Boomerang for the Biden hunters
The feds have brought a corruption case centered on Ukraine. To Donald Trump's doubtless disappointment, and perhaps worse, it's not aimed at a political rival. The targets are close associates of Rudy Giuliani, the president's personal lawyer, conspiracy hunter and faithful attack dog.
Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two Soviet-born wheeler-dealers based in Florida, were arrested late Wednesday at Dulles International Airport outside Washington while trying to board an overseas flight with one-way tickets. An indictment from the Manhattan U.S. Attorney's Office charged that they schemed to funnel foreign money to U.S. politicians while trying to influence U.S.-Ukraine relations. Read the indictment here.
The two were charged with campaign finance violations related to a $325,000 donation to a group supporting Trump's re-election. The men had key roles facilitating Giuliani’s efforts to launch a Ukrainian corruption investigation against Joe Biden and his son Hunter.
The indictment said Parnas, Fruman and two co-defendants allegedly funneled "$1-2 million" from an unnamed Russian donor into the U.S. political system between June 2018 and April 2019.
They also raised money for a congressman who wasn't identified in court papers but matches the description of former Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Texas), who was defeated last November. The indictment said they enlisted Sessions to seek the ouster of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch. The motive, it said, was to "advance their own personal financial interests and the political interests of Ukrainian government officials." Trump later removed her — convinced, as was Giuliani, that she was a foe.
Apart from Ukraine interests, the indictment accuses the four defendants of also participating in a botched scheme to acquire retail marijuana licenses through donations to local and federal politicians in New York, Nevada and other states. They missed an application deadline. Parnas and Fruman allegedly created a shell company to conceal their access to the cash from their creditors.
As The New York Times writes, the indictment suggests criminal implications from the shadow foreign policy that Giuliani pushed on behalf of the president, a focus of the House impeachment inquiry. “These allegations are not about some technicality, a civil violation or an error on a form,” said William Sweeney Jr., head of the FBI’s office in New York. “This investigation is about corrupt behavior, deliberate lawbreaking.” Jay Sekulow, a lawyer for Trump, said “neither the President nor the [Trump] campaign were aware of the allegations.”
Could Giuliani be next?
Giuliani isn't mentioned in the indictment, but his financial dealings with Parnas and Fruman are under scrutiny by investigators overseeing the case, CNN reported, citing law enforcement officials briefed on the matter. U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said the investigation is continuing.
Trump, who has seen one of his former lawyers, Michael Cohen, busted by the feds and sent to prison, didn't sound entirely confident when reporters asked if he thought Giuliani could be indicted. “Well, I hope not,” Trump said. “I just don’t know, I haven’t spoken to Rudy about it."
Giuliani told CNN he is not aware of any law enforcement scrutiny of his financial dealings with the two defendants and that he has not been interviewed by the FBI in the investigation.
A Vanity Fair reporter said he asked Giuliani about the prospect of the FBI flipping Parnas and Fruman to get to him. “Good luck,” he replied.
Trump said the two defendants were unfamiliar faces. "I don't know them. I don't know about them. I don't know what they do … Maybe they were clients of Rudy. You'd have to ask Rudy." But The Wall Street Journal said the two businessmen had dinner with Trump at the White House in May 2018, according to since-deleted Facebook posts.
Now the news is spreading that Yovanovitch was removed after insisting that Giuliani's requests to Ukrainian officials for investigations be relayed through official channels, further highlighting the ex-mayor's pursuit of an Iran-Contra-style shadow foreign policy.
Rudy and the flee circus
Giuliani had lunch with Parnas and Fruman at the Trump International Hotel in Washington on Wednesday, hours before the pair were arrested at Dulles airport, The Wall Street Journal reported, citing a witness.
Giuliani told the Journal that the pair were bound for Vienna for reasons related to their business, which he declined to explain. Giuliani told a reporter for The Atlantic on Wednesday night that he was planning to fly to Vienna himself on Thursday. He didn't say why.
When the same reporter called Giuliani on Thursday, a woman who said she was a communications assistant answered and said Giuliani would have to get back to her. Then the reporter heard a voice resembling Giuliani's yelling a vulgar epithet in the background. The woman said, "Oh, sorry. He was talking to the TV.”
Janison: Swamp without borders
Just as "Watergate" ultimately fell short in describing the breadth of Richard Nixon's scandals, the clumsy term "Russiagate" no longer contains the international scope of Trump's current mess, writes Newsday's Dan Janison.
It's not that the Russia story has gone away. The impeachment process could still include the question of whether he obstructed justice in the Russia investigation. But news stories break nearly every day about the president's potentially self-serving approaches to Ukraine and Turkey.
The latest, according to the federal indictment and reporting since the whistleblower complaint: Knives were aimed at Yovanovitch from multiple directions.
Parnas and Fruman, who saw her as an obstacle to their business ventures, allegedly put illegal donations behind their push to oust her. Giuliani concluded the respected career official stood in the way of getting his conspiracy theories investigated by the Ukrainian government. Trump agreed and had her bounced.
Then there's Turkey. Bloomberg News reports Trump in 2017 pressed then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help convince the Justice Department to drop a criminal case against an Iranian-Turkish gold trader who was a Giuliani client.
New case, old cast
John Dowd, a former lawyer for Trump during Robert Mueller's Russia investigation, now represents Parnas and Fruman. A week before their arrest, he wrote a letter to the House Intelligence Committee resisting its demands for documents and communications from them.
The letter helpfully outlined some of the pair's connections in arguing they were protected by various privileges. They "assisted Mr. Giuliani in connection with his representation of President Trump." They in turn were "represented by Mr. Giuliani in connection with their personal and business affairs." They also "assisted Joseph diGenova and Victoria Toensing in their law practice." The lawyer couple are fellow conspiracy theorists with Giuliani and Trump TV surrogates.
Dowd's letter also drew notice for being written in the Comic Sans font, not typical for lawyerly mailings.
For their court appearance on Thursday after their arrest, Parnas and Fruman were represented by Kevin Downing and Tom Zehnle, the same attorneys who defended former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort during his failed battle against criminal charges brought by Mueller.
Zelensky: So show me something
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said his government will "happily" investigate Trump's claims — about the Bidens and that Ukrainians, not Russia, interfered in the 2016 election — but the U.S. "did not give me anything” to look at.
“When the U.S. says, ‘Yes, there was meddling,’ I say, ‘Please pass details and we will find. We will be happy to investigate,’ ” the Ukrainian leader said Thursday. Trump's call to Zelensky for the "favor" was July 25, more than two months ago.
As before, Zelensky rejected any suggestion that he was blackmailed by Trump during the call. He said he learned only afterward that the Trump administration had blocked hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid to Ukraine. Zelensky appears to be playing to both U.S. political camps to ensure Ukraine has continued support no matter who wins the presidential election next year, The Associated Press wrote.
The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that in an unusual step, the White House gave a politically appointed official the authority to keep aid to Ukraine on hold after career budget staff members questioned the legality of delaying the funds. That shift is a focus of the House impeachment inquiry.
What else is happening:
- House investigators issued subpoenas Thursday to Energy Secretary Rick Perry as well as Parnas and Fruman, seeking “key documents” that have not been produced as part of the impeachment inquiry, The Washington Post reported.
- Trump didn't take it well when the latest Fox News poll found 51% of voters favoring impeachment. "Whoever their Pollster is, they suck," Trump tweeted, complaining also that "From the day I announced I was running for President, I have NEVER had a good @FoxNews Poll" and "@FoxNews doesn’t deliver for US anymore."
- Trump's attorney general, William Barr, met privately in New York Wednesday night with media mogul Rupert Murdoch, a Trump confidant whose holdings include Fox News, The New York Times reported. It's not clear what they discussed.
- Both before and after Trump's call with Zelensky, at least four national security officials were so alarmed by attempts to pressure Ukraine for political purposes that they raised concerns with a White House lawyer, The Washington Post reported.
- Former Rep. Trey Gowdy is off Trump's anti-impeachment legal team less than 24 hours after it was announced he was joining it. Trump said Gowdy, who left Congress in January, couldn't represent him until January 2020 because of lobbying rules.
- Trump teased, reality-show style, the prospect of progress in trade talks with China, tweeting: "Big day of negotiations with China. They want to make a deal, but do I? I meet with the Vice Premier tomorrow at The White House."