Not long before the Ukrainian president was inaugurated in May, an associate of Rudy Giuliani’s journeyed to Kiev to deliver a warning to the country’s new leadership, a lawyer for the associate said.
The associate, Lev Parnas, told a representative of the incoming government that it had to announce an investigation into Donald Trump’s political rival, Joe Biden, and his son, or else vice president Mike Pence would not attend the swearing-in of the new president, and the United States would freeze aid, the lawyer said.
The claim by Mr Parnas, who is preparing to share his account with impeachment investigators, challenges the narrative of events from Mr Trump and Ukrainian officials that is at the core of the congressional inquiry.
It also directly links Mr Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer, to threats of repercussions made to the Ukrainians, something he has strenuously denied.
But Mr Parnas’ account, while potentially significant, is being contradicted on several fronts. None of the people involved dispute that the meeting occurred, but Mr Parnas stands alone in saying the intention was to present an ultimatum to the Ukrainian leadership.
Another participant in the meeting, Mr Parnas’ business partner, Igor Fruman, said his claim was false; the men never raised the issues of aid or the vice president’s attendance at the inauguration, lawyers for Mr Fruman said.
Mr Giuliani denied Mr Parnas’ contention that he had delivered the warning at Mr Giuliani's direction. “Categorically, I did not tell him to say that,” Mr Giuliani said.
The dispute represents the clearest indication yet that Mr Parnas, who was indicted along with Mr Fruman last month on campaign finance charges, has turned on Mr Trump and Mr Giuliani.
Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman, both Soviet-born businessmen from Florida, worked with Mr Giuliani for months in Ukraine outside normal diplomatic channels to further Mr Trump’s interests.
The men have been subpoenaed to testify before Congress, and Mr Parnas’ lawyer has said his client will comply to the extent he can without incriminating himself. It is unclear if Mr Parnas will ultimately be called to testify.
Mr Parnas’ account of the meeting, if corroborated, would reveal the earliest known instance of US aid being tied to demands for Ukraine to take actions that could benefit Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign.
It would also represent a more extensive threat – to pull Mr Pence from the inaugural delegation – than was previously known.
Mr Trump froze nearly $400m in military aid to Ukraine shortly before a 25 July call with the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in which Mr Trump personally sought investigations into the Bidens and claims that Ukrainians had meddled in the 2016 election. In the call, Mr Trump did not explicitly link the aid and the investigations.
Mr Trump has denied a quid pro quo involving aid, and Mr Zelenskiy has said he never felt pressured to pursue an investigation.
The meeting in Kiev in May occurred after Mr Giuliani, with Mr Parnas’ help, had planned a trip there to urge Mr Zelenskiy to pursue the investigations. Mr Giuliani cancelled his trip at the last minute, claiming he was being “set up”.
Only three people were present at the meeting: Mr Parnas, Mr Fruman and Serhiy Shefir, a member of the inner circle of Mr Zelenskiy, then the Ukrainian president-elect.
The sit-down took place at an outdoor cafe in the days before Mr Zelenskiy’s inauguration on 20 May, according to a person familiar with the events. The men sipped coffee and spoke in Russian, which is widely spoken in Ukraine, the person said.
Mr Parnas’ lawyer, Joseph Bondy, said the message to the Ukrainians was given at the direction of Mr Giuliani, whom Mr Parnas believed was acting under Mr Trump’s instruction. Mr Giuliani said he “never authorised such a conversation”.
A lawyer for Mr Fruman, John Dowd, said his client told him the men were seeking only a meeting with Mr Zelenskiy, the new president. “There was no mention of any terms, military aid or whatever they are talking about it – it’s false,” said Mr Dowd, who represents Mr Fruman along with the lawyer Todd Blanche.
In a statement on Friday, Mr Shefir acknowledged meeting with Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman. But he said they had not raised the issue of military aid. Mr Shefir said he briefed the incoming president on the meeting. Mr Shefir was a business partner and longtime friend whom Mr Zelenskiy appointed as his chief adviser on the first day of his presidency.
“We did not treat Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman as official representatives, and therefore we did not consider that they could speak on behalf of the US government,” Mr Shefir said. He added that Mr Parnas and Mr Fruman had requested that Mr Zelenskiy meet with Mr Giuliani.
New York Times
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies