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How Lev Parnas Became Part of the Trump Campaign’s “One Big Family”

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On September 26th, two weeks before Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were arrested at Dulles International Airport, Parnas was visiting Manhattan. It was during the U.N. General Assembly, and a large Ukrainian delegation was in town. Parnas, who was born in Ukraine and grew up in Brooklyn, lives in Florida and runs an energy business with a Wall Street address. He was staying at the Trump International Hotel & Tower, just off of Columbus Circle, which has been his favorite hotel “from the first day it opened,” he told me. Parnas, a longtime fan of Donald Trump’s real-estate businesses, was an early supporter of Trump’s 2016 campaign for President. Now, after working on behalf of Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, to investigate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, in Ukraine, Parnas and Fruman are at the center of the investigation that could result in the President’s impeachment.

Two days after the Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, announced that the House would initiate a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump, potentially charging him with seeking to enlist the help of the Ukrainian government to damage Biden’s campaign, Parnas sat down with me at a table for two at Bouchon Bakery, near his hotel, and reminisced about his work as Giuliani’s fixer in Ukraine and elsewhere, where he collected dirt on the Bidens and the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine at the time, Marie Yovanovitch. At our meeting, Parnas was accompanied by a bodyguard, who watched from a distance. “You can’t be too careful,” he said. He ordered a coffee and handed me a thick business card for Global Energy Producers, on which he is listed as the company’s C.E.O. and co-founder. (The Web site for the company now reads, “Looks Like You’re Lost.”)

Parnas had sat in on many of Giuliani’s phone calls and meetings involving Ukraine, he said, including one in May between Giuliani and an envoy of Volodymyr Zelensky, the new Ukrainian President, which took place in Madrid. Giuliani told me that, at this meeting, he received assurances that Zelenksy’s administration would pursue several investigations sought by Trump, including one into the Bidens. Parnas was clearly proud of his work for Giuliani and seemed unfazed by his proximity to the impeachment inquiry. “I’m a businessman who obviously is close to the mayor, is close to the President,” he said. “I love the President. I love the Administration. I fully support him and honestly think he is going to go down as probably one of the greatest, if not the greatest, Presidents ever. What he’s doing is outstanding.”

Parnas was born in February, 1972, in the port city of Odessa, in southwestern Ukraine, which was then part of the Soviet Union. He was three when his family moved to the United States. “I came here as a legal immigrant, through a legal process,” he said. His family settled in Detroit, where they lived for about a year, before relocating to Brooklyn. When Parnas was sixteen, he worked at Kings Highway Realty, selling Trump Organization co-ops. “That was my first time knowing who Trump was, but, growing up in that area, you knew who Trump was, because his name was all over the place,” he said.

In 1995, when Parnas was twenty-three, he moved from Brooklyn to Florida. On visits to New York, he stayed at Trump properties. Parnas said that, until Trump announced his run for the Presidency, on June 16, 2015, he didn’t consider himself a Republican or a Democrat. “I was really never heavy into politics, never really contributed,” he said. Then, in June, 2015, Parnas’s teen-age son, Aaron, called his father. “Dad, I think one of your friends is running for President,” he joked. Aaron told me that, after Trump announced his candidacy, he called the Trump campaign to get passes to go with his father to a Trump rally in Florida.

Parnas soon became a regular at Trump’s rallies and other gatherings. “I started donating. We started to help raise money,” he said. Gradually, Parnas said that he got to know other Trump donors, including Tommy Hicks, Jr., a private-equity investor in Texas who is close to Donald Trump, Jr. (Hicks has since become the co-chair of the Republican National Committee.)“We became one big family,” Parnas said. “You got to understand, he didn’t have a real campaign, a traditional campaign. It was make-it-up, you know. Like him or not, you understand what it is. It was more, like, you know, we’d bump into each other constantly because it was all the same people, there were not that many of us.” Parnas told me that he “bumped into” Trump “plenty of times” at events in New York over the years, but that they didn’t get to know each other until the 2016 campaign. (Trump recently distanced himself from Parnas and Fruman, saying, “I don’t know those gentlemen. Now, it’s possible I have a picture with them, because I have a picture with everybody.”)

On Election Night, Parnas, along with other donors, including the Blackwater founder Erik Prince, were invited to attend a gathering with Trump and his family. “We were all there,” he recalled. “I will never forget that.” His go-to hotel in Manhattan, Trump International Hotel & Tower, was fully booked, so he stayed at the Intercontinental, where Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Senator Tim Kaine, and his family were watching the results come in. “We came home laughing and celebrating at three or four in the morning,” Parnas said. “The whole Democratic Party was at the hotel. It was quiet, pitch black.”

Parnas said that he grew closer to Giuliani after the election. “We were good friends, he’s also my counsel,” he said. “We were looking to do business together.” When Giuliani wanted to gather information in Ukraine to counter the findings of the special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation, Parnas volunteered to help. “Because of my Ukrainian background and my contacts there, I became like Rudy’s assistant, his investigator,” he said. “I don’t do anything on my own. I don’t lobby people. I go get information. I set up a meeting. I make sure that the call went right. I make sure the translation is done right.” Parnas echoed the claims of Trump and Giuliani that the Democrats had worked with Ukrainians to dig up dirt on Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign manager, ahead of the 2016 vote, seeming to imply that what he and Giuliani were doing now was little different.

In late 2018, Parnas said, he helped to connect Giuliani with the former Ukrainian prosecutor-general Viktor Shokin, who was fired in 2016, by President Petro Poroshenko, after Biden and other U.S. and European officials complained that Shokin was lax in pursuing corruption. Biden, in particular, had threatened to withhold a billion dollars in loans that the Ukrainian government desperately needed. In a Skype call with Giuliani, Shokin falsely claimed that he was fired because he wanted to investigate Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company where Hunter Biden, Joe Biden’s son, was on the board. Ukrainian and American officials said that Shokin, contrary to what he told Giuliani, did not actively investigate Burisma while he was prosecutor-general, and that the dormant cases in Ukraine that targeted Burisma—questioning how it obtained its exploration licenses and whether it paid all of its taxes—had nothing to do with Hunter’s role on the board. But Parnas said that he accepted Shokin’s claim that Biden had him fired to protect Hunter. In Parnas’s view, “Shokin basically stepped down, and allowed himself to get fired, to save the country.”

Parnas said that Giuliani wanted Shokin to travel to New York for a follow-up conversation. At Giuliani’s direction, Parnas spoke to Shokin about setting up his visit. “I said, ‘Listen, it’s going to be unofficial,’ ” he recalled. Shokin, who has a daughter living in California, told Parnas that he would seek a visa to visit her and would then meet Giuliani. Parnas said that Shokin was denied a visa. (Shokin did not respond to a request for comment.)

According to Parnas, Giuliani helped him and Fruman get high-level meetings in Kiev, including by writing a letter of introduction to a minister in Zelensky’s government. Parnas and Fruman used the meetings to collect information that they hoped would be of interest to Trump, and to pitch energy deals for themselves. “We became a hot commodity. Past, present—everybody came with a story to tell,” Parnas recalled. “It’s like a movie, you’re hearing all these stories. You’re, like, are you kidding me?” Ukrainian officials told me that they were surprised by the indiscretion of Parnas and Fruman. A senior Ukrainian official said, of the two men, “They were looking to sell gas to Ukraine. They were looking for partners. Then, in the course of discussions, they were very open, I would say surprisingly open, about their plans to discredit Biden and to replace the Ambassador.”

Parnas told me that some of the Ukrainian officials and businessmen whom he met were distrustful of Yovanovitch, a career diplomat who started her posting in Kiev during President Obama’s second term. Parnas said he heard that she had been “badmouthing” Trump, saying that he would soon be impeached and that Ukrainian officials shouldn’t listen to him. Parnas said that he shared this information with the former Texas Republican congressman Pete Sessions and with Giuliani, who lobbied the State Department and Trump to remove the Ambassador. “I had a meeting with Pete Sessions that had nothing to do with that. It was about our gas company,” Parnas said. “In the meeting, Pete asked me, ‘Do you know anything about Yovanovitch?’ I told him what I heard. Unbeknownst to me, Pete was already looking into it, and when I left he opted to write a letter to [Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo that day.” (After Parnas and Fruman were indicted, Sessions said in a statement that he would “vigorously defend myself against any allegations of wrongdoing.”)

The Trump Administration abruptly recalled Yovanovitch in May. Last week, in remarks to the three committees involved in the impeachment inquiry, Yovanovitch rebutted the rumors spread by Parnas and Fruman, saying that she served in her role “on a strictly nonpartisan basis.” She added, “Our efforts were intended, and evidently succeeded, in thwarting corrupt interests in Ukraine, who fought back by selling baseless conspiracy theories to anyone who would listen.”

Parnas, like many of the President’s most dedicated supporters, rejects the U.S. intelligence assessment that Russia intervened in the 2016 election to help Trump. “It’s total bullshit,” he said. He described the Mueller investigation and the impeachment inquiry as “a modernized coup,” adding, “Before, you would use armies, guns. Now they use newspapers, television, the Internet, and media to be able to manipulate the crowd to such a point where whatever they say becomes the truth.” He ended our nearly ninety-minute meeting on a wistful note, saying that he looked forward to returning home to Florida and spending more time with his wife and son. “He’s the real story,” Parnas said, of Aaron. “My son graduated college at sixteen. He’s graduating law school at twenty. He’s about to be a lawyer. He’s doing some fascinating things. He wants to be President one day.”

The federal indictment of Parnas and Fruman alleges that the two and other defendants engaged in “a scheme to funnel foreign money to candidates for federal and State office so that the defendants could buy potential influence with candidates, campaigns, and the candidates’ governments.” Since Parnas was arrested at Dulles with a one-way ticket to Vienna, it has emerged that he had been working as a translator with American lawyers representing Dmytro Firtash, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessmen, who has been battling extradition to the U.S. to face trial for bribery charges. Firtash has lived in Vienna for five years, but Parnas’s lawyer, John Dowd, told me that Parnas was not boarding a flight to Vienna to see Firtash when he was arrested. Dowd said that Parnas bought a one-way ticket because a round-trip fare, at the last moment, would have cost him nearly twenty thousand dollars.



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