On October 10, federal agents arrested Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman at the airport, where they had one-way tickets to Vienna. President Trump feigned disinterest. “I don’t know those gentlemen,” he told reporters. “Maybe they were clients of Rudy. You’d have to ask Rudy, I just don’t know.”
Trump did know the gentlemen. A week ago, CNN found Trump had at least ten interactions with Parnas and Fruman, straining his denials beyond all credibility. Friday night, CNN unearthed an even more dangerous piece of news. Parnas and Fruman, along with their partner, Rudy Giuliani, met with Trump in the White House during its annual Hanukkah party. Parnas told two people that Trump tasked them with pressuring Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.
Trump’s dishonesty is so comprehensive that the revelation he lied about knowing Parnas and Fruman — the sort of lie that would badly damage a normal president — barely registers. The fact that he allegedly commissioned Parnas’s work directly might prove more damaging. Here Trump recruited a pair of sleazeballs with ties to the Russian mafia to communicate with the Ukrainian government on his behalf. “President outsources his foreign policy to gangsters” is the sort of charge that ought to draw more attention than it has.
Perhaps more dangerous still is the nature of Parnas and Fruman’s work in Ukraine. Parnas, Fruman, and Giuliani were not only interested in getting Ukraine to investigate Trump’s domestic adversaries. They were also looking to line their own pockets in the process.
Giuliani is the target of a federal investigation that centers on his role in a side shakedown that Parnas and Fruman were running in Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal reported Parnas and Fruman, who pushed Ukrainian officials to give them a natural-gas contract, told the Ukrainians that Giuliani was their partner. The connection to Giuliani was what gave them leverage to demand the gas contract, since Giuliani had very publicly identified himself as Trump’s personal representative, and Trump had sent word repeatedly that Ukraine needed to satisfy Giuliani if they wanted to placate Trump.
CNN has more details on the relationship today. Parnas and Fruman reportedly pushed Naftogaz, the Ukrainian energy firm, to push out its pro-reform CEO and replace him with a more pliable figure. Again, it’s notable that, despite the pretext of fighting Ukrainian corruption, Trump’s allies were undermining reforms in Ukraine and recorrupting institutions that had been turned into instruments of the rule of law.
The main story line Democrats have focused on in the impeachment proceedings is Trump’s twisting of government power for political gain. That is a clear-cut abuse of power that has been amply demonstrated by a parade of witnesses. But lurking in the shadows of the scandal is an ulterior motive: Giuliani, Parnas, and Fruman were extorting Ukraine in the traditional, moneymaking way also.
This potentially poses another danger to Trump. It’s possible Trump sent Parnas, Giuliani, and Fruman to Ukraine solely for his political mission, and while there, they decided to shake down the Ukrainians for some energy money. But Trump is famous for his intense, almost fanatical hatred of hangers-on who make money for themselves off his name. Trump was so enraged in 2016 by the very thought that transition planners were making money that belonged to him — “You’re stealing my money! You’re stealing my fucking money! What the fuck is this?” he screamed at Chris Christie — he shut down the whole office.
So if Parnas, Fruman, and Giuliani undertook a scheme to enrich themselves without Trump’s permission, they were taking a huge risk. The other possibility is that Trump authorized them to use his name as leverage to demand natural-gas contracts from the country they were also pressuring for political favors. Another piece of support for the latter theory is that Energy Secretary Rick Perry was also pushing to get his cronies a piece of the natural-gas business in Ukraine.
Parnas and Fruman have been arrested, and Parnas appears to be cooperating with authorities. If there’s any way the Ukraine scandal can get materially worse, it would be Trump directing a scheme to not only gain a political advantage but to enrich his partners, or even himself.
As the impeachment hearings on President Donald Trump’s Ukraine scandal continue this week, his partisan supporters dismiss the process as a would-be coup and the Democrats’ second shot at succeeding where they failed with Russiagate. But recent events show that Russiagate was far from the “nothingburger” Trump apologists made it out to be — and that Ukrainegate is its hardly unexpected offspring.
Trump’s pressure on Ukraine to provide a “favor” in exchange for American military aid involved two issues. One was Hunter Biden’s high-paying job on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father was vice president of the United States and allegations that Joe Biden used his position to oust the Ukrainian prosecutor investigating the company. Whatever legitimate questions there may be about the younger Biden’s role, none of that justifies Trump’s blatantly political demands for an investigation. But the other part — Trump’s demand that the Ukrainian government pursue a conspiracy theory shifting the blame for 2016 U.S. election interference and for the hacking of the Democratic National Committee from Russia to Ukraine — is even more egregious.
Trump’s attempts to strong-arm Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into announcing the investigations he wanted stemmed from his determination to prove that he didn’t owe his victory to Russian help — something the report by special counsel Robert Mueller didn’t settle to his satisfaction.
Mueller found no evidence of the Trump campaign actively engaging in conspiracy to hack the DNC and obtain emails which were used to damage Hillary Clinton. But it’s fairly clear that the campaign, and Trump himself, eagerly welcomed the release of those emails via WikiLeaks despite knowing about their tainted provenance. What’s more, many questions remain about what and when Trump and his people knew. Last week, longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone was convicted in federal court of lying to Congress about his activities related to the pilfered emails, among other charges. According to prosecutors, Stone not only tried to obtain the emails but regularly briefed the Trump campaign on what he learned about WikiLeaks’ plans — something he denied to Congress in 2017.
The verdicts open new questions about whether Trump lied to Mueller about his contacts with Stone in the months before the election. Prosecution witness Rick Gates, a former Trump campaign official, testified that in July 2016, he heard Trump say that “more information” was coming from WikiLeaks after wrapping up a phone call with Stone.
None of this means that Trump is a Kremlin “asset” or Vladimir Putin’s tool. But there is ample evidence suggesting that he willingly took advantage of Russian operations to undermine his rival. Ukrainegate disclosures also show that he shared the Kremlin’s disdainful view of Ukraine as unworthy of independence.
Trump defenders point out that while Trump may have delayed military aid to Ukraine until Zelensky agreed to do his bidding, the Obama administration had denied such aid altogether, agreeing to provide only non-lethal assistance (such as clothing and medical supplies) for Ukraine’s defense against Russian incursions in the East. But even there, the story is more complicated. In 2016, the Trump campaign worked behind the scenes to remove support for lethal aid for Ukraine from the GOP platform. According to a Foreign Policy report based on information from current and former administration officials, Trump initially opposed such aid in 2017 until he was persuaded that it would be a good business deal for the United States.
Additional revelations are coming from Mueller grand jury materials, the first batch of which was published earlier this month after a court ordered their release.
Whatever the outcome of the impeachment effort, defending Trump in the matter of the Russian connection is increasingly indefensible.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
WASHINGTON (AP) — The House of Representatives’ top lawyer told a federal appeals court Monday that the House is investigating whether President Donald Trump lied to special counsel Robert Mueller, and the attorney urged the judges to order the release of still-secret material from Mueller’s investigation.
Two of the three judges who heard arguments at the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit — Judith Rogers, a Clinton appointee, and Thomas Griffith, an appointee of George W. Bush — seemed prepared to order at least some of the material sought by the House to be turned over.
House General Counsel Douglas Letter told the judges that the need for the still-secret material redacted from the Mueller report is “immense” because it will help House members answer the question, “Did the president lie? Was the president not truthful in his responses to the Mueller investigation?” in his written responses to the probe.
The House Judiciary Committee is seeking grand jury testimony and other details redacted from the public version of Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Last month a judge ordered the Justice Department to turn over the redacted material, but the Trump administration appealed. Whatever the appeals panel decides, the case is likely headed to the Supreme Court.
Griffith suggested that the House had a particular need for the material since the Mueller report ultimately left it to Congress to decide whether Trump had obstructed the Mueller probe.
But a third judge, Trump appointee Neomi Rao, seemed more sympathetic to the Justice Department’s arguments against releasing the information. She questioned whether the courts should get involved in any way in a dispute over impeachment between the legislative and executive branches.
Justice Department lawyers say they are barred from releasing the redacted material, in part because an impeachment inquiry does not qualify as a “judicial proceeding” under the federal law governing release of grand jury materials. Trump has called the impeachment inquiry “a witch hunt.”
Griffith, in his questioning, raised the possibility of releasing less material than what U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell called for in her Oct. 25 order. Griffith asked whether it made more sense for a judge to hold a hearing and go through each redaction in the Mueller report and hear arguments on whether Congress could articulate a particularized need for that information.
He also asked whether the information could perhaps be released on a limited basis to House staff and lawyers while the courts continue to hear arguments on the broader question of what can be fully provided to Congress.
Democrats believe the redacted information could shed light on key episodes of the investigation, including discussions Trump is reported to have had with associates about the release of stolen emails during the campaign and conversations about a 2016 Trump Tower meeting at which Trump’s eldest son expected to receive damaging information about Hillary Clinton.
In court papers, House lawyers cited one redaction that “appears to relate to grand jury evidence indicating that President Trump sought or obtained advance knowledge of WikiLeaks’s plans during the campaign” to release damaging emails related to Hillary Clinton’s campaign. In his written testimony, Trump said he had no recollection of any particular conversations about the hacked emails.
The questions about whether Trump lied in his written testimony to Mueller come as Trump tweeted Monday he might be willing to offer written testimony as part of the House impeachment inquiry.
Other redactions cited in the court papers relate to contacts members of the Trump campaign met with Ukrainian officials “and therefore may be relevant to the House’s examination of whether the President committed impeachable offenses by soliciting Ukrainian interference in the 2020 Presidential election.”
In public proceedings last week in front of the House Intelligence Committee, the impeachment inquiry focused on whether the president withheld aid from Ukraine to pressure the government there to launch a public investigation of former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
At the court hearing Monday, Griffith asked Letter whether the material sought was still relevant, given the apparent recent focus on Ukraine as opposed to the Mueller report.
“Don’t believe everything you’ve read in the press,” Letter responded.
Neptune may be one of the more mysterious planets in the Solar System, but a new study notes that two of its moons, Naiad and Thalassa, are locked in a “dance of avoidance.”