The indictment of two Soviet-born clients of Rudy Giuliani’s reveals intriguing ties between the campaign finance scheme that the duo was allegedly running and President Trump’s scheme to pressure the Ukrainian government into becoming a factory for political dirt.
Prosecutors detail how, in one instance, Lev Parnas laundered Igor Fruman’s campaign contributions to a politician who then lobbied for the removal of U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch — a key moment in the timeline of the pressure campaign that has provoked the fourth impeachment inquiry in American history.
But more broadly, the indictment homes in on the campaign finance violations of two people involved in the nitty gritty of the pressure campaign itself.
Parnas reportedly helped arrange phone calls between Rudy Giuliani and former Ukrainian general prosecutor Yuriy Lutsenko, and presented himself as a representative of the Trump attorney while in Kyiv this year. Lutsenko propagated narratives of Ukrainian interference in the 2016 election to benefit Democrats and promised investigations into the Bidens while in office. Both narratives took hold on the American far-right. He said this week that Giuliani offered during a January 2019 conversation to set up a meeting between him and Attorney General Bill Barr.
Separately, the AP reported this week that Parnas and Fruman flaunted their influence with Giuliani while trying to secure lucrative gas deals in Kyiv.
The indictment gives a window into early stages of the ultimately campaign to remove U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. It reveals that Parnas and Fruman may have played a crucial role in pushing for Yovanovitch’s removal at a stage far earlier than previously known.
Acting in concert with an unnamed Ukrainian official, Parnas and Fruman allegedly committed to raise $20,000 for a congressman not named in the indictment, as Parnas asked the representative for “assistance in causing the U.S. Government to remove or recall the then-U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine.”
The indictment goes on to allege that Parnas did this at least partly “at the request of one or more Ukrainian government officials.”
Parnas made the request in May 2018, the same month Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) sent a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo advocating for Yovanovitch’s removal. Sessions accused Yovanovitch of making anti-Trump comments while posted to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv.
Yovanovitch spent another year as ambassador before her ouster in May 2019. That removal appears to have occurred as a subplot in the pressure campaign, with Giuliani and local Ukrainian officials pushing for her removal in part because of her refusal to play ball with the Ukraine pressure campaign. Her removal allowed others — including Trump donor and U.S. Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland — to take on increased responsibility in facilitating that campaign on Kyiv.
Trump himself later told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on his now-infamous July 25 phone call that Yovanovitch was “bad news.”
The AP reported this week that Parnas and Fruman had separately told people involved in the Ukrainian gas industry that if Yovanovitch got in the way of a business plan they were pursuing, they could have her fired.
It’s what’s left unsaid that’s important
Much of the indictment details how Parnas and Fruman bought access to GOP circles (and attempted to buy access to the Nevada marijuana scene) via concealed campaign contributions.
It portrays how the duo played the system, using a straw donor scheme to allow Fruman to exceed federally mandated limits on campaign contributions.
All that, the indictment says, was done to further the pair’s aims of “enhancing” their influence and to gain access to politicians. The indictment details how this accomplished that aim with GOP congressional candidates — the Yovanovitch scheme with Pete Sessions, as well as a separate story in which Fruman funded a contribution, laundered through Parnas, “to gain access to an exclusive political event” in June 2018.
But while the indictment details how the alleged campaign finance scheme bought access to the GOP in Congress, it studiously avoids any mention of the two gaining access to the White House — or to Trump himself.
And yet, social media posts show Parnas and Fruman spending time with Trumpworld notables, including the President himself and his son Don Jr.
It’s not clear at this point how cleanly one can distinguish the two spheres to which Parnas and Fruman gained access — the congressional, and Trumpworld.
But it’s clear that the access Parnas and Fruman had to Trumpworld — most notably to Rudy Giuliani — allowed them to play a role in the Ukraine pressure campaign.
Where the connections aren’t there
For the most part, prosecutors hew to a description of the campaign finance scheme for which Parnas, Fruman, and two of their associates have now been indicted.
The indictment does not mention Giuliani at all. It also does not mention the pair’s 2019 trips to Kyiv, nor does it mention anything about Ukraine sending political dirt to the United States.
Other details — like the $325,000 contribution to America First Action — could be related to the pressure campaign. But, if it is, prosecutors do not say so.
If anything, the purpose of Parnas and Fruman’s contributions are kept broad, simply to buy access and influence within the GOP on behalf of the unnamed Ukrainian official.
But what may end up being most key to revealing how close the indictment is to the Ukraine pressure campaign is the identity of the Ukrainian official — or officials — who paid Parnas and Fruman and who sought to remove Yovanovitch.
It’s possible that the story here could be partly one of the tail wagging the dog: corrupt Ukrainian officials using American graft as a channel to remove a pesky ambassador drawing attention to their own self-dealing.
The identity of the official could tell us how closely tied Parnas and Fruman’s actions were to Trump or — on the other hand — to Ukrainians who stood to benefit from Yovanovitch’s removal and from the discrediting of the prosecution of Paul Manafort.