Watch AC360: The Lev Parnas Interview on CNN Friday night at 11 p.m. ET
President Donald Trump’s efforts to pressure the Ukrainian government included an attempted quid-pro-quo with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, according to Lev Parnas, the indicted businessman who is a central figure in the impeachment scandal.
Revealing what he claims is a previously undisclosed meeting, Parnas told CNN’s Anderson Cooper that he met Poroshenko in early 2019, during the final weeks of Ukraine’s presidential campaign, and tried to broker a political arrangement on behalf of Trump and his personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.
According to Parnas, Trump offered to endorse Poroshenko if he announced an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, who was gearing up for his own 2020 campaign at the time.
“If he would make the announcement … Trump would either invite him to the White House or make a statement for him, but basically would start supporting him for president,” Parnas said.
But the deal fell flat. Poroshenko didn’t announce any investigations, and a few months later, he was soundly defeated in Ukraine’s presidential runoff by comedian Volodymyr Zelensky.
“Trump and Poroshenko, they got off on the wrong foot,” Parnas said, describing a perceived snub in 2016, when Poroshenko met Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton for a photo-op, but never saw candidate Trump. “(He) met with Hillary Clinton, and President Trump doesn’t forget.”
The new allegations could expand the understanding of the Trump-backed pressure campaign to secure political favors from Ukraine. These efforts included a direct request from Trump to Zelensky for a Biden investigation, and a series of meetings between Trump emissaries and Zelensky aides, according to testimony from key witnesses.
Documents that Parnas provided to the House Intelligence Committee, which were publicly released this week, also revealed that Parnas tried to engineer a quid pro quo with Yuriy Lutsenko, the top prosecutor during the Poroshenko administration. Lutsenko offered damaging information about Biden if Parnas could get Trump to fire the US ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch.
Trump fired Yovanovitch in spring 2019. Parnas said all his dealings with Ukrainian officials were approved by Giuliani, who Parnas says provided regular updates to Trump. Trump has repeatedly denied knowing Parnas and Giuliani rejects many of Parnas’ latest claims. Parnas has since expressed regret for his role in the scheme to oust Yovanovitch.
Forging ties with Trump
Along with his business partner Igor Fruman, Parnas shelled out more than $570,000 to Republican campaigns before the 2018 midterm elections, according to federal records. This included a $325,000 donation from their company to the most prominent pro-Trump super PAC.
Both men were indicted on campaign finance charges in October, and prosecutors said many of those donations illegally included straw donors and foreign money. They pleaded not guilty. By speaking out, Parnas may be able to boost his chances of a plea deal with the Justice Department.
Parnas said their goal was to use their newfound political ties, and invitations to exclusive dinners and roundtables with lawmakers, to pursue business in the lucrative energy sector.
“Two worlds collided as me and Igor were trying to build a business,” he told CNN. “…I went from being a top donor, to being at all the events where we would just socialize, to becoming a close friend of Rudy Giuliani, to eventually becoming his ally and his asset on the ground in Ukraine.”
Giuliani started asking him to “translate a piece of paper” or “validate some things,” Parnas said. “Then all of a sudden … Rudy was able to see that Igor knew everybody in Ukraine. And it slowly, slowly merged into a situation where we started merging and becoming very useful.”
That’s when Parnas said he started to get more direct access to Trump, brokered by Giuliani.
Parnas says he never met one-on-one with Trump, but he described several interactions with the President, where Giuliani acted as the connector. At the White House Hanukkah party in 2018, Parnas says Giuliani went back-and-forth between Parnas and Trump, and at one point, Secret Service agents approached him and Giuliani and said they should go to the Red Room to meet Trump.
The President eventually emerged, according to Parnas, along with First Lady Melania Trump, Vice President Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence. Fruman was there with Parnas, and they took a group photo.
Parnas said they didn’t discuss Ukraine – because Giuliani would brief Trump privately.
“He thanked us,” Parnas said. “He said, ‘Thank you for everything you are doing.’ … There wasn’t a full-blown conversation. But Rudy filled in the dots afterwards when we stayed there.”
In recent days, Trump continued distancing himself from Parnas, saying “I don’t know him at all.” The new comments from Parnas as well as reams of text messages, make it clear that he had extremely close ties to Giuliani, including near-daily contacts, but that his interactions with Trump were much less substantive.
In the CNN interview, Parnas explained how he quietly worked alongside Giuliani to try to secure a US visa for a former Ukrainian prosecutor who was dangling information about Biden.
CNN first reported in October that Giuliani unsuccessfully pressed the White House and State Department to grant the visa for former Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin. Their goal was to bring Shokin to the US so he could share incriminating information about the Bidens.
After learning from Shokin that his application was denied by US authorities, Parnas said he informed Giuliani, who responded, “don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.” His efforts apparently included direct appeals to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, including a face-to-face meeting.
“Rudy decided that he got pissed off and had the President call Pompeo,” Parnas said. “…He went to meet Pompeo … basically, it was supposed to happen again. He came back, told me, ‘Done.’ There are text messages, obviously, you could see. And again, (the visa) didn’t happen.”
The backchannel didn’t work, so Giuliani interviewed Shokin over Skype instead. Shokin shared a series of discredited and false allegations about Biden and his son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian energy company. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by the Bidens.
The State Department did not reply to CNN’s request for comment about Pompeo’s role. Under federal law, the secretary of state doesn’t have the power to personally overturn visa rejections.
In radio interviews Friday, Pompeo said he never met or spoke with Parnas “to the best of my recollection” and dismissed the Ukraine dealings that led to Trump’s impeachment as “noise.”
Negotiating with oligarchs
Some of Shokin’s allegations about Biden were included in court filings in an ongoing criminal case involving Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian oligarch who now lives in Vienna.
Federal prosecutors charged Firtash with foreign bribery and racketeering in 2013. He maintains his innocence and has been fighting extradition for years. CNN previously reported that Parnas introduced Firtash to the Trump-friendly lawyers Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing, and that after they were hired by Firtash, Parnas got a piece of their $1 million retainer as a commission.
An arrangement was made, Parnas said: diGenova and Toensing would use their Trump-world contacts to resolve Firtash’s legal problems. Firtash would give them any dirt he had on Biden.
In the CNN interview, Parnas hinted that Attorney General Bill Barr was aware of that secret arrangement. Parnas also told MSNBC that Barr was “basically on the team,” though he didn’t provide evidence to back up his assertion, and Barr has denied discussing Ukraine with Giuliani.
A Justice Department spokeswoman told CNN that if there was an arrangement for anyone to get political dirt from Firtash, the department and Barr “did not know about it.”
As part of their work for Firtash, diGenova and Toensing secured a sit-down meeting with Barr and other senior Justice Department officials, where they pleaded with Barr to drop the charges.
“Bill Barr basically did (the meeting) as a favor to Joe diGenova,” Parnas said.
CNN and other news outlets reported that Barr declined to intervene in the case, and a Justice Department spokeswoman said in October that the US was still trying to extradite Firtash to stand trial in Illinois. A Justice Department official told CNN that the meeting about Firtash never included any discussion of Ukrainian corruption or the Bidens.
Meanwhile, Firtash “opened up all his records to us,” Parnas said, including affidavits from Shokin and other former Ukrainian officials who alleged wrongdoing against Biden and the Obama administration. Trump and Giuliani publicly spread these allegations, even though many of the claims were discredited or debunked by witnesses in the House impeachment inquiry. For his part Parnas now says he doesn’t think that Biden did anything wrong.
“Mr. Firtash started realizing that all they cared about” was the information on Biden, Parnas said, “though he never wanted to help with that, never wanted to get involved in that. But he started… helping with that situation because that was what (the new legal team) wanted.”
In a November interview with The New York Times, Firtash distanced himself from Giuliani’s quest to damage the Biden campaign, saying he was unwillingly “sucked into this internal US fight” and only hired the Trump-friendly lawyers because they could help him win his case.
CNN’s Nicolle Okoren, Olanma Mang, Jennifer Hansler and David Shortell contributed to this report.