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.
Elite Trump circles
Pitching a gas deal
Backing Giuliani’s efforts
Prosecutors say Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were part of a conspiracy to funnel a Russian donor’s money into President Trump’s campaign
WASHINGTON—Two Soviet-born donors to a pro- Trump fundraising committee who helped Rudy Giuliani’s efforts to investigate Democrat Joe Biden were arrested late Wednesday on criminal charges of violating campaign finance rules, including funneling Russian money into President Trump’s campaign.
Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two Florida businessmen, have been under investigation by the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan, and are expected to appear in federal court in Virginia later on Thursday, the people said. Both men were born in former Soviet republics.
House committees issued subpoenas for documents from the two men on Thursday.
Mr. Giuliani, President Trump’s private lawyer, identified the two men in May as his clients. Both men have donated to Republican campaigns including Mr. Trump’s, and in May 2018 gave $325,000 to the primary pro-Trump super PAC, America First Action, through an LLC called Global Energy Producers, according to Federal Election Commission records.
The men were charged with four counts, including conspiracy, falsification of records and lying to the FEC about their political donations, according to the indictment that outlines a conspiracy to funnel a Russian donor’s money into U.S. elections.
The group concealed their work by laundering foreign money into U.S. elections by disguising the true origin of the money, the indictment says.
Beginning in about March of 2018, Mr. Parnas and Mr. Frurman began attending fundraising events and making substantial contributions “with the purpose of enhancing their influence in political circles and gaining access to politicians,” prosecutors wrote.
The indictment Thursday alleges that Mr. Fruman intentionally misspelled his name as to further evade FEC scrutiny. Fundraising records show that an “Igor Furman” who otherwise matches Mr. Fruman made additional campaign donations totaling almost $400,000, beginning in March 2018. That would bring the pair’s contributions to about $1 million.
John Dowd, who headed Mr. Trump’s legal team until spring 2018 and is a lawyer for the two men, didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Giuliani said he hasn’t been contacted by Manhattan federal prosecutors.
Attorney General William Barr discussed the case on Thursday with federal prosecutors in Manhattan, where he was making a preplanned visit. A Justice Department official said Mr. Barr was supportive of their work on the case, on which he was first briefed shortly after being confirmed as attorney general in February. He was aware the pair would be charged and taken into custody last night, the official said.
The Campaign Legal Center, a transparency advocacy group, filed a complaint with the FEC in July 2018 calling on the commission to investigate whether Messrs. Parnas and Fruman had violated campaign-finance laws by using an LLC to disguise the source of their donations.
Messrs. Parnas and Fruman had dinner with the president in early May 2018, according to since-deleted Facebook posts captured in a report published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. They also met with the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr. , later that month at a fundraising breakfast in Beverly Hills, Calif., along with Tommy Hicks Jr. , a close friend of the younger Mr. Trump who at the time was heading America First Action. Mr. Parnas posted a photo of their breakfast four days after his LLC donated to the super PAC.
A spokeswoman for America First Action said the super PAC had placed the contribution in a segregated bank account following the complaint filed with the FEC. The donation “has not been used for any purpose and the funds will remain in this segregated account until these matters are resolved,” the spokeswoman said. “We take our legal obligations seriously and scrupulously comply with the law and any suggestion otherwise is false.”
Since late 2018, Mr. Fruman and Mr. Parnas have introduced Mr. Giuliani to several current and former senior Ukrainian prosecutors to discuss the Biden case.
Mr. Parnas in July accompanied Mr. Giuliani to a breakfast meeting with Kurt Volker, then the U.S. special representative for Ukraine negotiations. “We had a long conversation about Ukraine,” Mr. Volker wrote in his testimony to House committees last week. During that breakfast, Mr. Giuliani mentioned the investigations he was pursuing into Mr. Biden and 2016 election interference.
House committees last month sought documents and depositions from Messrs. Parnas and Fruman related to their interactions with the Trump administration, Mr. Giuliani and Ukrainian officials. The initial notice from the committees set the dates for their depositions as Thursday and Friday.
Mr. Dowd wrote a letter to the House Intelligence Committee last week advising them that he was representing Messrs. Parnas and Fruman and noting that the two men had assisted Mr. Giuliani “in connection with his representation of President Trump.” He said some of the documents sought by House Democrats last month were protected by attorney-client privilege and that a privilege review of those documents “cannot reasonably be conducted by Oct. 7,” the deadline lawmakers had set.
He also criticized the document requests as “overly broad and unduly burdensome.”
Messrs. Parnas and Fruman also worked to oust the ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, whom Mr. Trump had removed from her post this spring.
In May 2018, Pete Sessions, at the time a GOP congressman from Texas, sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking for her removal, saying he had been told Ms. Yovanovitch was displaying a bias against the president in private conversations.
Mr. Sessions told the Journal his letter was in line with a broader concern among members of Congress that the administration wasn’t moving swiftly enough to put new ambassadors in place. He declined to say where his information about the ambassador came from but said he didn’t follow up on his letter and didn’t hear until months later about Mr. Trump’s interest in replacing her.
The indictment references a congressman, identifiable as Mr. Sessions, whose assistance Mr. Parnas sought in “causing the U.S. government to remove or recall the then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.” The indictment says those efforts were conducted “at least in part, at the request of one or more Ukrainian government officials.” Mr. Sessions didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Messrs. Parnas and Fruman told the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in July that they told Mr. Sessions last year that Ms. Yovanovitch was “bad-mouthing” the president. They later donated to his campaign.
Mr. Trump moved to oust Ms. Yovanovitch this spring after Mr. Giuliani told him that she was undermining him abroad and hindering efforts to investigate Mr. Biden. House committees are seeking Ms. Yovanovitch’s testimony.