President Trump's schemes in Ukraine were even worse than we thought. His former lackey Lev Parnas spoke publicly for the first time Wednesday night about his role in the plot to blackmail the Ukrainian president into interfering in the 2020 election and provided new evidence about an apparent effort among Trump associates to harass, stalk, and perhaps even physically harm a sitting U.S. ambassador — Marie Yovanovitch, who was then serving in Ukraine.
America is learning what it's like to have a gangster president. But hey, at least Trump got the Ukraine investigation he always wanted — but instead of into the Biden family, it's into his own cronies. Whoops!
Rachel Maddow interviewed Parnas (a Trump supporter who has been indicted, along with his friend Igor Furman, for violating federal campaign finance law) on MSNBC Wednesday, while Anderson Cooper did so on CNN later. In both interviews, Parnas said he had been the point man for the blackmail conspiracy. He first came to then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in early 2019, promising meetings with Trump and his support for Poroshenko's reelection, if Ukraine would open an investigation into the Biden family. Then, after Volodymyr Zelensky defeated Poroshenko in the 2019 election, Parnas delivered the now-familiar blackmail threat.
But Parnas also clarified the blackmail threat wasn't only about the $400 million in military aid to Ukraine that Trump held hostage:
"It wasn't just military aid. It was all aid," Parnas tells @maddow. "Basically the relationships would be sour. We would stop giving them any kind of aid, unless... there were several demands at the point — the most important one was the announcement of the Biden investigation." pic.twitter.com/DYwDUofVnl
— MSNBC (@MSNBC) January 16, 2020
Naturally, the Trump administration claims Parnas is lying to get out of his own legal trouble. "Lev Parnas is under a multi-count indictment and will say anything to anybody who will listen in hopes of staying out of prison" a spokesman for Vice President Pence told CNN. But Parnas provided contemporaneous notes clearly outlining the scheme to the House Judiciary Committee (which released them to the public), proof that he was in close contact about the scheme with top Republican donors and Trump family friends, has been photographed many times with Trump, and has been a known associate of Rudy Giuliani for years.
Parnas also makes a good point that it would be bizarre for the president of Ukraine to take meetings with a random schlub like him if he weren't representing somebody powerful like President Trump. "Why would President Zelensky's inner circle or Minister Avakov or all these people or President Poroshenko meet with me? Who am I? They were told to meet with me," he told Maddow.
In sum, it's one more piece of first-hand testimony to add to the enormous pile proving Trump did indeed try to blackmail Ukraine.
The alleged plot to get rid of former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch was, if anything, much weirder and more disturbing. Parnas also turned over documents and text message exchanges revealing apparent surveillance and even personal threats against Yovanovitch when she was serving in Ukraine.
Trump and his cronies viewed Yovanovich as an obstacle to their blackmail plot (and their efforts to exculpate Russia from interfering in the 2016 election), and Trump eventually fired her last year. In the memorandum the White House released describing the infamous call between Trump and Zelensky, Trump noted his displeasure with Yovanovitch, and predicted "she's going to go through some things." Parnas provided WhatsApp messages between himself and a man named Robert F. Hyde — a central casting Trumpworld character who is running for Congress in Connecticut — suggesting that Hyde had hired people to follow Yovanovitch and hack into her electronics. "The guys over they asked me what I would like to do and what is in it for them," Hyde wrote in one message. "They 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 claims he was drunk when he sent the texts, while Parnas says he was only humoring him.)
So now finally the Ukrainian government has opened an investigation into the alleged surveillance of Yovanovitch. Law enforcement there released a statement saying the messages imply Yovanovitch was "under illegal surveillance and her electronic gadgets were interfered [with] by the private persons at the request of the US citizens," which would violate Ukrainian law as well as the treaty which protects diplomatic communications. The FBI has visited Hyde's home, and the chair of the Connecticut Republican Party has requested Hyde end his campaign.
It's unclear yet whether Hyde's texts were just empty boasting or not. But it's fair to conclude that the Trump administration attracts thieves and two-bit criminals like a rotting horse carcass attracts flies. He should be removed from office at the earliest possible date.