Just hours after a date was set for President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, one of the key figures in the Ukraine scandal embarked on a media push on Wednesday night.
Speaking publicly for the first time since the impeachment inquiry made him a household name last fall, Ukrainian-American businessman Lev Parnas alleged in a television interview that the President “knew exactly what was going on” in the campaign to pressure Ukraine to investigate Trump’s 2020 rival Joe Biden.
“He was aware of all of my movements,” Parnas told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow. “I wouldn’t do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president.”
Parnas was at the center of Trump’s personal lawyer’s wide-ranging effort to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce investigations of Trump’s political rivals. He was arrested at Dulles International Airport in October as he was about to board a flight out of the country, and indicted on campaign finance charges. It wasn’t until Jan. 3 that a federal judge ruled that Parnas could submit evidence in his criminal case, such as the communications in his phones and electronic devices that had been seized when he was arrested, to impeachment investigators.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, hundreds of pages of those communications were released on the eve of Trump’s impeachment trial. Those documents — and his claims on Maddow’s show — were simultaneously explosive and unlikely to ultimately move the needle in lawmakers’ deliberation of the case in coming weeks.
He clearly intended to make a splash. In the MSNBC interview, which his attorney hinted might be followed by other networks, Parnas alleged that Trump had not only been aware of his efforts, but that Parnas had been acting on his behalf.
He said he had “no reason to speak to any of these officials” in Ukraine if it wasn’t for Giuliani and Trump. “Why would President Zelensky’s inner circle or Minister Avakov or all these people or President Poroshenko meet with me?” he said. “Who am I? They were told to meet with me. And that’s the secret that they’re trying to keep. I was on the ground doing their work.”
When asked about Parnas and his associate Igor Fruman in October, Trump told reporters, “I don’t know those gentlemen.” On Wednesday, Parnas responded simply: “He lied.”
He also appeared to implicate Vice President Mike Pence, saying that he “couldn’t have not known” about the Ukraine pressure campaign.
Parnas did not provide any evidence to corroborate his claims that Trump was aware of what he was doing, or that Pence and Attorney General William Barr were in the loop.”
The documents of Parnas’ communications released by House Democrats this week, including text messages, voicemails, notes and letters, filled in some of the gaps of Giuliani and his associates’ activities between Kyiv and Washington, providing further details about the campaign to remove Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch and pressure Zelensky into opening the probes sought by Trump.
But many Republicans have defended Trump’s pressuring of Ukraine as simply tackling corruption, not an abuse of power, and are likely to question the credibility of Parnas, who has a long history of fraud. While Democrats are seizing on Parnas’ claims to bolster their push for witnesses at the trial, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has made it clear he does not plan to do so.
The newly released documents show Parnas as a middleman and fixer in the center of the Ukraine affair. He exchanged hundreds of messages with Trump allies and Ukrainian officials, in both English and Russian, calling everyone “my brother” and setting up meetings, scheduling interviews, sending press clips and making connections between Ukrainians and Americans who they thought could help them with their plan. These included a varied cast of characters, including Ukrainian officials, South Florida oil tycoon Harry Sargeant Jr., Republican National Committee co-chair Thomas Hicks Jr., and several conservative pundits.
The messages and interactions ranged from sinister to comical. In messages with Trump donor and Connecticut Republican congressional candidate Robert Hyde, it appeared Parnas was getting updates from someone in Kyiv tracking Yovanovitch’s movements. Hyde disparaged the Ambassador in crude and often threatening terms, writing, “They will let me know when she’s on the move…They are willing to help if you/we would like a price.” Parnas responded “LOL.”
Others seemed almost cartoonish, like handwritten notes laying out a plan to fulfill Trump’s objectives in Ukraine and a sarcastic text message from Giuliani to Parnas: “Boy I’m so powerful I can intimidate the entire Ukranian government. Please don’t tell anyone I can’t get the crooked Ambassador fired or I did three times and she’s still there.”
Prior to meeting Giuliani, Parnas and Fruman were largely unknown and unconnected businessmen with a string of bankruptcies and financial troubles, according to a TIME review of Florida court records. That changed in August 2018, when Parnas’ Boca Raton-based firm “Fraud Guarantee” paid Giuliani a $500,000 retainer for what the businessman said was legal and business advice. They soon found themselves with access to prominent Republican circles, often by touting their association with the former New York mayor.
In the months after his arrest made national news, it sometimes felt like the Washington media was playing an ongoing game of “Where’s Lev,” as dozens of pictures surfaced of his smiling face next to everyone from Don Jr., Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner to former Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former White House chief of staff John Kelly.
Speaking in a measured, somber voice on Wednesday, Parnas struck a different tone from the boasting persona of his text messages or the smiling selfies in cigar bars with Giuliani. Asked why he was speaking out now, after months of silence, Parnas told MSNBC, “There’s a lot of things that are being said that are not accurate…and I think the world needs to know.”
Earlier in the day, the newly appointed House managers delivered the impeachment articles accusing Trump of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress to the Senate. The trial is now expected to begin on Jan. 21, and Parnas, who seemed to relish being in the spotlight, said he still wants to testify. “I want to get the truth out,” he said, “because I feel it’s important for our country.”