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Opinion The company Trump keeps tells you everything you need to know

This undated image released by the House Judiciary Committee from documents provided by Lev Parnas to the committee in the impeachment probe against President Donald Trump, shows a photo of Lev Parnas with Rudy Giuliani. Parnas, a close associate of Trump's personal lawyer Giuliani is claiming Trump was directly involved in the effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden. Trump on Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, repeated denials that he is acquainted with Parnas, despite numerous photos that have emerged of the two men together.(House Judiciary Committee via AP) (AP)
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The column has been updated.

If you’re known by the company you keep, then President Trump’s choice of partners in business and politics says something very revealing — and very damning — about him.

He has spent much of his life surrounded by sleazy, low-life characters both at home and abroad. The New Yorker notes: “Trump-branded buildings in Toronto and the SoHo neighborhood of Manhattan were developed in association with people who have connections to the Kremlin. Other real estate partners of the Trump Organization — in Brazil, India, Indonesia and elsewhere — are now caught up in corruption probes, and, collectively, they suggest that the company had a pattern of working with partners who exploited their proximity to political power.” In Azerbaijan, the New Yorker reports, Trump even did business with close associates of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, one of whose generals he just had whacked. Back in New York, one of Trump’s business partners was Felix Sater, a Russian-born convicted felon and FBI informant with links to the mob.

Not much changed even when Trump started running for president: Sater continued pursuing plans to build a Trump Tower Moscow until sometime in 2016. The campaign itself came to be led by Paul Manafort, who is currently serving a 7½-year prison sentence for bank and tax fraud and witness tampering. Like a suspiciously large number of Trump cronies, Manafort was contaminated by the corruption spewing out of Vladimir Putin’s Russia like the radiation that once spewed out of Chernobyl.

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The most abject of all the Trump courtiers was his consigliere, Michael Cohen, who lied on behalf of Trump and paid off his paramours only to have Trump disown him. En route to prison, he wound up expressing remorse: “I am ashamed of my weakness and my misplaced loyalty, of the things I did for Mr. Trump in an effort to protect and promote him. I am ashamed that I chose to take part in concealing Mr. Trump’s illicit acts, rather than listening to my own conscience.”

Similar sentiments have just been expressed by Lev Parnas, another character who seems to have wandered off “The Sopranos” set and straight into Trump’s orbit. He is the Ukrainian-born businessman who, along with his pal Igor Fruman, worked with Trump’s attorney, Rudolph W. Giuliani, in an attempt to blackmail Ukraine into announcing an investigation of Joe Biden. “My biggest regret is trusting so much,” Parnas told the New York Times. “I thought I was being a patriot and helping the president.”

Businessman Lev Parnas just tied the president and his lawyer to an effort to pressure Ukraine to investigate Trump's political rival. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Courtesy House Intelligence Committee/The Washington Post)

Now Parnas and Fruman are facing federal criminal charges for allegedly conspiring to violate the ban on foreign donations to U.S. political candidates. Parnas appears to hope that coming clean will buy him a reduced prison sentence if he is found guilty. He has shared documents with House investigators revealing more details of the Ukraine plot, and in interviews he has implicated Trump directly in these devious machinations. (Both Parnas and Furman have pleaded not guilty.)

Among the evidence released by Parnas are text messages from another oddball character, Robert F. Hyde, who claimed to have a team surveilling the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, and even hinted that he could inflict harm on her if someone gave him the word. Who is Hyde? A long-shot Republican congressional candidate in Connecticut who served in the Marine Corps and started a landscaping business. According to The Post, he “was once involuntarily committed to a psychiatric hospital after an incident at one of the president’s resorts and is the subject of a restraining order obtained by a political consultant.” (Hyde has appealed the order.) Parnas now says he didn’t believe Hyde’s boasts of stalking Yovanovitch: “I believe he was either drunk or was trying to make himself bigger than he was. He was drunk all the time.” That may or may not get Hyde off the hook, but it’s not much of a character reference. For his part, Hyde says he was joking — what a cutup! — and flatly denies tracking the ambassador.

Predictably, every time shady characters like Parnas or Hyde pop up, Trump denies knowing them, despite numerous photographs of them together, and his spokespeople impugn their veracity. “These allegations are being made by a man who is currently out on bail for federal crimes and is desperate to reduce his exposure to prison,” White House press secretary Stephanie Grisham said of Parnas.

Mob lawyers always say the same thing. But Boy Scouts can’t testify against mafia dons because that’s not who they surround themselves with. The same is true of the Don in the White House. We don’t know whether everything Parnas is saying is true (he hasn’t testified under oath yet), but we do know that his role in this scandal reveals a larger truth.

Trump is drawn to unethical hustlers because he is one himself. That may be barely tolerable for the head of a small, family-owned real estate company. It’s intolerable for the president of the world’s most powerful democracy. Either senators or voters need to do something about it, and soon, lest the entire government become as disreputable as the Trump Organization.

Read more:

Greg Sargent: Lev Parnas just accused Giuliani of a criminal conspiracy with Trump

Greg Sargent: Four big takeaways from the explosive Lev Parnas documents

Dana Milbank: Impeachment descends into darkness

Jennifer Rubin: Here is why Senate Republicans dare not exclude witnesses

Dana Milbank: Evidence? Pshaw! The truth is whatever Trump believes.