The first stage of the impeachment inquiry into President Trump’s abuses of office, now complete, has revealed how career diplomats were troubled by the ability of Igor Fruman, Lev Parnas, and Rudy Giuliani to help engineer a corrupt shadow foreign policy in Ukraine.
“How could our system fail like this? How is it that foreign corrupt interests could manipulate our government?” Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch asked the House Intelligence Committee, and the nation, in the opening statement of her public testimony last month.
In many respects, we still don’t know.
Testimony this fall, together with the House Intelligence Committee report released this week, show that Ambassador Yovanovitch and other well-respected public servants viewed the efforts of Fruman, Parnas, and Giuliani—against Ambassador Yovanovitch specifically, and against the broader anti-corruption policy that the formal diplomatic channels were working to advance—as highly unusual and deeply concerning in the results they helped set into motion.
In many ways, this sub-saga to the impeachment inquiry echoes the main probe’s central focus: the distortion of long-established U.S. foreign policy for personal and political gain.
We know that Parnas’s and Fruman’s political contributions—including the illegally laundered $325,000 contribution to a pro-Trump super PAC last year—bought them access to exclusive dinners, high dollar fundraisers, and repeated contacts with the President’s inner circle.
Then, thanks to that access, they teamed up with Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani to push for Ambassador Yovanovitch’s removal, to connect Giuliani with Ukrainian officials to push a narrative about the Biden family, and to advance their own personal financial interests in the process.
But as the testimony so far underscores, there remains a considerable amount we don’t know—about what all of their activities entailed, for whose interests they were acting at each step, and who was paying them.
When top diplomats and national security officials began to hear that Fruman and Parnas were subverting long-established diplomatic channels to lobby for Yovanovitch’s removal, to assist Giuliani in pressuring Ukraine to announce an investigation into the Bidens, and to restructure the leadership of Ukraine’s national oil and gas company, they were befuddled.
“I had not previously come across them at all,” said Hill in her deposition in October. “[N]obody at the embassy had ever met those two individuals,” echoed Yovanovitch in hers. “I thought it was exceedingly strange.”
Critically, this confusion extended to Ukrainian government officials, too, who “also didn’t know how to understand it,” explained Yovanovitch.
The consequences were significant. Despite being virtually unknown to career diplomats, Fruman and Parnas suddenly became key players in multiple channels of the ultimately successful campaign to remove Yovanovitch.
One of these early channels appears to have been members of Congress. As Buzzfeed/OCCRP reported this summer, and as witnesses like George Kent pointed to, Parnas and Fruman scored a meeting with then-Congressman Pete Sessions in May 2018—thanks in no small part to their political giving—and that same day Sessions would send a letter to Secretary Pompeo criticizing Yovanovitch.
And the Daily Beast and CNN have reported that Parnas may have also helped arrange meetings between Representative Devin Nunes and Ukrainian officials sympathetic to the anti-Biden narrative last year.
Phone records that the House Intelligence Committee obtained further suggest contact between Nunes and Parnas: on April 12, 2019, for example, Nunes and Parnas spoke for at least eight minutes on one call, and were also in contact multiple times earlier that same day.
A second channel was through the U.S. media. In March of 2019, Hill reporter John Solomon published an interview with former Ukrainian Prosecutor General Yuriy Lutsenko that criticized Yovanovitch (including advancing Lutsenko’s false, now-retracted claim that Yovanovitch had given him a “do-not-prosecute” list) and, in doing so, revitalized the campaign against her.
According to reports, Parnas connected Solomon with Lutsenko, was present for the interview, and assisted with translations. Phone records confirm that “in the 48 hours before publication of The Hill opinion piece, Mr. Parnas spoke with Mr. Solomon at least six times,” and that Parnas and Solomon continued to speak on the day the first Hill piece published, and on subsequent occasions. Giuliani also played a central role in feeding Solomon the false narrative that that interview, and subsequent columns, would espouse.
A third channel appears to have been through Giuliani’s contacts with Pompeo, which occurred at least twice in the lead-up to Ambassador Yovanovitch’s removal, according to documents recently obtained by the watchdog organization American Oversight.
And, of course, we know this narrative reached the President himself, evidenced in meetings where he expressed disdain toward Ukraine, in many public statements, and in his now-infamous call with Ukrainian President Zelensky this summer.
This spring, these efforts appeared to pay off, with President Trump abruptly recalling Ambassador Yovanovitch from her post. Parnas and Fruman apparently viewed Ambassador Yovanovitch as an obstacle to their corrupt plans to restructure the state gas company to advance a natural gas import scheme.
As Yovanovitch told Congress, those demanding her ouster “may well have believed that their personal financial ambitions were stymied by our anti-corruption policy in Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, adjacent and subsequent to the anti-Yovanovitch campaign, Parnas and Fruman were working with Giuliani to promote the anti-Biden narrative. They brokered meetings for Giuliani with Yuriy Lutsenko, then the prosecutor general of Ukraine, and Lutsenko’s predecessor, Viktor Shokin.
They met themselves with Lutsenko and then-President Poroshenko. Six days before the July 25th Trump-Zelensky call, Parnas accompanied Giuliani to a breakfast meeting with Kurt Volker at the Trump Hotel in D.C. Shortly after the call, Parnas attended a meeting in Madrid between Giuliani and a Zelensky aide. And more.
Parnas and Fruman appear to have been successful in using such channels, but not thanks to any particular forethought or political expertise on their part. They seem to possess little of either. But what they did offer were connections in Ukraine, and, perhaps more importantly, an eagerness to do Giuliani’s and still unknown others’ biddings in return for cash, access, opportunities to advance their own side hustles, and an appearance of insider status they could project to the world.
Indeed, as Hill observed, Parnas and Fruman leveraged their actual and purported political connections to President Trump to bolster their own credibility in Ukraine. For example, Hill testified that executives at the state energy company, Naftogaz, felt significant pressure from Parnas and Fruman (who were seeking to rearrange the leadership), because of “[t]he connections that they were either imputing or purporting” to Giuliani and the President, which suggested “some kind of Presidential authority.”
Back in the United States, it appears that they simultaneously leveraged those same claimed connections to impress potential investors in their business schemes.
We know those initial connections would not have been possible but for their six-figure contribution to a pro-Trump super PAC that gained them access to high-dollar fundraisers and Trump’s inner circle. What remains less clear is whose interests they and Giuliani were channeling, and being funded by, at each stage.
Thanks to reporting and records publicized through court proceedings, we have learned who some of those funders were. We know, for example, that while working with Giuliani, Parnas received at least $45,000 from the lobbying firm Ballard Partners for referring the Turkish government as a client, and at least $200,000 from exiled Ukrainian oligarch Dmitryo Firtash, whom Parnas and Fruman connected with members of Trump’s legal team while they leaned on Firtash to help dig up dirt on the Bidens.
For his part, Giuliani has reportedly been paid by individuals like Republican donor Charles Gucciardo, via Parnas’s company Fraud Guarantee. Besides these names, we don’t really know the full extent of who was paying for these activities, so we don’t fully know which interests—domestic or foreign—stood to benefit.
That’s particularly concerning when it comes to Giuliani, because it means that we remain in the dark about where his conflicts of interests might lie while he’s engaging in U.S. diplomacy with the apparent backing of the President.
For their part, Parnas and Fruman were apparently willing to promote interests of new financial backers along the way, if they could make a buck, gain access to a closed-door event, or snap an impressive photo.
Their apparent susceptibility to new opportunities for profit, self-promotion, Instagramable-shots of a high-flying lifestyle, and photos with politicians, combined with significant access to Trump’s inner circle, made them a volatile pair to be purporting to speak for the President’s personal lawyer, and the President himself.
A number of witnesses’ testimonies conveyed the stakes of the efforts that Parnas, Fruman, and Giuliani contributed to. According to Bill Taylor, the pursuit of a “highly irregular” channel of foreign policy threatened “one of the key pillars of our strong support for Ukraine.”
Similarly, Kurt Volker described how, “in May of this year, I became concerned that a negative narrative about Ukraine, fueled by assertions made by Ukraine' s departing Prosecutor General, was reaching the President of the United States, and impeding our ability to support the new Ukrainian government as robustly as we believed we should.”’
It remains to be seen whether Parnas, Fruman, or Giuliani—or President Trump, for that matter—will face consequences for this mysteriously funded shadow campaign in Ukraine. If they don’t, “shady interests the world over,” as Yovanovitch warned, will learn how little it takes to subvert U.S. policy.