“President Trump knew exactly what was going on,” Parnas said. “He was aware of all my movements. I wouldn't do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani, or the president."
The only problem with that is that, even with the release of hundreds of pages of contemporaneous messages from Parnas’s phone, communications looping in Giuliani, various Ukrainians and people close to Trump, there was no visible direct line between Parnas and Trump. There are lots of hints, mentions by Giuliani of what Trump might want or might be doing, but nothing to validate Parnas’s assertion that Trump was in the loop. The material Parnas turned over to the House Intelligence Committee includes a number of photos with Trump-adjacent figures, but only one informal photo showing Parnas and the president together.
Trump is aware of that distance. On Thursday, he reinforced it.
“I don’t know him at all. Don’t know what he’s about. Don’t know where he comes from. Know nothing about him,” Trump said during an event in the Oval Office. As for the pictures? “I take pictures with people,” he said. “I take thousands and thousands of pictures with people all the time, thousands during the course of a year.”
It may be the case, of course, that Trump wasn’t familiar with Parnas or his work and that Parnas is making unfounded assertions. It may similarly be the case that Giuliani was freelancing wildly when he, for example, sent a letter to the then-president-elect of Ukraine requesting a meeting “in my capacity as personal counsel to President Trump and with his knowledge and consent.” During the same White House event Thursday, Trump denied knowledge of the letter, as well.
Or it may not be the case. It may instead be the case that Trump was quite involved in what was going on — but only while maintaining a buffer of deniability.
If you rewind the past few months, you’ll realize that this is something of a pattern. For all of the testimony during the impeachment inquiry about how pressure was applied to Ukraine, there are only a few incidental moments in which Trump himself is directly and undeniably involved.
One, of course, is the call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on July 25 of last year. In that call, Trump does specifically what those in his orbit report doing on his behalf: requesting that Ukraine engage in investigations that would benefit him personally. He’s explicit in the call, asking Zelensky to investigate former vice president Joe Biden by name, for example, instead of “corruption” broadly, as his defenders insist was his real intent. But there’s still some distance at play, with Zelensky’s team having been briefed before the call began that a quid pro quo was expected.
Trump’s response to this incident has been to embrace it, to insist that the call was “perfect.” On Thursday afternoon, for example, he expressed dubious amazement that this “perfect” call led to his impeachment.
I JUST GOT IMPEACHED FOR MAKING A PERFECT PHONE CALL!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 16, 2020
He did the same thing with another example of his direct involvement on Ukraine. When Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland testified that he’d asked Trump about the withholding of aid to Ukraine as the pressure campaign progressed, Sondland noted that Trump’s response was to explicitly say that no quid pro quo was at play.
This came in the broader context of Sondland both explicitly stating that there was a quid pro quo and in testifying that he’d told Ukraine that the aid depended on the investigations. Trump, speaking to reporters, instead emphasized his own denial.
He also said he didn’t know his own ambassador very well.
Sondland’s testimony included corroboration of testimony from other administration officials that he’d been instructed by Trump to work with Giuliani on Ukraine in May of last year. Sondland found that strange but, nonetheless, did as instructed. Hence his assertion that the quid pro quo he acknowledged went as far as Giuliani, but he couldn’t testify it went further.
After the acting ambassador to Ukraine revealed that he’d heard about a conversation between Trump and Sondland shortly after the president’s call with Zelensky, Sondland admitted that it had occurred. In that call, overheard by another staffer from the embassy in Ukraine, Trump asked Sondland if Ukraine was going to undertake the desired investigations. Sondland assured the president that they would.
Trump denied that this call happened as reported.
Beyond that? A lot swirled around Trump without verifiably touching him. His acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, stumbled into dangerous territory in October when he admitted that the aid had been withheld out of concern that Ukraine wasn’t engaged in the investigations Trump sought, but even that only tied in the president secondhand. Mulvaney quickly tried to walk it back; he refused to testify under oath in the impeachment inquiry.
The way Ukraine worked, the impeachment inquiry revealed, was that Giuliani applied pressure from the outside, at times in coordination with the three-person team Trump appointed to work around the existing diplomatic structure. Mulvaney managed the inside game, ordering the aid halt and, according to Sondland, denying Zelensky the White House meeting he sought. As I put it in October: both the president’s men.
Again, maybe all of this is simply a function of Trump falling into a gigantic pile of circumstantial evidence. Perhaps it’s just Giuliani running with the ball and Trump being held to account for his lawyer’s freelancing. Given Giuliani’s frequent statements to the press about his bespoke investigation and Trump’s continued relationship with him — Trump praised Giuliani again Thursday — that itself seems hard to believe. But who knows? Maybe!
That, after all, is the point of keeping distance from controversial things. The point is for defenders of Trump to be able to find someone just short of Trump to blame for anything improper that happened. And where Trump is inextricable? Create a scenario in which what he did isn’t improper. Hence all of the argumentation that asking Ukraine to fight corruption or dig into allegations that it interfered in the 2016 election — a claim lacking any robust evidence — as defenses of Trump’s call. That’s not what Trump asked for and the context surrounding the call makes clear what he wanted, but if your goal is to defend the president, you’ve got to defend the president.
In response to Trump’s claim that he didn’t know Parnas, Parnas’s lawyer tweeted a video of his client with the president.
The response to this is easy to anticipate. Just an event at Mar-a-Lago, with the president swarmed by people wanting to take his picture. Doesn’t prove a thing.
And, in fact, it doesn’t. Which seems pretty clearly to be by design.