Lev Parnas has shown us Trumpism from the inside.
One good thing about surrounding yourself with tawdry gangsters and grifters is that if they flip on you, you can claim they have no credibility because they’re criminals.
Now that Lev Parnas, a key conspirator in Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani’s plot to shake down Ukraine, is singing, Trump’s defenders are pointing out that he is a disreputable person who can’t be trusted. “This is a man who is under indictment and who’s actually out on bail. This is a man who owns a company called Fraud Inc.,” the White House press secretary, Stephanie Grisham, said on Fox News, the only network on which she regularly appears. (Parnas’s company was actually called Fraud Guarantee, though that’s not any better.)
Grisham is obviously correct that he’s a shady character. He’s certainly not someone you’d want, say, threatening foreign officials on behalf of the president of the United States, as Parnas claimed he did during an extraordinary interview with Rachel Maddow that aired on Wednesday and Thursday on MSNBC.
Trumpists similarly dismissed Michael Cohen, who served as Trump’s personal lawyer before Giuliani did. The day Cohen testified to Congress that Trump is a “racist,” a “con man” and a “cheat,” a Trump campaign spokeswoman blasted him as “a felon, a disbarred lawyer and a convicted perjurer.” (Some of his felonies, of course, were things he did for Trump.) When Rick Gates, Trump’s former deputy campaign chairman, testified against his former boss Paul Manafort, Manafort’s lawyer grilled him, asking, “After all the lies you’ve told and fraud you’ve committed, you expect this jury to believe you?”
Giuliani himself is under federal criminal investigation. In a 2018 text to Parnas recently released by the House Intelligence Committee, Giuliani seemed to joke, apropos of Robert Mueller, “I’m no rat,” but should the prospect of prison ever change his mind, expect Republicans to make a similar case against believing a crooked and paranoid barfly. A willingness to associate with Trump is a sign of moral turpitude, so most witnesses to his venal schemes will necessarily be compromised.
Thus nothing that Parnas said in the Maddow interview should be taken at face value. Important questions remain unanswered, including who was paying all of the bills. (Remember — he was paying Giuliani, not vice versa.) Parnas’s decision to go public in the first place is hard to fathom.
None of that, however, means that his dramatic interview on the eve of Trump’s impeachment trial shouldn’t be taken seriously. That’s because much of what he says has been corroborated, and because the very fact that a person like Parnas was carrying out high-level international missions for the president shows how mob-like this administration is.
You don’t have to take Parnas’s word that he was working at the president’s behest. Last fall, when House impeachment investigators asked for documents and testimony from Parnas and his associate, Igor Fruman, they were initially represented by John Dowd, formerly one of Trump’s defense lawyers in the Mueller inquiry. Dowd, in turn, wrote to Congress that Parnas and Fruman would not cooperate with the impeachment investigation because some of the information the House sought may have been privileged. “Be advised that Messers. Parnas and Fruman assisted Mr. Giuliani in connection with his representation of President Trump,” the letter said. (Documents that Parnas later provided to the House Intelligence Committee show that Trump signed off on Dowd representing them.)
Some of the most disturbing and clarifying information Parnas has provided since turning on Trump involves the administration’s fixation on Marie Yovanovitch, the former American ambassador to Ukraine. It’s true that people around Trump saw her as an obstacle to getting Ukraine’s government to open a politically motivated investigation into Joe Biden and his son, Hunter, but that doesn’t quite explain the scale of the animosity toward her.
Trump didn’t just fire her. He told Volodymyr Zelensky, the Ukrainian president, that she was going to “go through some things.” We learned this week that Robert Hyde, a deranged Trumpworld hanger-on and Republican congressional candidate, sent a series of messages to Parnas suggesting he was stalking Yovanovitch. (Ukraine has opened an investigation into Hyde’s activity, and on Thursday he was visited by the F.B.I.) A lawyer and Fox News regular named Victoria Toensing — who has represented a Kremlin-aligned Ukrainian oligarch who is, according to the Justice Department, an upper-echelon associate of Russian organized crime figures — texted Giuliani saying, “Is there absolute commitment for her to be gone this week?” Why the obsession with Yovanovitch?
Parnas added to the evidence that when it came to Yovanovitch, Trump and his crew willingly allowed themselves to be manipulated by Yuri Lutsenko, a disgraced former chief prosecutor of Ukraine who loathed her for her anti-corruption work. (As the State Department official George Kent said during the impeachment hearings, you can’t fight corruption “without pissing off corrupt people.”) In WhatsApp messages to Parnas, Lutsenko expressed fury that Yovanovitch hadn’t been fired yet. He spoke of all he’d done to push the spurious Biden scandal, adding, “And yet you can’t even get rid of one fool.”
“In that text message to you,” Maddow asked on Thursday, “is Mr. Lutsenko saying, in effect, listen, if you want me to make these Biden allegations, you’re going to have to get rid of this ambassador?” Parnas replied: “Absolutely. Absolutely.”
A few months ago, I wrote a column arguing that when it comes to Ukraine, Trump is at once a con man and a mark, and the information Parnas has provided backs this up. Having promised Lutsenko that he’d get Yovanovitch fired, Parnas told Trump, falsely, that Yovanovitch had bad-mouthed him. His text messages show that he pushed Donald Trump Jr. to tweet about her.
Parnas was the vehicle through which a dirty Ukrainian politician pulled Trump’s strings to take revenge on an American official who’d tried to uphold the rule of law. She was threatened, smeared and fired in part because Trump is easily influenced by the goons and bottom feeders in his orbit.
By going public, Parnas has probably done nothing to sway Republicans toward removing Trump from office, not because they don’t believe him, but because they know Trump did what he’s accused of and don’t care. Writing to Politico’s John F. Harris, a Trump supporter recently described the president as “our O.J.,” an apt analogy for Republicans’ vengeful determination to give a guilty man impunity. (As it happens, Trump will be represented by one of O.J. Simpson’s old lawyers, Alan Dershowitz, at his Senate trial.)
But Parnas is worth paying attention to because he’s shown us, once again, what Trumpism looks like from the inside. It’s part “The Sopranos” and part, as he put it to Maddow, a “cult.” The qualities that discredit Parnas are the same ones that let him fit right in.
President Trump so alarmed his defense secretary, Jim Mattis, during a discussion last January of the nuclear standoff with North Korea that an exasperated Mr. Mattis told colleagues “the president acted like — and had the understanding of — a ‘fifth or sixth grader.’”
At another moment, Mr. Trump’s aides became so worried about his judgment that Gary D. Cohn, then the chief economic adviser, took a letter from the president’s Oval Office desk authorizing the withdrawal of the United States from a trade agreement with South Korea. Mr. Trump, who had planned to sign the letter, never realized it was missing.
.. book by Bob Woodward that depicts the Trump White House as a byzantine, treacherous, often out-of-control operation — “crazytown,” in the words of the chief of staff, John F. Kelly — hostage to the whims of an impulsive, ill-informed and undisciplined president.
.. The White House, in a statement, dismissed “Fear” as “nothing more than fabricated stories, many by former disgruntled employees, told to make the president look bad.”
.. Mr. Woodward portrays Mr. Mattis as frequently derisive of the commander in chief, rattled by his judgment, and willing to slow-walk orders from him that he viewed as reckless.
.. Mr. Trump questioned Mr. Mattis about why the United States keeps a military presence on the Korean Peninsula. “We’re doing this in order to prevent World War III,” Mr. Mattis responded, according to Mr. Woodward.
.. In April 2017, after President Bashar al-Assad of Syria launched a chemical attack on his own people, Mr. Trump called Mr. Mattis and told him that he wanted the United States to assassinate Mr. Assad. “Let’s go in,” the president said, adding a string of expletives.
The defense secretary hung up and told one of his aides: “We’re not going to do any of that. We’re going to be much more measured.” At his direction, the Pentagon prepared options for an airstrike on Syrian military positions, which Mr. Trump later ordered.
.. another layer to a recurring theme in the Trump White House: frustrated aides who sometimes resort to extraordinary measures to thwart the president’s decisions — a phenomenon the author describes as “an administrative coup d’état.” In addition to Mr. Mattis and Mr. Cohn, he recounts the tribulations of Mr. Kelly and his predecessor, Reince Priebus, whose tensions with Mr. Trump have been reported elsewhere.
.. Mr. Cohn, Mr. Woodward said, told a colleague he had removed the letter about the Korea free trade agreement to protect national security. Later, when the president ordered a similar letter authorizing the departure of the United States from the North American Free Trade Agreement, Mr. Cohn and other aides plotted how to prevent him from going ahead with a move they feared would be deeply destabilizing.
.. Last January, Mr. Woodward writes, Mr. Dowd staged a practice session in the White House residence to dramatize the pressures Mr. Trump would face in a session with Mr. Mueller. The president stumbled repeatedly, contradicting himself and lying, before he exploded in anger.
.. Mr. Woodward told Mr. Trump he interviewed many White House officials outside their offices, and gathered extensive documentation. “It’s a tough look at the world and the administration and you,” he told Mr. Trump.
“Right,” the president replied. “Well, I assume that means it’s going to be a negative book.”
Neither bribery nor conspiracy requires that the underlying scheme be successful. The crime is the agreement itself, coupled with at least some steps to carry it out. If Dowd and the president agreed Dowd would offer an exchange of pardons for silence and he did so, that is a conspiracy to commit bribery. Whether the offer was accepted would not matter.
.. even those who make that argument agree that if the president engaged in independently criminal conduct, such as accepting a bribe or instructing witnesses to lie, he would not be shielded from criminal prosecution — even if those actions were related to a constitutionally authorized act such as granting a pardon.
.. I’d be surprised if a possible conspiracy to commit bribery were not in the mix.
A lawyer for President Trump broached the idea of Mr. Trump’s pardoning two of his former top advisers, Michael T. Flynn and Paul Manafort, with their lawyers last year, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions.
The discussions came as the special counsel was building cases against both men, and they raise questions about whether the lawyer, John Dowd, who resigned last week, was offering pardons to influence their decisions about whether to plead guilty and cooperate in the investigation.
.. The talks suggest that Mr. Trump’s lawyers were concerned about what Mr. Flynn and Mr. Manafort might reveal were they to cut a deal.
.. Mr. Mueller’s team could investigate the prospect that Mr. Dowd made pardon offers to thwart the inquiry, although legal experts are divided about whether such offers might constitute obstruction of justice.
.. The pardon discussion with Mr. Manafort’s attorney, Reginald J. Brown, came before his client was indicted in October on charges of money laundering and other financial crimes.
.. Mr. Brown is no longer his lawyer.
.. He denied on Wednesday that he discussed pardons with lawyers for the president’s former advisers.
“There were no discussions. Period,” Mr. Dowd said. “As far as I know, no discussions.”
.. During interviews with Mr. Mueller’s investigators in recent months, current and former administration officials have recounted conversations they had with the president about potential pardons for former aides under investigation by the special counsel ..
.. In one meeting with lawyers from the White House Counsel’s Office last year, Mr. Trump asked about the extent of his pardon power, according to a person briefed on the conversation. The lawyers explained that the president’s powers were broad, the person said. And in other meetings with senior advisers, the president raised the prospect of pardoning Mr. Flynn, according to two people present.
.. The remedy for such interference would more likely be found in elections or impeachment than in prosecuting the president
.. “The framers did not create the power to pardon as a way for the president to protect himself and his associates” from being prosecuted for their own criminal behavior, he said.
Under Mr. Buell’s interpretation, Mr. Dowd’s efforts could be used against the president in an obstruction case if prosecutors want to demonstrate that it was part of larger conspiracy to impede the special counsel investigation.
.. I can say this: When you look at what’s gone on with the F.B.I. and with the Justice Department, people are very, very angry.”