On October 10, federal agents arrested Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman at the airport, where they had one-way tickets to Vienna. President Trump feigned disinterest. “I don’t know those gentlemen,” he told reporters. “Maybe they were clients of Rudy. You’d have to ask Rudy, I just don’t know.”
Trump did know the gentlemen. A week ago, CNN found Trump had at least ten interactions with Parnas and Fruman, straining his denials beyond all credibility. Friday night, CNN unearthed an even more dangerous piece of news. Parnas and Fruman, along with their partner, Rudy Giuliani, met with Trump in the White House during its annual Hanukkah party. Parnas told two people that Trump tasked them with pressuring Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden.
Trump’s dishonesty is so comprehensive that the revelation he lied about knowing Parnas and Fruman — the sort of lie that would badly damage a normal president — barely registers. The fact that he allegedly commissioned Parnas’s work directly might prove more damaging. Here Trump recruited a pair of sleazeballs with ties to the Russian mafia to communicate with the Ukrainian government on his behalf. “President outsources his foreign policy to gangsters” is the sort of charge that ought to draw more attention than it has.
Perhaps more dangerous still is the nature of Parnas and Fruman’s work in Ukraine. Parnas, Fruman, and Giuliani were not only interested in getting Ukraine to investigate Trump’s domestic adversaries. They were also looking to line their own pockets in the process.
Giuliani is the target of a federal investigation that centers on his role in a side shakedown that Parnas and Fruman were running in Ukraine. The Wall Street Journal reported Parnas and Fruman, who pushed Ukrainian officials to give them a natural-gas contract, told the Ukrainians that Giuliani was their partner. The connection to Giuliani was what gave them leverage to demand the gas contract, since Giuliani had very publicly identified himself as Trump’s personal representative, and Trump had sent word repeatedly that Ukraine needed to satisfy Giuliani if they wanted to placate Trump.
CNN has more details on the relationship today. Parnas and Fruman reportedly pushed Naftogaz, the Ukrainian energy firm, to push out its pro-reform CEO and replace him with a more pliable figure. Again, it’s notable that, despite the pretext of fighting Ukrainian corruption, Trump’s allies were undermining reforms in Ukraine and recorrupting institutions that had been turned into instruments of the rule of law.
The main story line Democrats have focused on in the impeachment proceedings is Trump’s twisting of government power for political gain. That is a clear-cut abuse of power that has been amply demonstrated by a parade of witnesses. But lurking in the shadows of the scandal is an ulterior motive: Giuliani, Parnas, and Fruman were extorting Ukraine in the traditional, moneymaking way also.
This potentially poses another danger to Trump. It’s possible Trump sent Parnas, Giuliani, and Fruman to Ukraine solely for his political mission, and while there, they decided to shake down the Ukrainians for some energy money. But Trump is famous for his intense, almost fanatical hatred of hangers-on who make money for themselves off his name. Trump was so enraged in 2016 by the very thought that transition planners were making money that belonged to him — “You’re stealing my money! You’re stealing my fucking money! What the fuck is this?” he screamed at Chris Christie — he shut down the whole office.
So if Parnas, Fruman, and Giuliani undertook a scheme to enrich themselves without Trump’s permission, they were taking a huge risk. The other possibility is that Trump authorized them to use his name as leverage to demand natural-gas contracts from the country they were also pressuring for political favors. Another piece of support for the latter theory is that Energy Secretary Rick Perry was also pushing to get his cronies a piece of the natural-gas business in Ukraine.
Parnas and Fruman have been arrested, and Parnas appears to be cooperating with authorities. If there’s any way the Ukraine scandal can get materially worse, it would be Trump directing a scheme to not only gain a political advantage but to enrich his partners, or even himself.