President Trump has repeatedly insisted he did nothing wrong when he pressured Ukraine in a phone call to investigate unsubstantiated allegations about the Biden family, an act which prompted a member of the U.S. intelligence community to file a whistle-blower complaint which, in turn, has led to an impeachment inquiry from House Democrats.
In response to the allegations, both Trump and his defenders have repeatedly cited the administration’s obligation to fight corruption in Ukraine in whatever form it takes. They also might be making it worse, as new information has emerged about a shadowy attempt by Trump’s allies to set up lucrative business deals with Naftogaz, Ukraine’s state-owned oil company. In addition, there are new questions about U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s push for change at the same firm.
Below is everything we know about the still developing story thus far.
Trump’s bizarre claim and prediction about Rick Perry
President Trump made a bizarre announcement while discussing the Ukraine scandal and impeachment inquiry with House GOP leaders on Friday. After again professing his complete innocence, Trump told his Republican colleagues that energy secretary Rick Perry was the person who made him make his fateful July 25 call to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. According to Axios:
[The president] said something to the effect of: “Not a lot of people know this but, I didn’t even want to make the call. The only reason I made the call was because Rick asked me to. Something about an LNG [liquified natural gas] plant,” one source said, recalling the president’s comments. 2 other sources confirmed the first source’s recollection.
Trump’s apparent attempt to scapegoat one of the lowest-profile members of his administration drew widespread ridicule on social media — to the point that #PerryMadeMeDoIt soon began trending on Twitter. On Monday, Perry acknowledged pushing Trump to engage with Zelensky — but not about investigating the Bidens.
But Trump didn’t just try to pass the buck to Rick Perry his GOP conference call, he also suggested that “more of this will be coming out in the next few days” — and he was definitely not wrong about that.
Trump’s Ukraine scandal is growing
Over the weekend, new reports revealed two attempts — first by a group of profit-minded Trump allies, and later by Energy Secretary Rick Perry — to push for a change of leadership at Naftogaz, the Ukrainian state-owned oil company. The Associated Press explains the first effort in their report:
Their aims were profit, not politics. This circle of businessmen and Republican donors touted connections to Giuliani and Trump while trying to install new management at the top of Ukraine’s massive state gas company. Their plan was to then steer lucrative contracts to companies controlled by Trump allies, according to two people with knowledge of their plans.
The group, which included two men at the center of Trump’s efforts to dig up Ukranian dirt on his political opponents, was not able to achieve its aims before a new president, Volodymyr Zelensky, took office in the country, and efforts to make similar inroads with his administration failed.
Perry, who has become the Trump administration’s self-appointed global ambassador for the American energy sector, represented the U.S. at Zelensky’s inauguration. On the same trip, according to the AP, he pressed the new leader to shake up Naftogaz’s board, and recommended as one of his suggested replacements at least one Texas-based energy executive with whom he had political connections as the state’s former governor. Perry has denied any impropriety over the matter, insisting he was giving Ukraine recommendations it had asked for.
It’s not yet clear if the two efforts, which were only a few months apart, were somehow linked.
Who are the Trump allies who tried to score the energy deal?
Per the Associated Press, three Florida-based businessmen — Igor Fruman, Lev Parnas, and Harry Sargeant III — were at the center of a shadowy effort to turn ties to Trump into a lucrative gas sales deal with Naftogaz.
Igor Fruman and Lev Parnas
Fruman and Parnas are Soviet-born, Ukrainian-American real estate entrepreneurs in South Florida with a history of shady business deals both in the U.S. and abroad; both have played a critical role in President Trump’s efforts to dig up damaging information in Ukraine about his political enemies.
They are clients of Trump attorney Rudy Giuliani, who they apparently befriended after quickly donating their way into the MAGA elite last year. The men have also reportedly acted as unregistered operatives for the Trump team in Ukraine, meeting at least four times with Ukrainian prosecutors, and introducing Giuliani to members of the country’s political elite as he pursued information which could damage Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden.
Indeed, Fruman and Parnas were reportedly instrumental in starting and then promoting the two debunked conspiracies, including the theory targeting the Biden family, which President Trump asked Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate in their July 25 phone conversation. The businessmen were also reportedly responsible for much of the push to remove the former Obama-appointed U.S. ambassador to the Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, who the Trump administration recalled in May.
According to BuzzFeed News and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, starting in 2018, the two businessmen donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican lawmakers, GOP causes, and pro-Trump groups. That includes a $325,000 contribution to the Trump-boosting America First Action super PAC in May of 2018 which was so shady it got flagged by a non-partisan watchdog organization for review by the FEC.
Their political contributions granted the businessmen a place among the MAGA donor class, with all the accompanying perks and influence. Fruman and Parnas have attended events and meetings in both Mar-a-Lago and Washington. Parnas, a former securities broker, has claimed that he has met with President Trump multiple times. Fruman and Parnas have allegedly cited their connections to Giuliani and other members of the GOP elite when trying to convince people to lend them money. On October 1, the Miami Herald reported that the two men have left a trail of debt across South Florida.
Fruman and Parnas also founded a so-called gas export company in 2018 named Global Energy Producers, but the men appear to have no experience in the energy sector. The Campaign Legal Center, the watchdog that flagged their massive super PAC donation, alleges that the company is nothing more than a shell corporation.
Both businessmen were referenced, but not named, in the whistleblower complaint which sparked Trump’s Ukraine scandal, and impeachment inquiry investigators have requested information from the men regarding their ties to, and work with, Giuliani and the Trump administration.
It had previously been reported that the men had met with Naftogaz in an attempt to become natural gas suppliers to the company, but that nothing came of it.
Greg Sargeant III
According to the AP, Sargeant is a Boca Raton-based oil magnate who has served as a finance chair of the Florida GOP and contributed $1.2 million to Republican campaigns and political action committees. He also gave almost $14,000 to Rudy Giuliani’s long-shot 2008 presidential campaign, and $100,000 to the Trump Victory Fund this past June.
Healy E. Baumgardner
According to the AP, Baumgardner is a former Trump campaign adviser who eventually came to work with Parnas and Giuliani. She is the CEO of a Houston-based energy company called the 45 Energy Group, which is focused on “government relations, public affairs and business development.” She has also previously worked as a communications official in the George W. Bush administration and later became the deputy communications director of Giuliani’s presidential campaign.
The attempt to rig a deal with Naftogaz
According to the AP sources, Fruman, Parnas, and Sargeant approached a Naftogaz executive named Andrew Favorov at a Texas energy conference in early March and proposed making him the new CEO of the firm, as well as offering him a deal in which they would ship as many as 100 tankers of U.S. liquified natural gas to Ukraine per year.
Harry Sargeant reportedly told Favorov that he regularly met with President Trump at Mar-a-Lago, and that the deal they were proposing had his full support. Lev Parnas also told Favorov that Trump was planning to replace U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch with someone more amenable to their business deals.
Favorov apparently considered the proposal an attempted shakedown, and told a former business partner, Dale Perry, about the meeting. Perry was alarmed enough by what Favorov told him that he later reported it in a memo to a State Department official stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine. It’s not yet clear how the official handled the warning.
On March 24, Parnas again claimed that President Trump would replace Ambassador Yovanovitch during what the AP describes as a “business pitch involving gas deals in the former Soviet bloc to a potential investor” which Parnas, Rudy Giuliani, and Healy Baumgardner conducted at the Trump International Hotel in Washington. Giuliani later claimed that the pitch was about business deals in Uzbekistan, not Ukraine.
On May 20, the Trump administration removed Yovanovitch from her post as U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine, following what was widely recognized as an orchestrated smear campaign.
Giuliani has denied any involvement in business deals in Ukraine, telling the AP he did not pursue or know “about a deal in the Ukraine” and claimed “there is absolutely no proof that I did it, because I didn’t do it.” He did admit playing a role in the removal of Yovanovitch, however, but didn’t elaborate on what that role was, or why.
John Dowd — the former Trump lawyer who now represents Fruman and Parnas — told the AP that it was Naftogaz who approached his clients, not the other way around. He also notably claimed the businessmen had presented the potential deal to Energy Secretary Rick Perry:
The people from the company solicited my clients because Igor is in the gas business, and they asked them, and they flew to Washington and they solicited. They sat down and talked about it. And then it was presented to Secretary Perry to see if they could get it together. … It wasn’t a shakedown; it was an attempt to do legitimate business that didn’t work out.
On Monday, a lawyer representing Sargeant released a statement insisting the oil magnate took no part in the scheme and had not met with Trump at Mar-a-Lago during his presidency. The lawyer, Christopher Kise, acknowledged that Sargeant was at a Houston dinner with Fruman, Parnas, and Favorov so he could offer “broad industry guidance and his expert view on the challenges presented by operating in foreign markets,” but “never discussed any role or participation in any Ukraine venture, nor any specifics regarding the potential business ventures of the other dinner participants.”
Baumgardner said in a statement that she wouldn’t comment on business discussions, but called the scrutiny a “political assault on private business by the Democrats in Congress” which “is complete harassment and an invasion of privacy that should scare the hell out of every American business owner.”
Rick Perry also pressured Ukraine to make changes at Naftogaz
U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland said in July that he, Perry, and former Special Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker were the Trump administration’s “three amigos” on Ukraine matters and oversaw the U.S. relationship with the country. Perry helped arrange a 2017 deal to export U.S. coal to Ukraine and a 2018 deal to export U.S. liquified natural gas to Poland, which has in turn boosted the supply of LNG to Ukraine as well. The deals were also part of an ongoing effort to reduce Ukraine and Poland’s reliance on Russian energy supplies.
In May, Perry led the U.S. delegation attending the inauguration of newly elected Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky. That trip to Kiev came up in the complaint filed by an intelligence community whistleblower regarding Trump’s July 25 call with Zelensky, as Perry had replaced Vice-President Mike Pence after President Trump had instructed Pence not to go.
On Sunday, the Associated Press reported that Perry met twice with Zelensky during the trip and allegedly pressured him to fire Naftogaz’s advisory board and came ready with a list of suggested replacements:
Attendees left the [first] meeting with the impression that Perry wanted to replace the American representative, Amos Hochstein, a former diplomat and energy representative who served in the Obama administration, with someone “reputable in Republican circles,” according to someone who was in the room.
A second meeting during the trip, at a Kiev hotel, included Ukrainian officials and energy sector people. There, Perry made clear that the Trump administration wanted to see the entire Naftogaz supervisory board replaced, according to a person who attended both meetings. Perry again referenced the list of advisers that he had given Zelenskiy, and it was widely interpreted that he wanted Michael Bleyzer, a Ukrainian-American businessman from Texas, to join the newly formed board, the person said. Also on the list was Robert Bensh, another Texan who frequently works in Ukraine, the Energy Department confirmed.
One person present at the meetings told the AP they were shocked by Perry’s requests since they had always presumed the U.S. government “had a higher ethical standard.”
The AP notes that in 2009, Perry appointed Michael Bleyzer to the board of a Texas state technologies fund, and in 2010, Bleyzer donated $20,000 to Perry’s reelection campaign. It’s also important to note that Perry was the governor of Texas for a record 14 years, and as a result undoubtedly has close ties with countless U.S. energy executives. On Monday, Perry said he couldn’t remember if he recommended Bleyzer or not, but added that he would have been a good pick if he did. “Best I can tell, he’s a really brilliant, capable businessman who I would recommend … for a host of different things in Kiev,” Perry said of Bleyzer. “He knows the country. He’s from there. So, why not?”
Politico had reported on Saturday that Perry met with Zelensky numerous times this year and played a more significant role in the Trump administration’s efforts to influence the new Ukrainian administration than previously known. Politico’s sources said that Perry had pressed Zelenksy to tackle corruption in the country, arguing that doing so would make it easier for the country to attract U.S. investors and businesses. The sources framed Perry’s attempt to influence Naftogaz in a similar way: Perry had pushed to expand the firm’s board and thought well-connected U.S. energy executives would make the company more appealing to investors.
On Monday, Perry denied that he had, as the AP story’s sources implied, tried to install anyone on the Naftogaz board. He claimed he only did what he’d been asked to do. “We gave recommendations at the request of the Ukrainian government and will continue to,” Perry said.
In a statement to the AP, Perry spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes additionally denied that Perry had advocated “for the business interests of any one individual or company,” calling suggestions otherwise “fiction being pushed by those who are disingenuously seeking to advance a nefarious narrative that does not exist.”
Giuliani, when asked if he was aware of Perry’s efforts, replied, “I may or may not know anything about it,”
An out-of-the-ordinary scandal — at least for Perry
Perry has been one of the few members of Trump’s cabinet to keep a low, competent, and mostly productive profile during the president’s first term. He hasn’t been caught up in any major ethical scandals or blow-ups with the president. Until now, the worst controversy of Perry’s time at the helm of the federal agency he once infamously forgot the name of was his failed attempt to force U.S. consumers to help resurrect the struggling U.S. coal industry.
But unlike most of his predecessors, Secretary Perry hasn’t just focused on domestic issues, but also worked to promote the interests of U.S. energy companies abroad. Those efforts have been particularly focused on Eastern Europe, where he has tried to develop more opportunities for U.S. companies and worked to reduce Russia’s energy dominance (to the benefit of U.S. firms). Similarly, Perry has been a frequent visitor to Saudi Arabia, where he has pushed the Trump-allied regime to partner with U.S. companies, rather than ones in Russia or China, to build a pair of nuclear reactors.
On Monday, Perry denied recent reports which had indicated he was planning to resign next month.
Did Perry have anything to do with the push to investigate Biden?
So far there has been no reported evidence suggesting he did, and Perry literally swears to God he didn’t. Speaking with the Christian Broadcasting Network last week, Perry insisted that he never pursued the Biden matter with Ukraine, and never heard anyone else bring it up either. “[I’ve talked with] every name that you’ve seen out in the media and not once, not once as God as my witness, not once was a Biden name — not the former vice-president, not his son ever mentioned. Corruption was talked about in the country but it was always a relatively vague term of, you know, the oligarchs and this and that and what have you.”
Did Perry do anything wrong?
No one has accused him of any wrongdoing.
How will this affect the impeachment inquiry?
As a result of the whistle-blower complaint, Democratic lawmakers involved in the impeachment inquiry have requested more information on Rick Perry’s trip to Zelensky’s inauguration, how he came to represent the U.S. on it, and what he knew about why Vice-President Pence did not go. Democrats are also looking for information about other Ukraine-related meetings Perry participated in, Energy Department documentation regarding conversations between Trump and Zelensky, and communications between Perry and Giuliani.
House Democrats are also seeking more information regarding Giuliani’s contacts with Igor Fruman, Lev Parnas, Harry Sargeant III, and Healy Baumgardner, and what they were up to regarding Ukraine.
It’s not clear how much of this information Democrats will be able to obtain, since the White House has indicated it will not cooperate with the impeachment inquiry. (Nor have they fully cooperated with most previous attempts at congressional oversight.)
Perry hasn’t been subpoenaed yet, but a Democrat on two of the three House committees spearheading the impeachment inquiry, Maryland Representative Jamie Raskin, speculated to Politico last week that Perry “almost certainly has relevant testimony to offer” and would likely be called to appear eventually.
Why on earth did Trump try to blame the July 25 Ukraine call on Perry?
Trump’s remark that Perry is responsible for the infamous Zelensky call remains bizarre. That someone else encouraged him to make a phone call doesn’t change what he said or its consequences.
Perry has since acknowledged pressing Trump to talk to Zelensky, but not just once — and not about Biden. “I asked the president multiple times, ‘Mr. President, we think it is in the United States’ and in Ukraine’s best interest that you and the president of Ukraine have conversations, that you discuss the options that are there,’” Perry said on Monday.
As the Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey pointed out after Axios’ story broke, there were a lot of people in the Trump administration who repeatedly tried to get Trump to engage with Zelensky, but courting his interference in the 2020 election was not likely what they had in mind.
Perry spokesperson Shaylyn Hynes has previously said that he was not on the July 25 call with Trump and Zelensky, and responded to Trump’s comments by emphasizing that Perry “absolutely supported and encouraged the president to speak to the new president of Ukraine to discuss matters related to their energy security and economic development,” which, of course, Trump did not do.
The White House’s very own five-page quasi-transcript of the Ukraine call makes no mention of Perry or any LNG plant. The only time energy policy came up was when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a passing reference to energy independence and a desire to buy American oil. Trump, who had recently blocked hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Ukraine, said nothing about Perry or energy trade deals. Instead, his comments were primarily and repeatedly focused on the investigations he wanted Zelensky to conduct.
Perry’s name didn’t come up in the newly released text messages U.S. diplomats exchanged about the Trump call, either.
The most likely rationale for Trump’s comment is that it was an attempt to downplay the significance of the call and any resulting consequences of it, as if saying: How can I be impeached for a call I didn’t even want to make?
Why did Trump tease news reports about Perry’s work in Ukraine?
It’s not clear why Trump seemed to know that more details about Perry’s role in Ukraine would be coming out soon, or why he decided to share that information. It does not seem like a coincidence,
This post has been updated throughout.