The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Damning new audio of Trump illuminates the Ukraine scandal’s back alleys

Marie Yovanovitch, the former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, on Capitol Hill on Nov. 15. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)

Given that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States shortly after a video surfaced featuring him boasting of committing sexual assault with impunity, you might be forgiven for thinking that a damning new audio recording of Trump that’s directly relevant to the Ukraine scandal might not end up mattering much.

But this new scoop from ABC News is remarkable, and raises questions about what’s going on in this scandal’s subterranean passageways that might not be evident at first:

A recording reviewed by ABC News appears to capture President Donald Trump telling associates he wanted the then-U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch fired while speaking at a small gathering that included Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — two former business associates of Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani who have since been indicted in New York.
The recording appears to contradict statements by Trump and support the narrative that has been offered by Parnas during broadcast interviews in recent days. Sources familiar with the recording said the recording was made during an intimate April 30, 2018, dinner at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.
Trump has said repeatedly he does not know Parnas, a Soviet-born American who has emerged as a wild card in Trump’s impeachment trial, especially in the days since Trump was impeached.
“Get rid of her!” is what the voice that appears to be President Trump’s is heard saying. “Get her out tomorrow. I don’t care. Get her out tomorrow. Take her out. Okay? Do it.”

Most superficially, this contradicts the president’s repeated denials that he knew Parnas, who was recently charged with campaign finance crimes and has since turned on Trump, spilling potentially incriminating new information on Trump’s Ukraine scheme.

As a side note, when Trump claims not to know an associate who has just been busted for wrongdoing — which happens rather often — what he’s really doing is telling the world, and the rest of the gang, that this person is now dead to him.

The latest Trump impeachment trial updates

The recording also suggests new detail about just how involved Trump was in the campaign to oust Yovanovitch. As you’ll recall, Yovanovitch had to be removed — which Trump ultimately did — to clear the way for the corrupt scheme that Giuliani was preparing to orchestrate in an effort to extort Ukraine into announcing investigations that would help Trump politically.

If it’s true, as ABC News reports, that this audio recorded Trump in spring 2018, that might suggest the scheme to oust Yovanovitch had been in the works for longer than we thought. It’s difficult to say whether Trump is merely responding to being told by his henchmen that Yovanovitch has been “bad-mouthing” him, as ABC News reports, or whether there’s something else going on. But there is this:

Parnas appears to say: “The biggest problem there, I think where we need to start is we gotta get rid of the ambassador. She’s still left over from the Clinton administration,” Parnas can be heard telling Trump. “She’s basically walking around telling everybody 'Wait, he’s gonna get impeached, just wait.”

That sure sounds like they’re talking about a more concerted scheme.

Follow Greg Sargent's opinionsFollow

It’s worth noting here how bat-bleep insane it is that Trump, who has the power to recall ambassadors, is talking with his goons about this. Remember that Giuliani launched an epic smear campaign to hound her out of office. Trump finally did remove the ambassador, but if there were legitimate reasons to do so, why this secretive campaign against her?

“The president can say, ‘I’m recalling this ambassador,’ ” former federal prosecutor Glenn Kirschner told me. “Why in the world instead of doing that do you yell to two underworld characters like Parnas and Fruman, ‘get rid of her,’ going around the entire machinery of government?”

That’s why it’s extremely suggestive, as ABC reports, that the audio was made by Fruman.

It’s also why this part of the ABC story jumps out:

A copy of the recording is now in the custody of federal prosecutors in New York’s Southern District, who declined to comment to ABC News.

One big outstanding question about this whole scandal is what’s going in with prosecutors at the U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York or SDNY. You’ll recall that Fruman and Parnas were indicted by prosecutors in that office for funneling campaign contributions to a congressman as part of their efforts to oust Yovanovitch.

You’ll also recall that the New York Times recently reported that Giuliani is also under criminal investigation by that office. Giuliani has denied any lawbreaking — the law in question requires disclosure of contacts with the U.S. media or the government at the direction of foreign officials, and Giuliani claims he wasn’t thusly directed. But Giuliani was indeed trying to oust Yovanovitch in collaboration with foreign officials.

What we don’t know is how far along this SDNY investigation is, or how wide a net it has cast. It seems clear the scheme to remove Yovanovitch is being examined. And, of course, that scheme was carried out by Giuliani at Trump’s direction. The new audio underscores Trump’s targeting of her.

It’s possible that Fruman merely gave this audio to prosecutors to get it out into the public domain, Kirschner told me. But he added that it also raises at least the possibility that the SDNY investigation is far wider than we thought.

Kirschner noted that Yovanovitch testified that she had been abruptly recalled from Ukraine amid warnings about “my security,” and that she didn’t know what that meant. And, of course, Trump told the Ukrainian president that “she’s going to go through some things.”

“It seems like there could be an investigation into a conspiracy to do something to Yovanovitch,” Kirschner told me. “SDNY is or should be looking at all of this.”

All of which is a reminder that we still have only the foggiest understanding of the role Attorney General William P. Barr is playing. Is Barr allowing this investigation — whatever it’s examining — to proceed wherever the facts lead? We just don’t have any idea.

President Trump's impeachment defense could create a dangerous precedent, says constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP/The Washington Post)

Read more:

Colbert I. King: Impeachment results from Republican failures. We can remedy that in November.

Jonathan Turley: Impeachment managers must now choose the disastrous or the unpalatable

Max Boot: Trump wants you to think ‘everyone does it.’ No, they don’t.

Erik Wemple: Giuliani goes full conspiracy theory in insane ‘Fox & Friends’ appearance

Jennifer Rubin: All the anti-Republican Senate ads Democrats could possibly want

The latest commentary on the Trump impeachment

Looking for more Trump impeachment coverage following the president’s acquittal?

See Dana Milbank’s Impeachment Diary: Find all the entries in our columnist’s feature.

Get the latest: See complete Opinions coverage from columnists, editorial cartoonists and the Editorial Board.

Read the most recent take from the Editorial Board: It’s not over. Congress must continue to hold Trump accountable.

The House impeachment managers weigh in in an op-ed: Trump won’t be vindicated. The Senate won’t be, either.

Stay informed: Read the latest reporting and analysis on impeachment from the Post newsroom.

Want even more? Sign up for the Opinions A.M. and P.M. newsletters, delivered to your inbox six days a week.