Adventures in MAGA-land With Lev Parnas

He was a first-time political donor who found his way into the inner circle of the Trump administration and helped get the president impeached. Now, as he awaits trial, Lev Parnas wants to tell Congress about a wider range of backchannel deals in Turkey and beyond.

Surrounded by reporters, Lev Parnas walks outside the Capitol in Washington on Jan. 29, 2020, during the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Lev Parnas has the evidence. He just wants the right people to listen.

The Ukraine-born businessman was, for a few short years, a mover and shaker among the elite donors, lawyers and lobbyists surrounding U.S. President Donald Trump. With his then-friend, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, he was a key player in efforts to gin up political dirt in Ukraine, which led to Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives and then acquittal by the Senate earlier this year.

But during the impeachment investigation, Parnas flipped, supplying House investigators with thousands of files on the scheme he advanced to pressure Ukraine’s president to open investigations into Trump’s rival, Joe Biden. Despite this, he was never invited to testify.

“Maybe when I first came out and started talking, a lot of people thought I was crazy,” Parnas said. “Then, my receipts, like they said, my evidence came out and validated it. And today, the biggest validation is time.”

Sitting at home in Florida as he awaits trial on federal campaign finance charges — and an additional fraud charge prosecutors leveled on Thursday — Parnas has plenty more he wants to share with congressional investigators and law enforcement. But so far, no one has taken his testimony.

So, in the meantime, he shared much of it with reporters.

Breaking his silence on Trump’s Turkish entanglements in a 90-minute interview, Parnas provided reporters from Courthouse News, OCCRP and NBC News photographic, video and documentary evidence about the coterie of oligarchs and alleged criminals behind the NATO ally’s influence campaigns.

Reporters were able to verify Parnas’ key claims by cross-checking them with his and other independently gathered documents and interviews. The investigation showed how Parnas and foreign oligarchs worked to set up lucrative contracts for Brian Ballard, a man widely considered to be one of the most influential lobbyists and fundraisers in Trump’s Washington.

But Parnas also told a wider story that sheds light on his own unlikely rise in U.S. politics and his own recollections of international dealmaking — some of which may be of interest to investigators and prosecutors. Among the events Parnas said he witnessed were at least four instances of international influence peddling by his former associate, Giuliani, whom multiple news outlets have reported to be under investigation for possible violations of U.S. foreign lobbying law.

This undated image released by the House Judiciary Committee from documents provided by Lev Parnas to the committee in the impeachment probe against President Donald Trump, shows a photo of Lev Parnas with Trump in Florida.

‘A Cinderella Story’

Born in Ukraine and raised among Russian-speaking immigrants in Brooklyn, Parnas nearly had to pinch himself. 

An inveterate charmer with a string of failed businesses, unpaid debts and alleged frauds, Parnas never saw himself as the kind of person who could become a political insider. But it was October 2016, and another fast-talker from New York’s outer boroughs, Trump, was running for president of the United States.

So, a $50,000 donation later, there Parnas was, sitting in an opulent Florida mansion watching the future president gaze despondently out at the sea.

The Access Hollywood tape, in which Trump had bragged about grabbing women “by the pussy” had just come out, and the crowd of roughly 20 high-dollar fundraisers was trying to cheer him out of his funk.

Trump confided in the group that he had doubts about his presidential run. “I don’t want to give up golf and do all of this stuff, but I feel like I have to do this to save our country,” Parnas recalled Trump saying.

Some four years and over 275 presidential golf outings later, it was all very ironic to Parnas, who is now cast out, disillusioned and awaiting trial on allegations he has denied. 

But at the time, Parnas was in awe. 

The gathering on October 12, 2016, at Le Palais Royal, a house that billionaire property developer Robert Pereira modeled after the palace in Versailles, was Parnas’ first meeting with Trump. It was also the start of his business relationship with Ballard, the influential lobbyist. These two introductions would help kick off Parnas’ yearslong odyssey in the president’s inner circle.

“This is like a Cinderella story type of thing,” Parnas said. “All these things had to come in play for me to even be able to get into this world, because it’s a good ol’ boys club, and trust me when I tell you it’s very difficult to get in.”

While waiting for an elevator inside the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, Lev Parnas and his attorney Joseph Bondy took questions from dozens of reporters who tracked them down on Jan. 29, 2019. (Courthouse News photo/Adam Klasfeld)

Parnas’ connection to Ballard would prove crucial to securing business opportunities, he said, allowing him to present himself as someone with a foot in the door of the next White House. As a Russian speaker, Parnas was a natural go-between for businessmen from the former Soviet Union.

Key to building this access was the lobbyist Ballard, whom Parnas met at that same October 2016 Florida fundraiser. Through Ballard, Parnas said he was able to secure tickets to VIP balls at Trump’s January 2017 inauguration for at least three foreign businessmen. Among them was Mübariz Mansimov, a now-jailed shipping magnate originally from Azerbaijan who, along with Parnas, helped set up two lucrative lobbying contracts between Turkey and Ballard’s firm, Ballard Partners. (Ballard denies providing the tickets.) Two of the men he mentioned, Mansimov and Ukrainian Roman Nasirov, were pictured at inauguration events. 

During the inauguration, both Parnas and Mansimov met Ballard at the Watergate Hotel and introduced him to Turkey’s foreign minister. The firm, which acknowledged the meeting, would ultimately sign multimillion-dollar contracts linked to the Turkish government.

The first of those contracts, a $125,000 deal with the Turkish embassy in Washington, was signed just days before Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan had his first meeting with Trump in the Oval Office. 

Erdoğan’s regime needed crisis management almost immediately. 

On the day of the White House meeting, the Turkish autocrat’s security forces beat up peaceful protesters outside its ambassador’s residence in Washington, D.C., setting off an international incident as footage of the assaults went viral. Trump’s White House stayed conspicuously silent.

Parnas believed that Ballard quickly had Trump’s ear to mollify the fallout: “He was advised not to bring up a big stink about it, because then it would sour the relationship really quickly.” 

Instead, the lobbying ties blossomed into a new contract that Ballard signed that August with Halkbank, a state-owned Turkish bank. The bank had been implicated — along with Erdoğan and his family — in a multibillion-dollar Iran sanctions-busting case. At the time, trial was looming over Reza Zarrab, an Iranian-Turkish gold trader who orchestrated the scheme.

Lev Parnas and Rudy Giuliani. (Photo courtesy of Lev Parnas)

Earlier in 2017, in February, Zarrab had hired Giuliani and Michael Mukasey, a U.S. attorney general, as his lawyers. Shortly after signing, Giuliani flew to Turkey and met Erdoğan, court records show. The deal he sought would have seen the case dropped in return for the release of Andrew Brunson, an American evangelical pastor then being held in Turkey.

That deal famously never went through. Multiple media reports say it was nixed by  then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson during a 2017 meeting in the Oval Office with Giuliani, Mukasey and the president.

According to Parnas, who was close to Giuliani at the time, the former New York City mayor was furious.

“Rudy was pissed off at Tillerson and didn’t think that he was a good secretary of state,” Parnas said, in the first on-the-record account of that meeting. “Rudy himself thought that he should be secretary of state and that he knew better how to deal with foreign relationships.” 

Zarrab pleaded guilty and subsequently turned state’s witness against Halkbank, and Brunson was released in a separate deal the following year.

‘Trump’s Super-PAC Is Basically Trump’

Parnas’ time in Trump’s orbit also put him in close contact with current Republican co-chair, Tommy Hicks Jr., who previously headed America First Action, the largest pro-Trump super PAC. Parnas and Fruman’s donation of hundreds of thousands of dollars to America First Action is a key part of their impending criminal cases.

Documents released by Congress show that Parnas and Hicks communicated at least 278 times via WhatsApp, including about the Ukraine backchannel work with Giuliani. Parnas shared additional messages with reporters that show some of those conversations happened while Hicks was still at the helm of America First Action. Documents released by Congress also show that Parnas exchanged at least 675 messages with America First Action’s finance chair Joseph Ahearn.

“Trump’s super-PAC is basically Trump,” added Parnas, whose company Global Energy Producers donated $325,000 to America First Action. “That’s one of the reasons that we donated to that super-PAC, because it gave us access.”

Parnas also said he was aware of a previously reported role by America First Action’s then-chief, Hicks, in negotiations that resulted in Pastor Brunson’s eventual release.

Andrew Craig Brunson, an evangelical pastor from Black Mountain, North Carolina, arrives at his house in Izmir, Turkey, on July 25, 2018. (AP Photo/Emre Tazegul)

“I think he might have flown over there [to Turkey] at one point, but he was heavily involved in the Brunson negotiations,” Parnas said of Hicks.

Parnas supplied reporters with Whatsapp chat messages that showed he contacted Hicks on October 12, 2018, with a link to a news report on Brunson’s release, followed by a thumbs-up emoji with the message “Great stuff.” Hicks responded with three more thumbs-up emojis. That exchange came within 15 minutes of a similar exchange between Parnas and Ballard, whom records show to have been deeply involved in Brunson negotiations. 

Parnas said that he suspected that, just as with the earlier Brunson-Zarrab swap idea, there was a quid pro quo involved.

“Do you know any other people that Erdogan would have released without getting nothing in return?” he asked.

I Was in ‘the Room

Through his former friendship with Giuliani, Parnas felt a kinship of sorts with Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton.

“Like Bolton said, I was ‘In the Room’ because I was with Giuliani,” Parnas said, referring to the ambassador’s memoir “The Room Where It Happened.” 

Unlike Bolton, who refused to comply with congressional subpoenas during the impeachment investigation, Parnas turned over reams of notes, emails, photographs, videos, documents, text messages and encrypted chats to Congress, and volunteered to share his story under oath. The House Intelligence Committee demurred, but their investigators corroborated much of his story in a 300-page report that named him more than 100 times. 

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., speaks during a Senate hearing in Washington on May. 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the Finance Committee’s top Democrat, has been probing Trump’s interference with the Halkbank prosecution since late last year, and Parnas volunteered to help with that investigation. 

“And I think, if he called me, I would testify truthfully and honestly about everything I know about Trump, Turkey and everything else.” 

Bucking a trend in federal prosecutions, Parnas — and his attorney Joseph Bondy, who appeared virtually in the Zoom interview to represent his client — have been talking to the press about a wide range of topics of interest to law enforcement, before trial and without the benefit of a cooperation agreement. 

According to media reports, prosecutors in the Southern District of New York are looking into whether Giuliani illegally lobbied on behalf of foreign governments. 

Parnas said he witnessed at least four instances of Giuliani using his position to advocate for foreign interests. To Parnas, none of it appeared to be genuine legal work, despite Giuliani’s protests to the contrary.

“Rudy never went to court and did anything on [Zarrab’s] behalf,” Parnas said. “All that Rudy did was meet with Trump and Erdoğan and try to negotiate a prisoner swap. So, that’s case one.” 

Coming second was Giuliani’s work in Ukraine, he said.

Then there was Giuliani’s work on Venezuela, some details of which have already been reported. 

Parnas said that he was there when the former mayor concocted plans to give that country’s strongman ruler Nicolás Maduro a “soft landing” in the United States if he agreed to give up power, “for him to be able to watch the Dallas Cowboys in Texas.”

He also traveled to Spain with Giuliani as the former New York mayor represented another Venezuelan, businessman Alejandro Betancourt Lopez. Betancourt was facing a Department of Justice investigation into possible money laundering involving the alleged embezzlement of $1.2 billion from the country’s state-run oil giant, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.

“When I was with him, and when I was in the Trump cult, I didn’t think anything of it,” Parnas said of Giuliani. “I thought he’s Trump’s attorney. He was the [ex-U.S. attorney] of New York, the Southern District. He’s the biggest crime fighter.” Through a spokeswoman, Giuliani declined to comment on his work in Ukraine, Turkey and Venezuela — citing attorney-client privilege.

After being cast aside by Trump’s circle, Parnas said he realized he had been moving in a world that worked just like the post-Soviet business circles where he had cultivated ties.

“Eastern Europe and all of these oligarchs — what people don’t understand is these people have businesses here,” he added. “They hire lobbyists. They hire the top attorneys. They have relationships with all of them, so Trump basically gave them an open door.”

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