As Donald Trump spent the afternoon frantically tweeting out protestations of his innocence for the umpteenth time, he may be beginning to regret denying having ever met Lev Parnas, one of the two associates of his attorney Rudy Giuliani who were arrested on charges of violating campaign finance laws.
Parnas was so upset that Trump pretended to have never met him — even when pictures of the two of them together have been widely published — that he decided to cooperate with the House impeachment investigation of the president’s scheme to exchange already-appropriated military aid to Ukraine for political dirt on Joe Biden and his family.
Now the lawyer for the Russian-born Parnas has announced that his client is willing to testify that he personally delivered a warning to the incoming Ukrainian government last May that the Trump administration would freeze the military funds and stop Vice President Mike Pence from attending President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inauguration if the government did not publicly announce the launch of an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter that would assist Trump in his reelection efforts, according to a report in The New York Times.
Parnas claims that he and his co-defendant in the campaign finance violation case, Igor Fruman, met at an outdoor cafe in Kiev in May with Serhiy Shefir, a close associate of then-president-elect Zelensky, to pass along the parameters of the ultimatum at Rudy Giuliani’s direction. Giuliani, who was originally scheduled to join Parnas and Fruman at the meeting, canceled his trip at the last minute after Democrats accused him of exactly what he was apparently set to do, urge Ukraine to meddle in the American elections by pursuing an investigation of the Bidens.
While Parnas is admitting that he was involved in making the quid pro quo clear to the Ukrainian official, both Giuliani and Fruman deny the truth of his explosive revelation.
Giuliani says that he “never authorized such a conversation,” while Fruman’s attorney, former Trump personal counsel John Dowd, says that the meeting was simply to try to arrange a visit with the president-elect.
“There was no mention of any terms, military aid or whatever they are talking about it — it’s false,” Dowd claims.
The Ukrainian representative, Mr. Shefir, Zelensky’s chief advisor, has also denied Parnas’ account.
“We did not treat Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman as official representatives, and therefore we did not consider that they could speak on behalf of the U.S. government,” Shefir said.
He reiterated that Mr. Parnas and Mr. Fruman had requested a meeting between Mr. Zelensky and Giuliani, who ironically was also neither an official representative nor authorized to speak on behalf of the U.S. government. Shefir says that he told the Giuliani associates “that we could consider meeting with Mr. Giuliani, but only publicly and officially and only after the inauguration of the newly elected president.”
The New York Times points out that Mr. Shefir’s account of the meeting, issued after they contacted him for a response to Parnas’ claims, does not specifically address the issue of whether Parnas had delivered the ultimatum at the meeting, a fact that Joseph Bondy, Parnas’ attorney noted in his response to the Ukrainian official’s statement.
“It would simply defy reason,” he said, “for Mr. Shefir to have attended a meeting with Mr. Parnas if he did not believe Mr. Parnas spoke for the president, and also for Mr. Parnas not to have conveyed the president’s message at this meeting,” Bondy said.
The fact that Vice President Pence did not, in fact, attend Zelensky’s inauguration lends additional credence to Parnas’ version of the meeting.
While Parnas’ motives for cooperation with the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry is certainly suspect given his indictment, he could just as easily followed the lead of Fruman, his co-defendant in the case, who is likely hoping that the president will exercise his pardon power to prevent a long jail sentence.
Parnas, however, need only look at former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his ex-lawyer Michael Cohen, both of whom are now languishing in prison, to gauge how the president rewards his loyal minions.
If Parnas’ account can be proven, it directly implicates Rudy Giuliani in the crime and increases the chance that he will feel pressured to tell the truth and throw Trump under the bus before the president decides to make his personal attorney the sacrificial lamb of the scandal.
Stay tuned for further developments as the impeachment inquiry soldiers on.
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Original reporting by Ben Protess, Andrew E. Kramer, Michael Rothfeld, and at The New York Times.