Lev Parnas spins wild, crazy stories — and most of them are true
Following the rules of an anachronistic 18th-century ritual, the House managers walked in formation to the Senate to deliver the articles of impeachment on Thursday. The sergeant at arms informed the senators that if they speak during the trial they could be imprisoned, and then the chief justice arrived in his robes accompanied by four senators. He then administered the constitutionally prescribed oath to deliver impartial justice to the assembled senators, after which, one by one, they signed their names to a book. The only thing missing was the white wigs.
Meanwhile, the president was shriek-tweeting in all caps, "I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!"
It was weird. But then, what isn't weird in this administration?
Only in the Trump era would we have a bombshell witness appear on the night before the trial, loaded down with pictures and video and written evidence, much of it in Russian. I'm speaking of Lev Parnas, of course, who served as Donald Trump and Rudy Giuliani's bagman in the plot to extort a political smear job against Joe Biden from the Ukrainian government.
Parnas was arrested in October for campaign finance violations, along with his partner Igor Fruman. But until federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York returned records they had seized during the arrest, and a judge cleared them to be sent to the House Intelligence Committee last week, we didn't know specifically what he'd been up to in the Ukraine scandal.
On Monday, the House released some of the documents to the public, which included text messages — lots of text messages — between Parnas, Giuliani and any number of other players. The trial starts on Tuesday so presumably, the lawyers working for the House managers are pulling all-nighters to put together the timeline based upon all the records provided by their own witnesses, FOIA requests and Parnas to both corroborate his story and present an understandable narrative of what happened in Kyiv and in Washington.
They have not interviewed Parnas, as far as I know, but he's been giving TV interviews so they should be able to determine some of what they can corroborate and what they can't. He's an accused criminal, but as TV prosecutors have been saying on a loop for the past few days, it's usually criminals who give evidence against other criminals. They're the ones who know where their fellow criminals buried the bodies.
Parnas revealed a lot of juicy details in his interview with Rachel Maddow on MSNBC. It's hard to know right now what was most important. There's a ton of color about the Trump hotel in Washington being essentially like a mobsters' "social club" where hangers-on gather in the lobby and the bar, while insiders get invited into the inner sanctums where the real deals are made. It's a GOP power center that just happens to put money directly into the president's personal bank account. Imagine that.
Parnas also claimed that the shocking texts between him and a fringe character named Robert Hyde, in which Hyde indicated that he had Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, under surveillance, were all just a joke. Apparently, both the U.S. government and the Ukrainian government weren't entirely convinced, since the FBI "visited" Hyde on Thursday and the Ukrainians finally gave Trump his investigation, although not quite the one he wanted. They have also announced they are looking into this allegation.
The new information I find most interesting at first glance is that we now know the withholding of military aid and a White House visit in exchange for the announcement of an investigation into Biden and the 2016 election was only one of three different quid-pro-quos in this plot.
It's been a puzzle from the very beginning as to why the administration was so determined to push Yovanovitch out of her post. She was something of an anti-corruption crusader, but it hasn't been clear exactly why Giuliani and his henchmen pushed so hard to get her fired.
According to text messages provided by Parnas, it was just another transaction. Getting rid of Yovanovitch was the price they had to pay to obtain the cooperation of one of the crooked Ukrainian prosecutors, Yuri Lutsenko, who agreed to investigate Biden if they delivered. Despite all their hard work getting Yovanovitch fired — and it was really hard, according to Parnas — Lutsenko's patron, then-President Petro Poroshenko, lost the election and was replaced last year by Volodymyr Zelensky. (Out of office, Lutsenko later pulled a Trump and reneged on the agreement, telling the press he never found anything on Biden.)
The other quid pro quo is more sinister. Giuliani got word that Dmitry Firtash, a Ukrainian gas oligarch with ties to the Kremlin, had dirt on Burisma, the firm that had Joe Biden's son Hunter on its board. Naturally, Giuliani was excited. Firtash was being represented by Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, two long-time GOP legal operatives who had been involved in the Ukraine plot, along with a right-wing reporter John Solomon. Firtash wanted to avoid extradition from Austria to the U.S., where he is wanted on bribery and racketeering charges. According to Parnas, Firtash agreed to share his information in exchange for having his extradition order lifted. Giuliani, Toensing and diGenova all worked together to try to make that happen.
Elements of this story were already known, but Parnas suggested in his interview with Maddow that Attorney General Bill Barr was also "on the team." He didn't offer any direct evidence of this and the Department of Justice denies knowing anything about it. But it once more raises the question of why Trump told Zelensky during the "perfect call" to cooperate with both Giuliani and Barr.
Parnas said he came forward because he's afraid of Barr's Justice Department, which is astonishing considering the lowlife elements he's been palling around with. Since Parnas is under federal indictment that seems like a reckless thing to say. But he says everyone is running scared since Trump managed to consolidate power after naming Barr, so his only real hope lies in going public.
This is a crazy story but we already knew that most of it is true. As tantalizing as these new details are, they don't entirely fill in the picture of Rudy Giuliani's scheme and how Trump's Washington works. What was true a month ago remains true today: The president of the United States and his personal lawyer plotted to extort the leaders of a foreign country into interfering in the presidential election by smearing his political rival. New information comes out every day and none of it will ever change that fact.
Heather Digby Parton, also known as "Digby," is a contributing writer to Salon. She was the winner of the 2014 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism.