Lev Parnas, the indicted Donald Trump donor who helped Rudy Giuliani press Ukrainian officials to smear the president’s political rivals, arrived in Washington on Wednesday to offer himself as a witness in the Senate impeachment trial.
Although Parnas is not on the list of four current or former administration officials Democrats have asked to be called as witnesses, he told reporters that he wanted to take part in the trial simply because “the truth needs to come out.” His lawyer Joseph Bondy admitted last week on MSNBC that Parnas has a second, less altruistic reason for wanting to speak before the Senate. If his client is eventually convicted of the violations of campaign finance laws he was charged with in federal court in October, Bondy said, a judge might give him a lighter sentence for having done his civic duty by exposing the president’s wrongdoing to Congress.
Parnas, who first asked the president to fire then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch during a private dinner in 2018 and later worked with Rudy Giuliani to stoke Trump’s rage against her, was on Capitol Hill when the news broke that John Bolton, the former national security adviser, had tipped off House Democrats in September that they should investigate the ambassador’s removal.
Rep. Eliot Engel, the New York Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement Wednesday that, in a phone call on September 23, “Ambassador Bolton suggested to me — unprompted — that the committee look into the recall of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch. He strongly implied that something improper had occurred around her removal as our top diplomat in Kyiv.”
While Engel’s revelation bolstered calls for the Senate to subpoena Bolton as a witness, the exact contours of the plot to fire Yovanovitch — which Parnas is accused by federal prosecutors of working on “at the request of one or more Ukrainian government officials” — remain a mystery that Parnas is uniquely positioned to illuminate.
Only Parnas, for instance, can explain who passed him the false information about the ambassador that he conveyed directly to the president over dinner on April 30, 2018 — prompting Trump’s first ineffectual order to fire her — and whether anyone in Ukraine asked him to circulate the rumor in Washington.
Audio of that exchange, which was recorded on the phone of Parnas’s business partner, Igor Fruman, and released by the House Intelligence Committee, makes it clear that the president had never heard any derogatory information about his ambassador to Ukraine before that moment and was even unaware of her name.
“I think, if you take a look, the biggest problem there, I think where we — where you need to start is, we got to get rid of the ambassador,” Parnas told the president.
“Where? The ambassador where, Ukraine?” Trump asked.
“Yeah,” Parnas replied, “and she’s basically walking around telling everybody, ‘Wait, he’s gonna get impeached, just wait.'”
“Really?” Trump asked, laughing.
“Yeah, it’s incredible,” Parnas answered.
“She’ll be gone tomorrow!” the president’s son, Donald Jr., could be heard joking.
“What’s her name?” the president asked.
After both Parnas and Fruman said they couldn’t recall the ambassador’s name, John DeStefano, the head of the Office of Presidential Personnel at the time, who was seated next to Trump’s son, seemed to suggest some sort of review was in order since Mike Pompeo had just been confirmed as the new secretary of state that week.
“So one of the things that we’ll be, now that we have a secretary of state that’s been sworn in –” DeStefano began before being cut off by the president.
“Get rid of her,” Trump said, to the audible delight of the other donors around the table. “Get her out tomorrow.”
When DeStefano tried again to make his point, saying: “One of the first things that we’ll —,” Trump cut him off again. “I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK?” the president said of an ambassador of whose existence he’d first became aware just 30 seconds before.
“Excellent,” Parnas could be heard saying on the recording.
“Do it,” Trump ordered.
In her testimony to the House impeachment inquiry in November, Yovanovitch denied that she had made the comments Parnas attributed to her. “Also untrue are unsourced allegations that I told unidentified embassy employees or Ukrainian officials that President Trump’s orders should be ignored because ‘he was going to be impeached’ — or for any other reason,” the career foreign service official said under oath. “I did not and would not say such a thing.”
The conversation at that donor dinner — which Parnas and Fruman bought their way into by giving $325,000 of mysterious origin to the president’s approved Super PAC, America First Action — raises two obvious questions Parnas has yet to answer. The event took place months before Parnas began working with Giuliani to solicit disinformation in Ukraine. So who told him that Yovanovitch had been badmouthing Trump in Ukraine, and did that person ask him to use the disinformation to undermine the ambassador in Washington?
Parnas did not respond to a request to answer these and other questions sent to his lawyer about his role in the plot against Yovanovitch.
In a recent CNN interview, however, Parnas said he had never met Yovanovitch, had no personal connections in Ukraine at the time, and relied mainly on Fruman — who did — for contacts. “I had a partner, in Igor Fruman, that grew up in Ukraine, had extensive business there and because of his businesses, he knew all kinds of people that were, you know, politicians,” Parnas told Anderson Cooper earlier this month. Fruman who owns an import-export business registered in New York, has a series of luxury boutiques in Ukraine and a beach club in Odessa called Mafia Rave. According to Aubrey Belford and Veronika Melkozerova of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, Fruman’s circle in Ukraine includes a shadowy businessman with close ties to the mayor of Odessa, who was reportedly once “a senior member of a feared organized criminal group involved in fuel smuggling and weapons trading.”
On MSNBC last week, when the audio of the dinner was released, Bondy suggested that the disinformation about Yovanovitch had come from Fruman and denied that Parnas had shared it with Trump because he had been “told to do so by some people in Ukraine.”
Another puzzling aspect of the story is that, just nine days after they heard Trump order the firing of Yovanovitch, Parnas discussed the rumor of her disloyalty with another official to whom he had donated money, Rep. Pete Sessions, a Texas Republican. According to the New York Times, after Parnas discussed a gas pipeline project in Ukraine with Sessions, he repeated what he had heard about the ambassador. Sessions immediately wrote to Pompeo, calling for Yovanovitch to be removed.
If Parnas had, as he now claims, little interest at the time in Yovanovitch, why did he feel compelled to trash her to Sessions, less than two weeks after getting the president to commit to firing her?
It is not clear why Parnas and Fruman decided to donate to Sessions’s campaign, but Roy Bailey, a Texas businessman who raised money for both Sessions and Trump, and is in business with Giuliani, was also at the April 30 dinner with them.
Sessions could have met Parnas and Fruman at another event for Trump donors that April at Mar-a-Lago, a briefing by Trump which all three men attended, and Fruman also recorded.
It would also be interesting to know if Parnas pressed for the ambassador’s firing two weeks after that, when he and Fruman had breakfast with Donald Trump Jr. and Tommy Hicks, a Republican fundraiser who helped organize the April 30 dinner and sat next to the president.
The fact that Parnas shared this derogatory disinformation about the ambassador with both Trump and Sessions in the spring of 2018, months before he began working for Giuliani, raises another question: Did the president’s lawyer, who went on to orchestrate a smear campaign against Yovanovitch, and personally pressed Trump and Pompeo to fire her, first hear about her supposed disloyalty from Parnas?
The evidence released by the House impeachment inquiry makes clear that one powerful Ukrainian official, Yuri Lutsenko, who was the prosecutor general until August, had nursed a grudge against the ambassador since October 2016, when she had pressed him to drop politically motivated investigations of anti-corruption activists and prosecutors who were critical of his office.
According to minutes obtained by the House Intelligence Committee, in two conversations Giuliani had with Lutsenko in New York in January, which Parnas attended, the Ukrainian criticized the American ambassador for shielding the activists and encouraging the work of Ukraine’s independent anti-corruption bureau, NABU.
Yovanovitch testified to the House impeachment inquiry that Ukraine’s interior minister, Arsen Avakov, privately warned her the following month to “watch your back,” because Parnas and Fruman, who presented themselves as Giuliani’s agents, told Ukrainian officials that they were working to have her fired.
While it remains unclear whether Parnas first met Lutsenko before or after he began working with Giuliani in late 2018, a series of Lutsenko’s WhatsApp messages to Parnas, recently released and translated by the House Intelligence Committee, shows that the chief prosecutor was even more forthright in his criticism of Yovanovitch in subsequent months.
In one message, from last March, Lutsenko complained to Parnas when the ambassador called for the firing of an anti-corruption prosecutor who NABU had wiretapped and caught on tape advising suspects in a corruption probe on how not to get caught.
The messages also reveal that, at some stage, Lutsenko seemed to demand that Yovanovitch be fired as a condition for supplying Giuliani with records of apparently legal payments to Hunter Biden for his work on the board of a Ukrainian gas company that could be distorted to make former Vice President Joe Biden look corrupt. “It’s just that if you don’t make a decision about Madam,” Lutsenko texted Parnas on March 22, 2019, “you are bringing into question all my allegations. Including about B.”
Four days later, as Giuliani orchestrated a smear campaign against Yovanovitch in the right-wing media, Lutsenko expressed his impatience, saying that he had obtained bank records of payments to Biden’s son from a Ukrainian gas firm he served on the board of, while “you can’t even get rid of one fool,” in reference to Yovanovitch.
“She’s not a simple fool trust me,” Parnas replied. “But she’s not getting away.”
Two days after that, in a March 28 message translated from Russian by the Washington Post, Lutsenko replied to a request from Parnas for records of payments to Hunter Biden from Burisma, the energy company that employed him, by writing: “I’ll give them to you through the new ambassador,” punctuated with a smiling emoticon.
In her testimony to Congress in November, Yovanovitch said that she was baffled by the need for the smear campaign against her on Fox News and social networks, which was orchestrated by Giuliani and boosted by a tweet from Don Jr. that Parnas asked for him to post. “I obviously don’t dispute that the president has the right to withdraw an ambassador, at any time for any reason,” Yovanovitch said, “but what I do wonder is why it was necessary to smear my reputation, falsely.”
WENSTRUP: The president has a right to have their own foreign policy and to make their own decisions.
YOVANOVITCH: While I obviously don’t dispute that … what I do wonder is why it was necessary to smear my reputation falsely.
WENSTRUP: Well, I wasn’t asking about that. pic.twitter.com/GgPIy8h6Va
— JM Rieger (@RiegerReport) November 15, 2019
The text messages surrendered by Parnas to the House committee suggest that the smear campaign — which culminated with a March 2019 segment on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show repeating the lies about the ambassador Parnas first told the president 11 months earlier — was an effort to satisfy Lutsenko and overcome Trump’s short attention span by casting her as a villain on Twitter and Fox News.
Former federal prosecutor Joe diGenova: “The current United States ambassador Marie Yovanovitch has bad mouthed the President of the United States to Ukrainian officials and has told them not to listen or worry about Trump policy because he’s going to be impeached.” pic.twitter.com/VOsmslfaao
— Ryan Saavedra (@RealSaavedra) March 23, 2019
Testimony from Parnas could help to clear up whether the entire campaign was driven by a desire to please Lutsenko, even if that might expose him to charges of having illegally acted as an unregistered agent of a foreign government official.
Perhaps most importantly, Parnas could also explain whether Yovanovitch was, as text messages sent to him by a Republican operative seem to suggest, under physical and electronic surveillance by Trump supporters for a whole week last March.
When the House Intelligence Committee released the bizarre, chilling WhatsApp messages about the apparent surveillance of Yovanovitch from Rob Hyde, an erratic Connecticut landscaper and Trump donor who is now running for Congress, Parnas told Rachel Maddow that because Hyde was frequently drunk, he had presumed that the whole thing was some sort of bizarre joke or fantasy. At one point in their exchange, Parnas did respond “LOL” to Hyde’s claim that he had people on the ground in Ukraine who are “willing to help if we/you would like a price. Guess you can do anything in the Ukraine with money… what I was told.”
Hyde himself initially said that he was just “playing with” Parnas, but then told an NBC affiliate in Connecticut that he had, in fact, simply passed on what looked like information about Yovanovitch’s whereabouts and movements from another passionate Trump supporter, a Dutch citizen named Anthony de Caluwe.
Hyde, who forwarded screenshots of de Caluwe’s messages to Parnas, then claimed that Rep. Adam Schiff had dispatched the Belgian “to fuck with me.” But de Caluwe is a diehard Trump supporter, whose Facebook timeline shows him at many Trump events, including Christmas at the White House and New Year’s at Mar-a-Lago, as well as with the president in front of Air Force 1.
De Caluwe wrote on Facebook that he met Hyde at a July 31, 2018 rally in Tampa, where Trump campaigned for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
After another batch of messages released by House investigators showed that Hyde had been receiving what appeared to be updates on the tracking of the American ambassador from de Caluwe’s Belgian phone, and that he shared screenshots of those messages with Parnas. At one stage in the exchange, when Hyde wrote, “they’ll let me know when she’s on the move,” Parnas replied, “Perfect.”
Adding to the mystery over whether the surveillance of Yovanovitch took place or was a weird fantasy shared by two diehard Trump supporters, de Caluwe, who splits his time between Europe and Palm Beach, Florida, said in a statement that the text exchange with Hyde was “just a part of a ridiculous banter.” If so, it was a remarkably prolonged and detailed gag, with no obvious punch line.
Comedy writers, here is your challenge: explain how these texts from Anthony De Caluwe to Rob Hyde about surveilling the US Ambassador to Ukraine, could possibly be, as they now both claim, part of a comic exchange described as banter. What's the joke? pic.twitter.com/S0qtqEaZGn
— Robert Mackey (@RobertMackey) January 18, 2020
A week later, a spokesperson for de Caluwe, the conservative commentator Karyn Turk, announced that the Belgian was suing Hyde for defamation and seeking $2 million in damages. The harm to de Caluwe’s reputation, the suit filed in a Florida court alleges, was caused by Hyde’s claims on television and Twitter that de Caluwe might have ties to the CIA and FBI and had asked Hyde to pass the information about the apparent surveillance of the ambassador on to Parnas. The lawsuit was publicized by Turk, who is a close friend of Roger Stone, and was filed in Palm Beach county by Peter Ticktin, a lawyer who attended high school with Donald Trump.
While both Hyde and de Caluwe denied that they had anyone in Ukraine tracking the ambassador, Ukraine’s interior ministry announced an investigation into the possible surveillance of Yovanovitch in Kyiv described in the text messages.
“Ukraine’s position is not to interfere in the domestic affairs of the United States of America,” a ministry spokesperson told reporters on January 16. “However, the published references cited contain a possible violation of the law of Ukraine and the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.” The spokesperson added that Avakov, the interior minister who had warned Yovanovitch and also exchanged texts with Parnas, requested the cooperation of U.S. authorities in the investigation. “Ukraine expects the United States of America to respond promptly and looks forward to cooperation,” the spokesperson said.
The Senate’s Republican majority, with its eyes fixed on the goal of a speedy acquittal for Trump, may decline to call Parnas as a witness. But if he wants to make amends for hounding Yovanovitch, he could start by telling us everything he knows about it.