Article II: Inside Impeachment
Lev Parnas Speaks
Mitch McConnell: As I discussed this morning, an impeachment trial is just about the most serious business in which the United States Senate can engage.
Steve Kornacki: From NBC News, this is Article II: Inside Impeachment. I'm Steve Kornacki. Today is Friday, January 17th, and here's what's happening.
Archival Recording: Do you solemnly swear that in all things appertaining to the trial of the impeachment of Donald John Trump, president of the United States, now pending, you will do impartial justice according to the Constitution and the laws, so help you God?
John Roberts: I do.
Archival Recording: God bless you.
Kornacki: The Senate trial is officially underway. Chief Justice John Roberts and members of the U.S. Senate were sworn in on Thursday. But it's new evidence that has captured the attention of Washington and the nation.
Lev Parnas: I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the President.
Kornacki: In the last 72 hours, Lev Parnas has caused a stir. The Giuliani associate who is currently out on bond awaiting trial on felony charges released a series of documents to House impeachment investigators that shed new light on the Ukrainian pressure campaign.
Parnas: I want to get the truth out because I feel it's important for our country. I think it's important for the world to know exactly what transpired and what happened.
Kornacki: That's Parnas in his first public interview on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show this week. Today, on Article II, we'll take a closer look at the allegations Lev Parnas is making, and we're asking: How will this new evidence evidence shape the trial in the Senate? Josh Lederman is a national political reporter for NBC News. Welcome back to the show, Josh.
Josh Lederman: Hey Steve.
Kornacki: The name "Lev Parnas" became known, I think, to most Americans back in October.
Geoffrey Berman: I'm Geoff Berman, United States attorney for the Southern District of New York. Today, we unseal an indictment charging Lev Parnas, Igor Fruman, and two codefendants for their alleged participation in schemes to violate the federal campaign finance laws.
Kornacki: Remind us what we found out about Lev Parnas back then. What was his introduction to the country?
Lederman: So before he was arrested, most Americans had certainly not heard of him. He actually had come up already in the impeachment story. He'd actually been subpoenaed by the House. He never was able to go through with that because once he was arrested and in the middle of a criminal investigation, that no longer became tenable.
But he and his associate Igor Fruman, who was also indicted on campaign finance charges, were actually mentioned in the whistleblower complaint. Not by name, but they were mentioned as Giuliani associates. And as more details came out, it became clear that that's who the whistleblower was referring to. And then of course they burst onto the scene when they were walking to board their flight at Dulles on a one-way ticket out of the country.
Berman: Parnas and Fruman were arrested around 6:00 p.m. last night at Dulles Airport as they were about to board an international flight with one-way tickets. As alleged in the indictment, the defendants broke the law to gain political influence while avoiding disclosure of who was actually making the donations and where the money was coming from.
Lederman: And in the days and weeks that followed, we learned just how involved they were in Rudy Giuliani's campaign to try to pressure the Ukrainians to open up these investigations into Biden and the President's political opponents.
Kornacki: So obviously Parnas back in the news in a big way this week. But between then and now, what has been happening with him in the months since legally?
Lederman: Well, initially it was really interesting. He was actually being represented by one of President Trump's former lawyers, John Dowd. That seemed to become untenable once it became clear to Mr. Parnas, at least according to his new interview with Rachel Maddow, that the Trump team really seemed like they wanted him to go along with what would help Trump and not necessarily would help Parnas in his own defense.
And so at some point he switched lawyers to a guy named Bondy, who has devised a strategy of basically trying to play up just how much Lev Parnas knows and how helpful he could be to impeachment investigators in what appears, Steve, to be an attempt to try to give him some leverage and some points perhaps as he might seek either some type of immunity in his criminal case or perhaps leniency once it comes time for sentencing.
Kornacki: So that gets us to why he's back in the news this week with that kind of a setup. And in the spirit of trying to show this potential value, this potential willingness to cooperate that his team wants to project there, we find out that Parnas has turned over documents to House investigators. Now, these documents were then made public. What did he turn over. What did it show?
Lederman: Well, it was a real trove of documents, thousands really of pages of text messages, WhatsApp encrypted messages that were unloaded from his iPhone, as well as photographic evidence, pictures that he'd taken on his iPhone of him with top people in Trump's orbit, including the President himself, members of his family, Mike Pence, and a lot of Republican lawmakers. And there's also handwritten notes that he took and other printed documents that he had in his possession that he turned over. Those documents then released publicly by the House.
Kornacki: The timing of it. We say it's at the last minute here. The House went through the impeachment inquiry, you know, for a few months there. The House vote was December. There was this dispute over when they'd transmit the articles. These documents being handed over just before these articles were transmitted to the Senate, is that because this strategy you're describing, this shift in strategy on Parnas' part to try to look like willing to cooperate? Or was there any other significance to turning them over at the last minute like this?
Lederman: There were some logistical reasons as well. First of all, he didn't actually have a lot of this in his possession initially 'cause he had to hand them over to federal prosecutors as part of their investigation. Eventually, his iPhone and his documents were returned to him and he sought permission, which he eventually got, from the judge in the case to then hand those over to investigators in the House.
And when the House released those, we were able to see really two big takeaways from them that were pretty significant. One was just how much the President was in the know about what was going on. There's this letter that we've been taking a close look at that's from Rudy Giuliani to President Zelenskiy of Ukraine in which he says that he's acting as President Trump's personal attorney with the President's knowledge and consent in seeking a meeting with Zelenskiy to talk about these investigations.
So that really pulling the rug out under any attempt by the President to distance himself from what Giuliani was doing over in Ukraine. The second part that came out of this that was really quite shocking when we saw it were text messages with a Republican Congressional candidate in Connecticut named Robert Hyde, who suggested that he had former Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch under physical and possibly electronic surveillance in Ukraine just at the time when Giuliani, Parnas, and their associates were trying to get her fired.
Kornacki: So there's the release of these documents just as the articles are about to go to the Senate. And then Parnas decides to go public himself, to start talking to the media. And he talks to MSNBC's Rachel Maddow. What did he tell her in terms of expanding on what was in those documents?
Lederman: He told her quite a lot that we had not heard before. And part of it had to do with just how closely he tied the President to all of this, saying the President was clearly in the know about what was going on.
Parnas: President Trump knew exactly what was going on. He was aware of all of my movements. I wouldn't do without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the President. I have no intent, I have no reason to speak to any of these officials.
Lederman: And he's really somewhat self-deprecating in this interview, as opposed to self-aggrandizing, as I think a lot of us had imagined that he might come across. He says, "Look, why would all of these senior Ukrainians want to talk to me? I'm a nobody."
Parnas: They have no reason to speak to me. Why would President Zelenskiy's inner circle, or Minister Avarkov, or all these people, or President Poroshenko meet with me? Who am I? They were told to meet with me. And that's the secret that they're trying to keep. I was on the ground doing their work.
Lederman: "They clearly knew that I was speaking on behalf of President Trump."
Kornacki: And what did he say in the interview, too, when it came to, you brought up the subject of Marie Yovanovitch, the ambassador who the administration wanted to oust. What was Parnas saying about that?
Lederman: Yeah, this was so interesting, Steve. He says that President Trump actually tried to fire her four or five times prior to ultimately pulling her out of the job over the summer of 2019.
Parnas: He fired her when he gave an order to Mike Pompeo once, which he didn't do. Secretary Pompeo didn't fire her. Then Rudy came back, and he told him, "Go speak to Pompeo." Rudy went to speak to Pompeo. They got into it. Then they had another meeting at the White House where he told Bolton to fire her. Bolton didn't want to fire her, told her, "Well, tell Pompeo fire her." Rudy got into it with all of them again. And then at one point he told Madeleine to fire her.
Lederman: And what's so interesting is for years now, Steve, President Trump has been railing against the, quote, "deep state," these bureaucrats somewhere in the bowels of government that were working to subvert him. And what we hear from Parnas is that in fact there were people trying to stop the President from firing Yovanovitch, but they weren't particularly into the bureaucracy.
They were political appointees. They were Trump people. They were Mike Pompeo, the Secretary of State. They were top White House aides, including John DeStefano, who was a senior aide in the White House. Even the President's secretary, who Parnas says Trump told, "You gotta fire Yovanovitch," and these people basically said, "Mr. President, we can't do that."
Kornacki: In the interview with Rachel Maddow, some of the other interviews he's given, Lev Parnas went out of his way to implicate top people in the Trump administration, including the President himself. Who exactly was he implicating, and on what basis?
Lederman: It's a long list of people. And he actually quotes in his interview from something that Ambassador to the EU Gordon Sondland had said in his hearing before the House.
Parnas: One of things I think was the best quote ever was when Mr. Sondland said, "Everybody was in the loop." And that's--
Maddow: You believe that everybody was in the loop?
Parnas: I don't believe. I know. I know they were in the loop. I was witness to conversations, you know, between them, and everybody was in the loop.
Lederman: So there's two buckets of people that he implicates. One are those really senior people, Cabinet-level people who are household names to us. So Mike Pence, the vice president; Rick Perry, who at the time was the Energy Secretary; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; and of course Attorney General William Barr.
But then there are other people who really didn't know, Steve, were part of this whole impeachment story until these new documents and this new interview from Parnas, including Jay Sekulow, the President's attorney, who in fact is gonna be part of the President's legal team in his defense in the Senate trial.
Parnas: Everybody didn't agree with the loop. I mean, Jay Sekulow didn't agree with what Rudy was doing, but he knew what he was doing.
Maddow: How do you know that he didn't agree with it?
Parnas: 'Cause I heard them talk about it.
Maddow: And what was his objection?
Lederman: So these are creating a roadmap, Steve, for investigators to look further, if they're able to call in additional witnesses and do more digging on what happened behind the scenes.
Kornacki: This is the part though where I think I've seen the most skepticism of what Parnas is saying. Because when you take a step back and you consider what you said first about, "There seems to be a deliberate strategy here to tout his potential value to prosecutors, to tout his potential willingness to cooperate on big-ticket items," and then to say publicly, "Look, the President, the Attorney General, the Vice President, the biggest names in the executive branch, they were all in on this. They were all in the loop on this," how much evidence has happened produced to back that up, that there was direct coordination involving those people?
Lederman: Yeah, the question about his credibility is really the right one that we all should be asking. And some of what he is describing about the involvement of these top officials is secondhand, through Rudy Giuliani and what Giuliani conveyed to him about what was going on at the White House.
But, look, just like in a criminal trial, what you're often left with are imperfect witnesses, people who by way of the fact that they were mixed up in some shady kind of things, are not the most credible witnesses. They're not perfect Boy Scouts. And that's the reason why corroboration is so critical.
And that's why these thousands of pages of documents that we're now seeing from Parnas and from his electronic devices are helping us to line up what he says with what the actual documentary record shows. And so far, a lot of it is backed up by those documents.
Kornacki: We're gonna take a quick break here. But, Josh, stick around. Be right back.
Kornacki: Let's talk a little bit about what this has done, what this is doing to the impeachment landscape, which we're always, you know, sort of focusing on here. First of all, just in terms of what the administration is saying in response, what have we heard from the White House? What have we heard from the Department of Justice? You've got Parnas saying, "Hey, they were all in the loop on this. They all knew everything." What are they saying?
Lederman: A lot of them are pushing back on what Parnas is saying and his allegations of their involvement. The White House has said that he is someone who is basically trying to tout himself and his own knowledge as a way to get himself out of trouble and that therefore he shouldn't be believed.
Mike Pence's office is suggesting that he's already been contradicted by other witnesses. The Justice Department said that what he's saying is, quote, "100% false." And we've also heard from Rudy Giuliani, who's been communicating with NBC News, saying that basically Parnas is in a sad situation given his current position facing federal charges and that his allegations shouldn't be listened to either.
Kornacki: What about the State Department? You have mentioned this additional information, the additional claims here about surveillance of Marie Yovanovitch. What's the State Department said about that?
Lederman: It was really stunning, Steve, that for almost 72 hours after these allegations first came out through these documents that Marie Yovanovitch was under a surveillance operation by this GOP candidate, Robert Hyde, who also seemed to imply that they might be plotting to do something to her.
There was zero response from the State Department. Not a, "We're looking into this." Not, "We're concerned." Nothing. And it really brought to mind for a lot of people the failure of Secretary of State Pompeo last year to defend Yovanovitch as there was the smear campaign.
Now, just in the last few hours, we are finally getting a response via Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who did some interviews with conservative radio shows. And he told The Tony Kats Today show (this is a radio show I believe in Indiana) that he had not met Parnas and had not ever heard about this surveillance operation.
Mike Pompeo: I've not met this guy, Lev Parnas. To the best of my knowledge, I've never encountered, never communicated with him. We will do everything we need to do to evaluate whether there was something that took place there. I suspect that much of what's been reported will ultimately prove wrong. But our obligation, my obligation as Secretary of State is to make sure that we evaluate, investigate any time there's someone who posits that there may have been a risk to one of our officers. We'll obviously do that.
Kornacki: Well, let's talk about the fallout then when it comes to the pending Senate trial, the swearing-in of the senators, of the chief justice has already happened. Democrats obviously are looking at everything you have been describing that Parnas put out there and saying, "This should be part of the Senate trial. The documents should be part of it. Potentially witnesses related to it." Is this going to affect the Senate trial in any meaningful way?
Lederman: The documents actually will be part of what the senators are able to consider because they got it in right under the wire. They were able to get these documents to the House in time for them to be included in what will be transmitted over from House Judiciary to the Senate.
But as far as calling additional witnesses, actually being able to hear from Mr. Parnas, that is all an open question. We know that Senate Democrats are gonna continue to push after the first phase of the trial to have witnesses. But the first four witnesses that Democrats have identified that they want to hear from don't include some of these new characters.
It's more White House officials like John Bolton, who has already said that he is willing to testify if subpoenaed. So we don't know yet if Democrats will expand that list to include some of these new characters, potentially even Parnas himself. And we also don't know whether that push for witnesses will be successful.
Kornacki: Given these credibility issues we've been talking about with Parnas, given the potential incentive he has to inflate perhaps his importance to this investigation, to other investigations just in pursuit of some kind of leniency for the other legal issues that he faces, is that a consideration for Democrats in terms of potentially pushing for him as a witness, that, "Hey, maybe if you look a little further, if you put him more under the microscope, there might be some more unflattering stuff here that detracts from the story he's telling"?
Lederman: Yeah, I think it is, Steve. Because if he comes forward and says something, particularly if it's under oath in the Senate, that are then able to be disproven, even if 99% of the things that he says are borne out by documents and are accurate, if that remaining 1% is able to be successfully questioned, that's gonna hand Republicans a pretty powerful argument to say, "This guy can't be trusted. You know, you're bringing in fake witnesses," and that really all of his testimony should be discounted. It could actually blow back on Democrats.
That having been said, this just is the fact of the matter when you have unscrupulous characters who are recounting in investigations what they know. I don't think we're necessarily gonna see Democrats dismiss Parnas out of hand just because there are questions about his credibility.
Kornacki: I think the question then politically becomes these Republicans we're always talking about as potential swing voters when it comes to particular witnesses, when it comes to the ultimate question of Trump's fate, but I'm thinking this week of Martha McSally and her sort of dismissive, we'll put it that way, dismissive response to a reporter asking about this. Susan Collins from Maine, she didn't seem too eager to go down this road. Does it suggest that those swing Republican senators Democrats need to change the scope of the trial have not been swayed by what Parnas has put forward?
Lederman: Well, they have more work to do. But all of these new details that are coming to light just as the senators are starting their trial are putting more pressure on Republicans to consider having witnesses because it's making it harder for them to argue, "Look, we already know what happened. The House had their opportunity and interviewed people. There's no need to relive that."
Now, we're seeing there's new stuff we really didn't know about and there were legitimate reasons why that wasn't included in the House process, namely the fact that the White House completely prohibited any of its officials from testifying before Congress.
So I don't think that we have yet seen some of those vulnerable senators give categorical comments that they do want and are willing to allow witnesses, but they are suggesting some openness to it, particularly Susan Collins and Mitt Romney. And we'll have to see in the first couple weeks of the trial whether Democrats are able to create a compelling enough case that ultimately they will vote against their leader Mitch McConnell and with Democrats to allow additional witnesses in evidence.
Kornacki: And by this time next week, we will be in full swing of that Senate trial. Josh, thank you for shedding some light on this very complicated topic. Really appreciate it.
Lederman: Thanks, Steve.
Kornacki: This morning, we got word that Ken Starr and Alan Dershowitz are expected to be added to President Trump's defense team in the Senate trial. Ken Starr, of course, was the independent counsel during the Clinton impeachment. His office was behind the 453-page Starr Report that was later released to the public.
Dershowitz, who is also a Harvard Law professor, does not have impeachment experience but is known for having represented many high-profile and controversial clients, like O.J. Simpson, Jeffrey Epstein, and Harvey Weinstein. White House Counsel Pat Cipollone and Trump's personal lawyer, Jay Sekulow, who Josh was just talking about a few minutes ago, they are both expected to lead the legal team.
Article II: Inside Impeachment is produced by Isabel Angel, Max Jacobs, Claire Tighe, Aaron Dalton, Preeti Varathan, Allison Bailey, Adam Noboa, and Barbara Raab. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is the executive producer of audio. I'm Steve Kornacki. We're gonna take a break on Monday for the holiday before the Senate trial kicks into full gear. We'll be back on Wednesday.