s unexpected emergence in the spotlight the same week he flew to New York for his first appearance at the U.N. General Assembly could be an opportunity for him to get more attention than he would have otherwise. “He might be able to come out at least if not unscathed then relatively unscathed,” she said.
Zelensky, who founded the multimillion-dollar production company Studio Kvartal 95, brought business experience and media savvy to his new role as president — but not much else. Still, on the campaign trail, he promised to fix some of Ukraine’s most stubborn problems, such as deeply entrenched corruption and the five-year conflict with Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine that has killed at least 13,000 people.
He also promised to keep Ukraine on a path toward joining the European Union and said he would want any decision to join NATO to be voted upon through a national referendum.
His pledges were enough to help him oust the incumbent, Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire who made his fortune in the confectionery business. During a debate against Poroshenko, Zelensky — himself a wealthy celebrity — said he is “just a simple person who came to break the system.”
His political party, named for his TV series, managed to seat 254 lawmakers in a snap general election this summer. Like Zelensky, all of them are political newcomers: Not a single one had served in parliament before, and the party organized a special boot camp for them to learn the ins and outs of politics.
It was after that election that Trump called to congratulate Zelensky, his office said at the time — the same phone call that is now at the center of the standoff in Washington.
Ruby Mellen contributed to this report.