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His call with Trump may have sparked the whistleblower complaint. Who is Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky?

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 9/22/2019 Siobhán O'Grady
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Volodymyr Zelensky had absolutely no political experience when he became Ukraine’s president after an April election he won in a landslide.

But his unexpected rise to power in some ways mirrored the trajectory of the character he was known for playing on TV: Vasyl Holoborodko, a schoolteacher who is elected president after one of his students records him ranting against government corruption and the video goes viral.

Zelensky, 41, became a star in Ukraine for headlining the popular series, called “Servant of the People,” since 2015.

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Now, he finds himself facing a new level of international scrutiny in his job in real life.

On Aug. 12, about two and a half weeks after Zelensky spoke by phone with President Trump, a complaint was filed with Michael Atkinson, the U.S. inspector general of the intelligence community, detailing an episode in which Trump allegedly committed a “serious or flagrant problem, abuse or violation of the law.”

Atkinson addressed the concern by labeling it a matter of “urgent concern,” which legally triggered mandatory notification of congressional oversight committees.

That soon sparked a standoff between lawmakers and Washington’s intelligence community, and Joseph Maguire, acting director of national intelligence, has since rebuffed requests to share details of the alleged incident with Congress.

Little else is publicly known about the nature of the complaint. On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported that two former officials said it stemmed from Trump making a “promise” to a foreign leader. On Thursday, The Post reported that two people familiar with the matter specified that the complaint was focused on Ukraine, bringing the focus back to Trump’s call in July with Zelensky.

Trump denied any wrongdoing in tweets following The Post reports. Speaking to reporters on Friday, Trump refused to say whether he mentioned the family of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in his phone call with Zelensky. “It doesn’t matter what I discussed,” he said, adding that it was “a beautiful conversation.”

When he speaks with world leaders, he said, his conversations are “always appropriate … at the highest level, always appropriate.”

Democrats had already launched an investigation into that call over concerns that Trump and his attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, are attempting to coerce the Ukrainian government into helping Trump win reelection next year. Democrats have said they believe Trump sought information linked to Biden’s positions on Ukraine that could be used to damage his presidential campaign.

As vice president, Biden took a hard line against Ukrainian corruption. On a 2016 trip to Kiev, when Biden was still in office, he encouraged Ukrainian officials to dismiss the country’s top prosecutor, Viktor Shokin, and threatened to withhold $1 billion in U.S. funding if they did not comply, the New York Times reported in May.

A number of other Western countries also took the position that Shokin needed to step down, citing allegations that he had failed to crack down on corruption.

Biden’s son, Hunter, was serving on the board of a Ukrainian-owned gas company at the time, raising suspicions in some circles that the elder Biden was trying to ensure the prosecutor general, who was investigating the company, did not complete his probe.

Ukrainian lawmakers eventually voted out the prosecutor general, but no evidence has surfaced that Biden’s stance was influenced by his son’s work.

In May, Giuliani canceled a planned trip to Ukraine, during which he acknowledged that he planned to pressure the Ukrainian government into investigating the Biden family’s ties to Ukraine. “They say I was meddling in the election — ridiculous — but that’s their spin,” Giuliani said of Democrats at the time.

In a heated interview on CNN on Thursday night, Giuliani insisted Biden behaved improperly, then contradicted some of his own statements over whether he asked Ukrainian officials to investigate the Bidens. On Friday, Trump said someone “ought to look into” Biden.

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.”

In his first speech after taking office in May, in a move reminiscent of his humble TV character, Zelensky urged Ukrainians to refrain from idolizing him or hanging his portrait in their offices. “Hang photos of your children there, and before every decision, look them in the eye,” he said.

He also called on lawmakers to remove a number of high-level officials, including the defense minister, the prosecutor general and the head of security services.

“So that our heroes don’t die anymore, I’m ready to do anything,” Zelensky said. “I’m ready to lose my ratings, my popularity, my post for peace to come — without losing our territories.”

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 a major standoff in Washington.

Read more:

He played Ukraine’s president on TV. Now he has taken office as the real one.

Trump’s interest in stirring Ukraine investigations sows confusion in Kiev

After winning Ukraine’s presidency, actor who played the part on TV faces reality

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