Trump impeachment and the Parnas papers: Three questions

Why We Wrote This

The American impeachment drama has taken a fresh turn with the release of new documents. Here’s a look at what they mean and what their importance might be.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch testifies before the House Intelligence Committee Nov. 15, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. Newly released documents contain menacing messages regarding Marie Yovanovitch, suggesting that her safety may have been compromised.

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A batch of documents released by House Democrats on Tuesday shed new light on President Donald Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine.

The documents appear to strike a blow to President Trump's main defense throughout the impeachment process that has been that whatever he did, he was trying to benefit the United States as a whole, not himself. In a letter to President-elect Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Mr. Giuliani twice says that he is President Trump’s “private counsel.”

But perhaps the most shocking revelation contained in the Parnas papers deals with alleged threats against Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine.

On their own the details of the communications between Mr. Parnas and his associates are very unlikely to change votes in the upcoming Senate trial or public opinion about impeachment proceedings.

But as political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote Wednesday, House Republicans who have voted to exonerate President Trump, and Senate Republicans who plan to, have to be worried, at least a bit. “Because if new ugly details are still emerging, who’s to say that more won’t turn up later?” Bernstein points out.

The note is an ink scribble on letterhead from the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Vienna. On the first page, at the top, there’s a highlight star, and then a summary of the enterprise’s main point: “get Zalensky to Announce that the Biden case will Be Investigated.”

The writer? Lev Parnas, a former associate of Rudolph Giuliani, President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer. The note is part of a batch of documents provided by Mr. Parnas and released by House Democrats on Tuesday that provide new details about who wanted what, and what they asked for in return, during President Trump’s pressure campaign on Ukraine. If nothing else, the material has roiled the impeachment process against the president on the eve of his Senate trial, increasing pressure for senators to hear new witnesses and view new documents during their proceedings.

The new documents also contain menacing messages regarding Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. envoy to Ukraine since removed by President Trump. Whether the messages reflected a real surveillance and targeting campaign against former Ambassador Yovanovitch, directed by Robert Hyde, a Trump donor now running for U.S. Congress in Connecticut, remains unclear. But the material may help explain why she was removed suddenly from her post and told to immediately return to the United States as a matter of her own security. Here are three questions about the newly released documents.

Who was Rudy Giuliani working for in Ukraine?

One of President Trump’s main defenses throughout the impeachment process has been that whatever he did, he was trying to benefit the U.S. as a whole, not himself. This is meant to counter the charge that he was urging Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s role in the country, and son Hunter Biden’s job at the energy company Burisma, for his personal political benefit.

In his July 25 call with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy of Ukraine, for instance, Mr. Trump said “do us a favor.” He has insisted that the “us” refers to the U.S. Some of the documents released Tuesday call this into question. The first note scribbled by Mr. Parnas, for instance, refers only to “Announce” in regards to an investigation of the “Biden case.” There’s no mention of actually carrying it out, or engaging in any larger fight against bribery and graft in a nation dogged by those problems in the past.

More to the point, the documents contain a letter to President-elect Zelenskiy dated May 10, 2019, in which Mr. Giuliani requests a brief meeting – “no more than a half-hour of your time.” In the letter’s first paragraph, the former New York City mayor says not once, but twice, that he is President Trump’s “private counsel,” and will be representing President Trump as a private citizen, not the chief executive of the United States.

“This is quite common under American law because the duties and privileges of a President and a private citizen are not the same,” Mr. Giuliani wrote. This makes it harder for the president to argue that in his contacts with Mr. Zelenskiy he was representing the United States in general, particularly as he urged other officials dealing with Ukraine to just work with Mr. Giuliani, as testimony from U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and others made clear during the House impeachment inquiry.

The May 19 letter also said explicitly that President Trump had “knowledge and consent” of Mr. Giuliani’s actions.

“There is no fobbing this off on others. The president was the architect of this scheme,” said House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff on Wednesday.

Was Ambassador Yovanovitch really in danger?

Perhaps the most shocking revelation contained in the Parnas papers deals with alleged threats against Ms. Yovanovitch’s personal safety.

Encrypted messages to Mr. Parnas from Mr. Hyde, a former Marine, implied that the ambassador was under surveillance, with her communications possibly tapped, and that Mr. Hyde and his associates were just waiting for a go-ahead to do her personal harm.

“They will let me know when she’s on the move,” said Mr. Hyde at one point, referring to alleged compatriots in Ukraine. “They are willing to help if you/we would like a price,” Mr. Hyde added.

Listed as head of a GOP consulting firm, Mr. Hyde is a new face in the impeachment story. His social media is full of pictures of him with President Trump, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and other Republican Party leaders.

A lawyer for Mr. Parnas, Joseph Bondy, denied that his client was involved in any scheme to follow or harm the U.S. ambassador, and said that the emails reflected Mr. Hyde’s “dubious mental state.” Mr. Hyde himself deflected them on Wednesday with expletive-filled posts indicating the emails were composed in jest.

However, if senior officials learned of the emails and took them seriously, it could explain why Ms. Yovanovitch was removed abruptly from her post and told to take the next plane out to the U.S. as a matter of her own safety.

The document cache also contains messages written in Russian from Yuri Lutsenko, Ukraine’s top prosecutor at the time, to Mr. Parnas, in which he urges Mr. Parnas to force out Ms. Yovanovitch if he wants cooperation on the Bidens. Mr. Lutsenko was an ally and appointee of then-President Petro Poroshenko, who lost to President Zelenskiy in an election in spring 2019. He loathed Ms. Yovanovitch because she had been critical of him and supported an independent anti-corruption bureau.

“And here you can’t even remove one fool,” Mr. Lutsenko wrote to Mr. Parnas at one point, referring to Ms. Yovanovitch. 

“She’s not a simple fool ... but she’s not getting away,” Mr. Parnas replied.

What happens next?

On their own the details of the communications between Mr. Parnas and his associates are very unlikely to change votes in the upcoming Senate trial or public opinion about impeachment proceedings. (If serious, the threats to Ambassador Yovanovitch could have important legal and political ramifications of their own.)

But as political scientist Jonathan Bernstein wrote Wednesday, House Republicans who have voted to exonerate President Trump, and Senate Republicans who plan to, have to be worried, at least a bit.

“Because if new ugly details are still emerging, who’s to say that more won’t turn up later?” Bernstein points out.

Since President Trump was impeached by the House on Dec. 18, 2019, The New York Times has published an extensive look at the maneuvering behind the withholding of U.S. military aid to Ukraine, moving responsibility for the decision closer to the Oval Office. The legal site Just Security obtained hundreds of pages of unredacted emails related to the aid decision, documenting alarm in the Pentagon at the action and concern that the White House was forcing the Department of Defense into collaboration on an aid block about which DoD officials had legal concerns. 

Now there are the Parnas papers. Mr. Parnas has only recently been legally cleared to hand over material to Congress, his lawyers note. House officials note that more will likely be made public soon.

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