Parnas says 'President Trump knew exactly what was going on'

Lev Parnas delivered accusations against the president in a TV interview Wednesday. The White House office violated federal law, says the GAO.   

Seth Wenig/AP
Lev Parnas, an associate of President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani seen here in New York on Dec. 2, 2019, made incriminating claims against Mr. Trump about his involvement in a pressure campaign against Ukraine in a televised interview on Jan. 15, 2020.

A close associate of President Donald Trump's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani is claiming Mr. Trump was directly involved in the effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden.

Lev Parnas says he delivered an ultimatum in May, at Mr. Giuliani's behest, to the incoming president of Ukraine that no senior United States officials would attend his inauguration and vital American security aid would be withheld if an investigation into Mr. Biden wasn't announced.

He said Mr. Trump was aware of Mr. Giuliani's efforts to secure an investigation and the president was briefed regularly.

If true, Mr. Parnas' account undercuts a key Republican defense of Trump during the impeachment investigation – that Mr. Trump's withholding of vital military aid to Ukraine last summer wasn't a quid pro quo for Mr. Biden investigations.

"President Trump knew exactly what was going on," said Mr. Parnas, a Soviet-born Florida businessman facing a raft of criminal charges related to campaign finance violations. "He was aware of all my movements. I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani, or the president."

The federal government's watchdog agency said Thursday a White House office violated federal law in withholding security assistance to Ukraine. 

The Government Accountability Office said in a report that the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) violated the law in holding up the aid. The freeze is at center of the impeachment of President Donald Trump.

The independent agency, which reports to Congress, said OMB violated the Impoundment Control Act in delaying the security assistance Congress authorized for Ukraine for “policy reasons,” rather than technical budgetary needs.

OMB has argued the hold was appropriate and necessary.

Mr. Parnas made several potentially explosive claims in a televised interview Wednesday night with MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. The day after Mr. Parnas said he delivered the message, the State Department announced that Vice President Mike Pence would no longer be attending the inauguration of Ukrainian President Volodymir Zelenskiy.

Mr. Parnas alleged that Mr. Trump ordered Mr. Pence to stay away at the behest of Mr. Giuliani to send a clear message to the incoming Ukrainian administration that they needed to take seriously the demand for an investigation into Mr. Biden, a Democratic presidential candidate seen as a potential threat to Mr. Trump's 2020 reelection.

Mr. Parnas said every communication he had with Mr. Zelenskiy's team was at the direction of Mr. Giuliani, whom he regularly overheard briefing Mr. Trump about their progress by phone.

Mr. Giuliani called Mr. Parnas' statements "sad."

"I feel sorry for him," Mr. Giuliani said Wednesday in a text message to an AP reporter. "I thought he was an honorable man. I was wrong."

Asked directly if Mr. Parnas was lying, Mr. Trump's lawyer replied, "I'm not responding yet."

Mr. Parnas said he also heard Mr. Giuliani and another Mr. Trump-aligned defense lawyer, Victoria Toensing, briefing Attorney General William Barr by phone about their efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government to announce the investigation into Mr. Biden and his son Hunter Biden's business dealings.

"Barr was basically on the team," Mr. Parnas said.

The Justice Department said in September that Mr. Trump had not spoken to Mr. Barr about having Ukraine investigate the Bidens and that the attorney general had not discussed Ukraine with Mr. Giuliani. Justice Department spokeswoman Kerri Kupec said Wednesday that Mr. Parnas' claims were "100% false."

The new accusations came as House Democrats made public a trove of documents, text messages, and photos from Mr. Parnas' smartphones that appear to verify parts of his account.

A federal judge earlier this month ruled that Mr. Parnas could provide the materials to Congress as part of the impeachment proceedings. Democrats voted in December to impeach Mr. Trump for abuse of power and for obstruction of Congress.

A House committee chairman said Wednesday his panel will investigate what he says are "profoundly alarming" text messages among the newly disclosed materials that have raised questions about the possible surveillance of former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch before she was ousted by the Trump administration last spring.

The messages show that a Robert F. Hyde, a Republican candidate for Congress from Connecticut, disparaged Ms. Yovanovitch in messages to Mr. Parnas and gave him updates on her location and cellphone use.

Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who chairs the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Wednesday that the messages are "profoundly alarming" and "suggest a possible risk" to Ms. Yovanovitch's security in Kiev before she was recalled from her post. 

He said the committee staff flagged the information for the State Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security and is seeking assurances that proper steps have been taken to ensure the security of Ms. Yovanovitch and committee staff. He said he also wanted to know what, if anything, the State Department knew about the situation.

Democrats released the files this week as they prepared to send articles of impeachment to the Senate for Trump's trial. The documents could add pressure on the Senate as it debates whether to hear witnesses in the trial.

The text and phone records show Mr. Parnas communicating with Mr. Giuliani multiple times a day before Ms. Yovanovitch's removal, as well as a handwritten note that mentions asking Ukraine's president to investigate "the Biden case."

Among the documents is a screenshot of a previously undisclosed letter from Mr. Giuliani to Mr. Zelenskiy dated May 10, 2019, which was shortly after Mr. Zelenskiy was elected but before he took office. In the letter, Mr. Giuliani requests a meeting with Mr. Zelenskiy "as personal counsel to President Trump and with his knowledge and consent."

The Associated Press reported in October that Mr. Zelenskiy had huddled three days earlier, on May 7, with a small group of key advisers in Kiev to seek advice about how to navigate the insistence from Mr. Trump and Mr. Giuliani for a probe into the Bidens. He expressed his unease about becoming entangled in the American elections, according to three people familiar with the details of the three-hour meeting. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivity of the issue, which has roiled U.S.-Ukrainian relations.

One of the documents released by Democrats is a handwritten note on stationery from the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Vienna that says "get Zalensky to Annonce that the Biden case will be Investigated."

Mr. Parnas told Ms. Maddow he took the notes as he was speaking by phone to Mr. Giuliani, receiving precise instructions about the demands Mr. Trump wanted to convey to Mr. Zelenskiy's team.

Mr. Trump asked Mr. Zelenskiy in a July 25 call to investigate the Bidens. Hunter Biden served on the board of a gas company based in Ukraine.

The documents were sent to the House Judiciary Committee by three other House panels "to be included as part of the official record that will be transmitted to the Senate along with the Articles of Impeachment," according to a statement. Some of the materials were made public while others were blacked out and marked as sensitive.

Mr. Parnas and his business partner, Igor Fruman, both U.S. citizens who emigrated from the former Soviet Union, were indicted last year on charges of conspiracy, making false statements, and falsification of records. Prosecutors allege they made outsize campaign donations to Republican causes after receiving millions of dollars originating from Russia. The men have pleaded not guilty.

Mr. Parnas' lawyer, Joseph Bondy, told The New York Times that his client is looking to cooperate with prosecutors in his case, who are investigating Mr. Giuliani and his dealings in Ukraine.

"We very much want to provide substantial assistance to the government," Mr. Bondy told the Times.

Mr. Parnas told the newspaper that although he didn't speak with Mr. Trump directly about the efforts, he met with the president on several occasions and was told by Mr. Giuliani that Mr. Trump was kept in the loop.

In several of the documents, Mr. Parnas communicated with Mr. Giuliani about the removal of Ms. Yovanovitch. The ambassador's ouster, ordered by Mr. Trump, was at the center of the Democrats' impeachment inquiry. Ms. Yovanovitch testified in the House impeachment hearings that she was the victim of a "smear campaign."

Lawrence Robbins, an attorney for Ms. Yovanovitch, called for an investigation into the messages.

Asked by Ms. Maddow about Mr. Trump's denials of knowing him, Mr. Parnas said he had spoken one-on-one with the president numerous times.

"He lied," Mr. Parnas said of the president. "I mean, we're not friends. Me and him didn't watch football games together, we didn't eat hot dogs. But he knew exactly who we were, who I was especially."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Associated Press writers Michael Balsamo, Lisa Mascaro, and Zeke Miller contributed to this report.

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