WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Thursday denied knowing Lev Parnas, a former associate of his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani who in interviews has said Trump was fully engaged in the campaign to pressure Ukrainian officials into opening an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden.
Parnas, a Ukrainian-American businessman from Florida, said in interviews with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, The New York Times and CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Giuliani tapped him to act on behalf of Trump in Ukraine to push for a probe that could have benefitted Trump politically.
“It was all about 2020, to make sure he had another four years," Parnas told Cooper in an interview that aired Thursday.
Parnas told Maddow he was directed by Giuliani in May to deliver an ultimatum to newly elected Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky that “all aid” from the United States would be suspended.
Further, Parnas said Giuliani told him to say no senior U.S. officials would attend Zelensky’s inauguration ceremony if he did not announce an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter, who previously served on the board of a Ukraine gas company.
“It was never about corruption,” Parnas told Maddow.
Parnas' assertions went against Trump’s argument that his order to withhold nearly $400 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine, and his request for Zelensky to launch an investigation into the Bidens, stemmed from his desire to root out corruption in the war-torn eastern European nation.
In an interview that aired Wednesday, Parnas told Maddow: "President Trump knew exactly what was going on. He was aware of all of my movements … I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president."
Trump, who denied knowing Parnas after the latter's arrest in October on unrelated federal campaign finance charges, insisted again Thursday that he didn’t know “who this man is, other than I guess he attended fundraisers.”
“I meet thousands and thousands of people as president. I take thousands of pictures,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office. “I don’t know him, I never had a conversation that I remember with him.”
Parnas, who has pleaded not guilty to the campaign finance charges, and his attorney Joseph A. Bondy, have posted numerous photos on social media of Parnas smiling alongside Trump and members of the Trump family at events, including a 2018 White House dinner.
Parnas told Maddow Trump “lied” when he denied knowing Parnas and fellow associate Igor Fruman.
“I mean, we’re not friends,” Parnas said. “Me and him didn’t watch football games together, we didn’t eat hot dogs. But he knew exactly who we were, who I was especially.”
Asked about Parnas’ statements, Giuliani told The Associated Press in a text message: “I thought he was an honorable man. I was wrong.”
Asked directly if Parnas was lying, Giuliani replied, “I’m not responding yet.”
Parnas, speaking to Maddow, also said he believed Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General William Barr were aware of the back channel effort to secure a Ukrainian investigation.
“Barr was basically on the team,” Parnas said, adding that Pence spoke with Zelensky about the need for an investigation into Biden during a September meeting in Poland.
A spokeswoman for Barr called Parnas’ assertion “100% false.” Pence, speaking to reporters in Florida said he never met Parnas.
Congressional Democrats, pointing to Parnas’ interviews and documents he provided to House Democrats that were released this week, said the new information underscored the need for Senate Republican Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow additional documents and witnesses to be admitted into the Senate’s impeachment trial slated to start Tuesday.
“There seems to be documentation that would validate what Parnas is saying, but that all has to be subjected to scrutiny,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters at her weekly news conference.