WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump appears to have asked donors for their assessment of how long Ukraine could survive against Russia and called for ousting the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine without even knowing her name, according to a recording obtained Saturday by NBC News.
The recording is from an April 2018 dinner attended by indicted Rudy Giuliani associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, according to Parnas’ attorney. NBC News has not confirmed that the voices on the tape are of Trump, Parnas and Fruman, but Trump can be seen in early parts of the video. Neither he nor the White House have disputed that the recording is authentic.
Trump, who has asserted publicly he doesn’t know Parnas and Fruman, appears to have spoken at length about Ukraine and Russia with them during the dinner, along with other topics, including cannabis legalization and their natural gas venture.
In the recording, a voice that appears to be Parnas' tells Trump during a conversation on Ukraine that “where we need to start is we got to get rid of the ambassador, she’s still left over from the Clinton administration.” He says the ambassador has been” basically walking around telling everybody 'Wait, he's gonna get impeached, just wait.'"
Trump asks for the ambassador’s name, but both Parnas and another person at the table say they don’t have her name at the front of their memory. Trump says to “get rid of her.”
“Get rid of her. Get her out tomorrow. I don't care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. OK?” Trump appears to say.
“Excellent,” another unidentified voice responds.
Trump ultimately did fire Yovanovtich but not until more than a year later in 2019. It’s unclear what accounted for the delay, but Parnas has said in interviews that Trump tried to fire her multiple times, only to be stymied by his own staff.
In an earlier conversation about Europe, Parnas tells Trump that Ukraine is “just waiting for your support a little bit.”
“How long would they last in a fight with Russia?” Trump asks.
“I don’t think very long. Without us not very long,” Parnas replies.
“Without us,” Trump echoes.
Trump’s apparent comments on the tape are a new indication that as early as March 2018, Trump was seeking insight into how Ukraine would fare without U.S. support, which Democrats allege he later leveraged to pressure Ukraine to open investigations into his political opponents. It also illustrates how quick he was to seek the dismissal of an ambassador he was told was denigrating him even before knowing basic facts such as her name.
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The recording also offers a window into Trump’s private interactions with high-dollar donors, who seem to use the dinner as an opportunity to push the president on their own priorities while lavishing praise on Trump. The president has held countless intimate donor events such as this one since becoming president, as did presidents of both parties before him.
Joseph Bondy, an attorney for Parnas, said in a statement that the tape was being released “to provide clarity to the American people and the Senate as to the need to conduct a fair trial, with witnesses and evidence.”
The recording was made on a cellphone and includes video at the beginning that appears to show Trump and a table set for a fancy dinner. The phone is then placed on the table during the dinner facing up, rendering the speakers at the dinner out of frame. It does not appear that Trump knows he is being recorded, and in an early part of the video, a staffer tells the person recording that some attendees at the dinner might not want their picture taken.
"Every president in our history has had the right to place people who support his agenda and his policies within his Administration," White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said in response to the video.
Trump, in comments on Fox News on Friday night after the first clips of the recording emerged, said he was “not a fan” of former Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch and believed she was unpopular in Ukraine. But he said he wouldn’t have directed Parnas to fire her, instead saying, “I probably would’ve told Rudy, or somebody.”
Asked if it was possible he was at the dinner with Parnas, Trump replied, “Sure.”
“But you have to understand, I see thousands of people,” Trump said. “I just left Florida where I was shaking hands, taking pictures with hundreds and hundreds of people in one night.” On Saturday, Rudy Giuliani told Jeanine Pirro on Fox News that he was not present at the April 2018 dinner and added that he did not know Parnas at the time of the taping.
In the recording, Trump also appears to question U.S. involvement in South Korea, asking why the United States “ended up in a Korean War” and suggesting the U.S. has unfairly carried the burden of keeping peace between North and South.
He also says he wrote a letter of recommendation to South Korea’s president on behalf of one of the donors at the dinner. Trump says South Korea’s president confirmed to Trump that he received the letter and adds, “so they must be treating you pretty good.”
In a bizarre moment near the end of the dinner, Parnas and Fruman compare Trump to the messiah. Parnas tells him: “It’s like messiah is the person that’s come to save the whole world. So it’s like you’re the savior of (inaudible).”
The two present to him a gift that they say shows how Trump’s name adds up to the same numbers as the Jewish messiah, a reference to the Jewish mystical practice of Gematria. In Gematria, every Hebrew letter is assigned a numerical value, and the sums of those values are then compared to numerical values of other words or phrases to identify hidden meanings or connections.
“The messiah comes out to 424. Your name, your name, it adds up to his name. So it’s 424, 424,” Parnas says.
Fruman adds: “So all Jew people of Ukraine, they are praying for you.” Another unidentified voice tells Trump to “talk to Jared, he’ll explain it to you” — a reference to Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is an observant Jew.
In other parts of the video:
- An unidentified donor asks Trump to consider Songdo, South Korea, for his upcoming summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Songdo is a “smart city” in South Korea where the donor says his family owns a majority stake. Trump responds by saying they are very far along in selecting a location for the summit, which was ultimately held in Singapore, but adds: “You know that Kim Jong Un is a great golfer.”
- Parnas also tries to pitch Trump on creating a bipartisan commission to study cannabis banking and whether to allow banking for marijuana proceeds in states that have legalized cannabis. Parnas says he’s not in the business himself but that his friends are. As NBC News has reported, Parnas and Fruman ultimately did try to enter the cannabis business. Trump seemed skeptical in the dinner, questioning whether marijuana legalization is a good idea.