Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman were carrying out President Trump’s scheme to pressure Ukraine to investigate his domestic rivals. This morning, the two men were arrested on campaign-finance charges as they attempted to leave the country.
The campaign-finance charges involve Parnas and Fruman allegedly violating federal law by funneling several million dollars to Pete Sessions, a former House Republican from Texas. Sessions was valuable to their operation because he publicly demanded the firing of Marie Yovanovitch, the U.S. ambassador (who was subsequently fired.) Lachlan Markay detailed the connection between Parnas, Fruman, and Sessions earlier this week.
But ultimately, the campaign-finance violations are a small part of their overall plot. Parnas and Fruman were the rough equivalent of the Watergate burglars. A July profile of the two, by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, creates the distinct impression that both men are goons. Not violent goons, but people who specialize in highly unethical or illegal activity that may involve organized crime.
Parnas and Fruman were working with Rudy Giuliani, who represents the two as their lawyer, to encourage various Ukrainians to investigate Trump’s opponents in Ukraine. Their work initially focused on discrediting the Mueller investigation, and later evolved to include pursuing unsubstantiated allegations against the Biden family. At the same time they were advancing Trump’s agenda, they were working on a side hustle in which they tried to push Ukraine’s state-controlled energy sector to sign them up to export liquid natural gas. The gas proposal appears to be their payoff: They could let Ukraine know they represented Trump, and Ukraine would therefore have an incentive to throw some business their way, despite their lack of expertise in the inner workings of the energy business.
Parnas and Fruman managed to meet both with President Trump and Donald Trump Jr., and get photographs of both meetings. Those photos were important to burnish their credentials as legitimate representatives of the Trump administration.
What happens next? In an ideal world, federal prosecutors will get them to cooperate and turn over evidence of any misconduct by Giuliani or other political higher-ups on whose behalf they were working when they slipped up and violated campaign-finance law. In practice, they are probably not very likely to flip. Trump has made it very clear that he will use the pardon power in wantonly corrupt fashion to protect anybody working on his behalf. Their lawyer, John Dowd, is also Trump’s own former lawyer, and floated the prospect of pardons to Paul Manafort and Michael Flynn before.
The Wall Street Journal reports Fruman and Parnas had lunch with Giuliani yesterday, before their arrest at the airport with one-way tickets to leave the country. This might be taken as more reason to suspect that the men charged with carrying out Trump’s foreign policy in Ukraine had a less than innocent state of mind. CNN reports that the FBI and federal prosecutors are examining Giuliani’s financial dealings with his two clients, but did not say he is a target of the investigation.
Trump told reporters this afternoon he does not know Fruman and Parnas, despite having met and been photographed with them. He also expressed his hope that Giuliani is not indicted. Neither comment indicates enormous confidence in the innocence of the three figures.
The arrest of Parnas and Fruman is more evidence that Trump’s Ukraine scandal left a wide swath of evidence. Trump had to sideline legitimate diplomats, including the unfortunate Yovanovitch, and empower a bunch of lowlifes in order to turn U.S. diplomacy in the country into a low-rent extortion plot. It certainly doesn’t help him that a couple of his rather seedy accomplices are now under arrest.
This post has been updated.