In an interview from his lawyer's office, the ex-Giuliani ally talked cannabis, conspiracies, and one very weird meeting with the lawyers of an indicted Ukrainian oligarch.
Non-Partisan, but Not Neutral
Lev Parnas Dishes On Kushner, Maduro, and Soros
Jan. 17, 2020 10:58 PM ET
A dinner with Jared and Ivanka about cannabis, a phone call from Trump Hotel with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, and a whole lot of theorizing about George Soros. Lev Parnas’ interactions with Trumpworld, in his words, went way beyond the Ukraine influence effort.
The former ally of Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani spent more than a year embedded with some of the president’s close outside allies. In that time, he said he had an inside view of all sorts of eyebrow-raising interactions and conversations. He described several of them in an interview with The Daily Beast from his lawyer’s office in Midtown Manhattan.
Federal law enforcement officials arrested Parnas and his associate Igor Fruman on Oct. 9 at Dulles Airport. They were then charged with a number of election-related crimes, and accused of funneling Russian money into American political campaigns. Both men maintain their innocence. Fruman has kept quiet throughout the process; Parnas, meanwhile, has spoken out—a lot.
On Thursday and Friday, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and CNN’s Anderson Cooper ran on-air interviews with him in which he made a host of claims regarding core episodes of the Trumpworld effort to extract political goodies from the Ukrainian government in order to boost the president’s re-election campaign. He recounted more episodes from his days in the Trump family orbit to The Daily Beast on Thursday afternoon. He spoke from his lawyer’s conference room, sporting a hoodie and eyeing incredulously the cable news coverage of his case that played in the background.
He spoke at length about his former allies Giuliani, Victoria Toensing, and Joe diGenova. A spokesperson for Toensing and diGenova’s law firm indicated that the topics he discussed were covered by attorney-client privilege. “It is unfortunate that some people will violate the attorney-client privilege,” the spokesperson said. “We cannot.”
Giuliani and his lawyers did not respond to multiple requests for comment about the interview.
Parnas’ decision to go public has rocked congressional Democrats’ efforts to remove Trump. The weekend before the House referred two impeachment articles to the Senate, his attorney, Joseph Bondy, traveled to D.C. to deliver a cache of new materials to the House Intelligence Committee. The trove included a letter from Giuliani to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, a series of text messages that indicated a Republican donor was surveilling then-Amb. Marie Yovanovitch in Kyiv, and an email showing that Trump himself authorized his former lawyer John Dowd to represent Parnas and Fruman. The White House, noting the charges against Parnas, has dismissed his claims and painted him out to be an unreliable witness.
A court order had barred Parnas from sharing those materials with anyone, but his lawyer worked to get that order expanded so they could give them to the Hill. And that delivery renewed Democrats’ efforts to pressure Senate Republicans–who now control the impeachment process––to call witnesses at Trump’s trial.
Parnas, Fruman, Giuliani, diGenova, and Toensing worked to push Ukrainian authorities to announce an investigation of a company linked to Vice President Joe Biden, and to oust U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch. But that wasn’t all, according to Parnas. He said they also angled to get Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to force at least two people out of his own orbit: former journalist Serhiy Leshchenko and then-national security adviser Oleksandr Danylyuk. The reason? In Parnas’ words, they were “Soros people.”
George Soros, an American billionaire who has invested heavily in progressive political causes and philanthropies around the world, has long been a bête noire of conservatives and regularly vilified in Russian propaganda—the same kind that Trumpworld is accused of subscribing to in its Ukraine dealings. Giuliani, diGenova, and Toensing were particularly opposed to Soros’ work, Parnas said.
“Soros became Enemy Number One, and it was understood that Soros infiltrated the U.S. government and State Department over a certain period of time,” Parnas said.
“He employed different prosecutors in different states, different congressmen, and the biggest thing was they thought Victoria Nuland was his person in the State Department and then let him control Eastern Europe by naming ambassadors and stuff, and then opened up this anti-corruption-type of system to cover up, actually, his corruption. That’s what we were running with.”
Parnas said he didn’t have any particular interest in Soros, but got pulled into the conservative lawyers’ allegations. Many of Trump’s thorniest problems, in their view, started with Soros.
“The consensus was that the reason Trump had the Russiagate and everything that was happening was because Soros and the Democrats controlled certain U.S. embassies in Eastern Europe, particularly the Ukrainian one, and were able to help with the Manafort stuff and all other kinds of stuff that basically caused problems in the Trump World,” he said.
So the effort to influence Zelensky’s administration included machinations against Soros, he said—in particular, to push Zelensky to distance himself from people perceived to be close to billionaire. That push and the push for political favors for Trump were one and the same, he said. In retrospect, Parnas said, the Soros focus grew out of an atmosphere he described as cult-like. When asked if he believed his former allies’ claims about the billionaire, he said he got sucked in at the time.
“When you’ve got the president saying it, you’ve got his attorneys saying it, you’ve got all these congressmen saying it, you’ve got all these senators saying it—again, when I say Trumpworld, that small inner-whatever, everybody would talk about it: ‘This Soros guy.’ That’s why I look at it as a cult.”
Soros, a survivor of the Holocaust, has regularly been portrayed as a super-villian in Kremlin propaganda, and some of Trump’s allies have echoed that description as the president’s impeachment troubles have grown. DiGenova sparked outrage just last month after claiming Soros “controls” the State Department.
‘IT WAS A WEIRD MEETING’
Parnas and Giuliani’s Ukraine efforts took them all around Europe, including to London, where they met two associates of indicted Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash, one of whom was on his legal team. (The Washington Post reported on that meeting earlier this month, and a Firtash lawyer confirmed to The Daily Beast that a meeting with Giuliani happened.) Parnas said he was in the meeting, and that Giuliani used it to try to get material from the oligarch that would bolster his attacks on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Trump. Specifically, Giuliani was looking for details on a supposed effort by Mueller prosecutor Andrew Weissmann to get Firtash to cooperate with their probe.
“It was a weird meeting because they didn’t bring any information,” Parnas said. “They just wanted to see if the meeting would happen. It was a test run. Again, it was weird.”
The oligarch’s lawyers brought a thick pile of documents from his Austrian legal case, Parnas said.
“Rudy threw it aside,” Parnas said, “and said, ‘I’m not your lawyer, I’m not here to do your law work. If you have something to show me, show me. Otherwise let’s not waste time.’ And they started getting nervous because they didn’t have that actual Weissmann stuff. That’s why I think it was a test run. And we ended up taking some pictures together.”
After the meeting, two of Giuliani’s allies did join Firtash’s legal team. Toensing and diGenova began representing him in the summer of 2019, and Parnas told Maddow that they worked to score political gifts for Trump from the gas magnate. Parnas said they also tried to leverage their Trumpworld connections to help Firtash.
“During the situation that was going on with the Firtash case, Victoria called Ric Grenell because he was the ambassador to Germany and Vienna was in the same orbit there,” Parnas said. “She basically asked him, if he sees any pressure coming from DOJ to extradite Firtash, if he could let us know. She told me he said he would.” Parnas said he didn’t know if Grenell ever shared information regarding Firtash with Toensing.
A spokesperson for Grenell at the U.S. embassy in Berlin did not respond to multiple requests for comment, which included detailed visibility of this reporting. State Department officials in Washington also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
MADURO ON LINE ONE
The small group of Trump allies who worked on the Ukraine project also had visibility into other foreign policy efforts–namely, a push to moderate the Trump administration’s hawkish stance toward Venezuela. In April 2018, then-Rep. Pete Sessions (R-TX) traveled to Caracas and met with the embattled President Nicolás Maduro. Months later, in September, the congressman gathered with pals in a little-known VIP room at the Trump Hotel BLT Prime restaurant for a follow-up call. Parnas said he was there.
Giuliani and Sessions staffer Caroline Boothe were also present, Parnas said. (A spokesperson for Sessions declined to comment, a lawyer for Boothe did not respond to multiple requests for comment, and Maduro officials did not provide on-record comment). The call with Maduro came over Sessions’ cell phone, and the Congressman put him on speaker for the whole room to hear.
“Rudy didn’t want to be on the call because he felt that it might not be proper because he was the president’s attorney,” Parnas said.
Despite any misgivings, Giuliani was present when the call began. The group exchanged pleasantries, and several introductions were made, including with Giuliani. After a short time, Sessions took Maduro off speaker and chatted with him in the room as other attendees–including Parnas–listened in.
Parnas said he gleaned from their conversation that Maduro and Sessions had hashed out a tentative agreement to give him a way to step down from power. The plan would be for Maduro to announce free and fair elections, and then leave the country if he lost.
“I think the biggest part of the call was that Maduro was trying to be closer to the United States because he didn’t want to deal with Russia or China because he wanted to somehow move his family here,” Parnas said.
He noted that Maduro telegraphed interest in American sports, and there was some discussion of him potentially moving to Texas and watching the Dallas Cowboys.
A source with direct knowledge of the call confirmed several details of Parnas’ account to The Daily Beast, including that Sessions and Giuliani were in a restaurant, that Maduro was initially on speaker phone for a brief time, that Parnas was present, and that the topic of American professional sports came up.
The conversation, some of which the Washington Post has reported on, did not bear fruit. It came as then-National Security Adviser John Bolton worked to heighten the Trump administration’s bare-knuckled approach to the South American country. Instead of negotiating a soft exit for Maduro, the White House rolled out rounds of punishing sanctions and declared (along with other countries) that his presidency was illegitimate. Venezuela hawks in the administration had hoped Maduro would flee the country, but instead–with support from Russia and China–he has toughed out the United States’ pressure campaign. In the year since Washington recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s interim head of state, Maduro has shored up his grip on power and drawn his country closer to Russia and China.
This isn’t the only time Venezuela has come up in the context of Ukraine. Fiona Hill, formerly a senior Russia official on Trump’s National Security Council, testified in an impeachment hearing that the Kremlin offered to trade Venezuela for Ukraine. In other words, she said, the Kremlin would pull out of Venezuela if the U.S. withdrew its support for Ukraine.
CANNABIS AND KUSHNER
Parnas’ standing as a generous Trump ally also won him access to some memorable events. In October 2018, he attended a dinner in a private suite at Trump Hotel hosted by the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action. The dinner, with around a dozen people, connected Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump with leaders in the cannabis industry. Parnas said he was invited because he “was a Trump loyalist,” and because the super PAC’s Director of Development Joey Ahearn knew he was pro-cannabis.
The White House has claimed that a picture of Parnas with Kushner and Ivanka Trump was “taken at an event in a photo line.” Parnas, however, said it was taken at the intimate dinner with cannabis industry insiders. Two sources with knowledge of the dinner confirmed that it happened in October 2018 and that Parnas attended. The decor in the background of the picture–as Zack Everson, author of a newsletter on Trump properties noted–indicates the photo was taken in the pricey Trump Hotel suite where the dinner was hosted.
The cannabis entrepreneurs there hoped to shape the administration’s policy on pot, Parnas said.
“They wanted Jared to be more involved, maybe help push the agenda with the president because they felt that that was something he needed to be more lenient on,” Parnas said.
A dinner attendee told The Daily Beast that about a dozen people attended the dinner, including Tommy Hicks Jr., a Republican fundraiser and contact of Parnas’ (Hicks did not respond to a request for comment). That attendee said Kushner and Trump discussed criminal justice reform with attendees in the context of how it would impact people incarcerated for marijuana-related crimes. The attendee said the husband-wife duo also said the tension between federal and state marijuana laws needs work.
A second person familiar with the dinner said the number of attendees was closer to 16, and that it wasn’t just for cannabis professionals; people from the banking, agriculture, and import-export sectors also attended, per that source. That person also said the super PAC didn’t sell tickets to the event. Instead, according to the source, people who donate generously to America First become eligible to score invites to small events with senior administration officials. In this case, cannabis industry professionals functionally bought access to the president’s daughter and son-in-law.
‘USED AND ABUSED’
Parnas said he feels that the people he was once devoted to—Rudy Giuliani, Victoria Toensing, Joe diGenova, and President Donald Trump—have betrayed him. And that has shaped his decision to go public about the inner workings of the president’s orbit. He said that when he got out of jail after his arrest, he noticed that none of the lawyers he had worked with hand-in-hand on the Ukraine project—Giuliani, diGenova, and Toensing—had fired off a single tweet in his defense. “I felt like my family had left me,” he said, as The Daily Beast first reported on Thursday evening.
“I thank God every day that he gave me the courage and the understanding not to play the game and try to protect these people and show them my loyalty, which they didn’t deserve because I didn’t get any loyalty from them,” he said. “They used me for their purposes—used me, abused me, and threw me out with the trash.”
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