WASHINGTON — Last Sunday, a New York lawyer posted photographs of the shining dome of the U.S. Capitol on Twitter, announcing that he had just visited Washington to give Congress contents of an iPhone belonging to a onetime associate of President Donald Trump’s personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani.
It would be a few days before the implications of his limited message became clear: The Lev Parnas hurricane was about to hit.
It was the week when the pomp and circumstance of the third presidential impeachment trial in U.S. history was supposed to take center stage in Washington. The House of Representatives formally voted to send the Senate charges that Trump abused his office by pressuring Ukraine to help his reelection bid. John Roberts Jr., the chief justice of the United States, arrived in the Senate chambers to preside over the president’s trial and the swearing in of 100 senators.
But overshadowing that weighty moment were a cascade of revelations by a fast-talking, Ukraine-born businessman sporting an ankle bracelet who — speaking for the first time since his October arrest on campaign finance charges — directly implicated the president in the Ukraine scheme.
“President Trump knew exactly what was going on,” Parnas said in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on Wednesday that earned the cable news show the highest ratings of its 11-year history.
“That’s the secret that they were trying to keep,” he added. “I was on the ground doing their work.”
Fueling his account were hundreds of pages of text messages, documents and photos released by the House that documented his interactions with Giuliani and a coterie of Ukrainians who claimed to have information about former vice president Joe Biden and a debunked conspiracy that their country conspired with Democrats in the 2016 election.
Parnas, with his Brooklyn-by-way-of-Odessa accent, has sought to fashion himself as the Joe Pesci version of John Dean — the former White House counsel who was star witness in the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon — casting himself an avowedly repentant participant in a rogue operation.
Some of his most explosive claims that Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and Attorney General William Barr knew of his activities remain unsubstantiated and disputed. The president’s allies say his assertions are not credible, noting the serious criminal charges he faces.
“These allegations are being made by a man who is currently out on bail for federal crimes and is desperate to reduce his exposure to prison,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said this past week.
Still, the blizzard of new details in the documents Parnas had turned over raised a host of questions about Trump’s efforts in Ukraine — ratcheting up the pressure on Senate Republicans to allow witnesses to be called during the coming trial.
In his choreographed transformation from a selfie-snapping Trump devotee to a self-described truth-teller embraced by many on the left, Parnas has blazed a path similar to that of Michael Cohen, the longtime Trump fixer who last year turned on the president in the face of criminal charges.
As a legal strategy, it’s risky, experts agreed: Parnas has been indicted in New York for allegedly funneling foreign money into U.S. political campaigns. (He has pleaded not guilty). Prosecutors have said in court that they are considering bringing additional criminal counts against him, a perilous situation that defense attorneys generally advise requires extreme caution — and silence.
Parnas’ attorney, Joseph Bondy, has been agitating for weeks for Congress to call Parnas as a witness, an effort largely viewed as a bid to get House Democrats to extend him immunity. But then his client spoke out without any such protection.
In interviews, Parnas has said he felt abandoned and betrayed after his arrest, when Trump disavowed him and Giuliani failed to forcefully defend him.
His about-face has left him cast out of the elite realm he briefly occupied with Giuliani, a man he regularly called “my brother” who had swept him into a world of wealth and international power-brokering.
The former New York mayor initially stood by Parnas and his onetime business partner Igor Fruman after their arrests. “I certainly am not going to disavow them,” he said at the time, adding: “Everything I’ve known about them says they would not commit a crime.”
Since then, his tone has changed dramatically. This past week, Giuliani said he would not respond to Parnas’ allegations, writing in a text that “he has no credibility.”
“He’s burning out and best to stay out of his way,” he added acidly.
For his part, Parnas said he now feels liberated.
In an interview with The Washington Post, he compared himself to someone emerging from a “cult,” with fresh perspective on the dizzying events of the past two years.
“That arrest saved my life,” he said.
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Two years ago, Parnas was fending off creditors in obscurity in Boca Raton, Florida. He shot to the tableside of the president’s closest allies and family members with a few well-placed campaign donations, a die-hard loyalty to Trump and some good old-fashioned chutzpah.
Parnas, 47, was born in Ukraine but moved with his family to the United States as a child and grew up in Brooklyn. He told The Post in an interview conducted before his arrest that he got his start in real estate, at one point selling Trump condos for Donald Trump’s father, Fred, and then worked in trading goods with the former Soviet Union before becoming a securities trader. He moved to Florida in the mid-1990s.
He barreled into Trump circles with a $50,000 donation to Trump’s campaign and the Republican Party less than a month before the 2016 election.
“I was really passionate about the president,” he said last fall before his arrest. “I started really believing that he could really make a change and make it happen.”
“I tell you honestly, I think he’s going to go down as one of the greatest presidents ever, even with all this negativity and everything that’s going on,” he said then.
Parnas told MSNBC last week that he was so passionate about Trump that he had photos of him all over his house. After his arrest, he said, his wife was embarrassed because the FBI told her that “I had a shrine to him.”
“I idolized him,” he said. “I mean, I thought he was the savior.”
In his interview with The Post, Parnas said he was able to rise quickly in Trump’s world because he discovered a “kink in the system”: the super PAC, which, unlike a candidate committee, can accept unlimited funds.
In May 2018, the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action reported receiving a $325,000 donation from an energy company Parnas and Fruman had recently formed.
Prosecutors have said the money did not come from their fledgling company, which had no business or revenue, but from a private loan Fruman took out against a Miami condo.
Giuliani met the two men around the same time, through a lawyer and friend who referred the duo to him, he has said.
Parnas said he sought out the former New York mayor to be a paid pitchman for a company he co-founded called Fraud Guarantee that claimed to shield investors from financial fraud. He arranged for Giuliani to be paid $500,000 by a Long Island lawyer who was an investor in Fraud Guarantee. He assumed their relationship would be a distant one, Parnas said this past week.
Instead, Parnas said, he was shocked and delighted to find himself constantly at the side of the president’s personal lawyer.
Before he knew it, Giuliani was inviting him and Fruman to hang out four to five nights a week, he said. They were zipping around the country to attend Trump rallies, and then traveling around Europe to gather information about Ukraine.
There were long nights at exclusive cigar bars and frequent strategy sessions at Trump’s hotel in Washington; a visit to a palace outside Madrid owned by a Venezuelan energy executive; and a huddle at a luxury Parisian club. Parnas joined Giuliani in the dugout to meet the New York Yankees during a special overseas baseball game in London. He accompanied the former New York mayor to a special annual commemoration of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and to the state funeral of former president George H.W. Bush at Washington National Cathedral.
Parnas said living in Giuliani’s world was a heady experience. “I looked up to him. I grew up in New York and he was a legend. And here I was sitting with him, every night,” he said.
At night, he would call his wife, Svetlana, and tell her about the powerful people he was meeting with Giuliani and the swanky fundraisers they were attending. “You won’t believe this!” he would exclaim.
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Parnas acknowledged that he had ambitions to use the connections he was making through Giuliani to improve his business prospects. He said he grew up in Brighton Beach with little money and an absent father. In recent years, he said, his career had been “up and down.”
“Sometimes we were buying Rolexes,” he said. “And sometimes we were selling the Rolexes to make the rent.”
Court filings show he has been dogged by debts. When he met Giuliani, he was being pursued for more than $500,000 in Florida courts by investing in a movie deal gone bad.
In his new environs, Parnas said, suddenly anything appeared possible: “I figured, once this is over, we’ll be kings.”
Still, he said, he understood from the start that he and Fruman, who often wore T-shirts paired with gold chains, did not fit in Giuliani’s circle.
“No one understood it,” Parnas said of their constant presence by his side. “I didn’t understand it.”
But at the time, he said, he believed Giuliani enjoyed their company — and that Giuliani appreciated that the duo were a solicitous entourage, willing to drop anything to join him at his favorite haunts, stay out late while he drank scotch and picked up the tab.
Now Parnas believes that the president’s lawyer drew the two Soviet-born men close after he realized they had connections in Ukraine, a Giuliani obsession. The former New York mayor was convinced Ukrainians had worked against Trump in the 2016 election and were in possession of evidence of Biden’s corruption.
“I think we were recruited,” Parnas said. “It was the perfect storm.”
Giuliani has said he began looking at Ukraine after he signed on as Trump’s personal attorney in April 2018, tasked with defending him in the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller III.
That November, Giuliani has said he was approached by a former colleague who said a Ukrainian prosecutor had information to share about Biden and the Democrats with U.S. authorities.
Soon, Parnas and Fruman became Giuliani’s point men for his Ukraine operation.
The cache of records released by the House this past week made clear that Parnas was acting on Giuliani’s behalf and in close coordination him. The materials ranged the gamut, from photos of Parnas sporting a bulletproof vest for unknown reasons to extensive communications with top Ukrainian officials — including members of the country’s cabinet and key aides to its leaders.
The materials sharply undercut the notion pushed by the president’s supporters that the activities in Ukraine were about U.S. anti-corruption policy — rather than defeating Biden.
The outlines of the scheme were even scribbled in blunt terms on stationery from Vienna’s Ritz-Carlton Hotel — notes Parnas took as he spoke to Giuliani by phone during a June visit to the Austrian capital, according to his attorney.
“Get Zalenksy to Annouce that the Biden case will be Investigated,” Parnas wrote, referring to the effort to pressure Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to announce investigations related to the former vice president.
The newly released documents showed that Ukraine’s top prosecutor explicitly offered to help in the effort against Biden and the Democrats in exchange for the removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, as well as a meeting with Barr and other actions that would potentially help his boss, then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who was in a fight for his political life in Ukraine’s presidential election.
And the materials laid out how Giuliani’s star witness in his campaign against Biden — former Ukrainian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin — was promised help with a visa to the United States that the embassy in Kyiv was blocking.
At one point, in a text message to Parnas, Giuliani wrote that he had gotten “no 1” involved in the effort to secure Shokin a visa — a reference, Parnas said this past week, to Trump.
Other text messages show extensive contact between Parnas and Derek Harvey, an aide to Rep. Devin Nunes, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee — indicating that Nunes’ office sought to use the information Parnas was gathering. A Nunes spokesman and Harvey did not respond to requests for comment.
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In December, Bondy began agitating to be allowed to provide Congress with Parnas’ material, which had been seized by prosecutors after his arrest. The federal judge presiding over the case in New York agreed to allow Bondy to share the material the day before he made his delivery to the House.
The documents filled in gaps in the narrative of the Ukraine pressure campaign. For Democrats who have been pushing for the Senate to call witnesses in its upcoming trial, the new information supported their arguments that there is still more evidence to gather.
The public cache of Parnas’ materials is not exhaustive. The House has released no messages, for instance, between him and his primary partner, Fruman.
And some Democrats have counseled caution in the face of his allegations, noting that he is accused of serious felonies.
“Parnas is someone whose evidence, whose testimony should be questioned, challenged, like any other witness,” Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., told CNN, adding, “but he should be a witness.”
Prosecutors have hinted in court that more of Parnas’ activities have not come to light yet. This past month, they revealed that he received a mysterious $1 million loan in September from a lawyer for Dmytro Firtash, a Ukrainian gas tycoon facing bribery charges in the United States. In court, Bondy said the loan was made to Parnas’ wife and had been intended to help the couple buy a home. He said that Firtash had cut all ties to Parnas after it started to become clear Parnas intended to assist the impeachment probe. He and Parnas have declined to comment further.
Meanwhile, Parnas’ prolific photographic documentation of his time in elite GOP circles has given him ample material to taunt his detractors, often through social media posts his lawyer has set to catchy music. Last Tuesday, hours before his client’s evidence became public, the lawyer tweeted a montage of photos of Parnas posing with Trump and different members of the president’s family, set to the tune of Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.”
When Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway told CNN that “I don’t know Lev Parnas,” Bondy tweeted a close-up of Parnas and Conway, their heads leaning toward one another, both smiling widely. “#LevRemembers,” his lawyer wrote.
When Trump announced that former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi was joining his legal team, his lawyer tweeted a photo of Parnas and Bondi seated at a table together, their arms around each other’s shoulders.
When Trump himself told reporters on Thursday that he didn’t “know who this man is” — an assertion he had also made shortly after Parnas was arrested — his lawyer posted a video of Parnas chatting with Trump at his Mar-a-Lago Club in December 2016.
The video shows Parnas at the front of a crowd, introducing the president-elect to a broad-shouldered man who, according to Bondy, was then serving as the top tax official of Ukraine.
In interviews, Parnas has said he is convinced prosecutors working for Barr have pursued the criminal case against him to keep him quiet about Trump’s work in Ukraine. He said he believes transparency is now his best protection against further criminal action.
This past week, he told CNN’s Anderson Cooper his goal is to make Trump understand “he’s not a king.”
“And I think it’s important for the country to find out the truth,” he said, “exactly what happened.”
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The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey contributed to this report.