The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Four significant questions raised by the newly released recording of Trump and Lev Parnas

On April 30, 2018, President Trump hosted a dinner at his D.C. hotel that Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman attended. (Video: Joseph A. Bondy)

At the beginning of a video released Saturday by an attorney representing Lev Parnas, we see a hallway. At the end of the hallway is an arch with a dark-colored backdrop, in front of which two people appear to be posing for a photograph. Behind the person on the left is what looks like an American flag.

That shot establishes what we’re looking at: footage captured during a fundraising dinner on April 30, 2018, for the group America First Action, which was held at Trump’s D.C. hotel. That shot is definitive because it’s trivial to match that distant scene with one we’ve seen from a much closer perspective, thanks to material released by the House Intelligence Committee. In one photo from the committee, for example, we see Parnas and President Trump standing in front of an archway with blue curtains, flanked by American flags.

Parnas would become tightly integrated into Trump’s circle, though the distance at which he was kept varies depending on whom you ask. Trump insists Parnas, an eventual business associate of Trump’s personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, was only given access to the president because he’d contributed to Trump’s campaign or to America First. Parnas, the argument goes, was simply one of hundreds of such people who take photos with the president. To hear Parnas tell it, though, his work for Giuliani in late 2018 and in 2019 was well-known by Trump and was integral to the effort to get Ukraine to investigate former vice president Joe Biden, a possible opponent of Trump’s in the upcoming election.

The release of the video — or, really, an audio snippet of the dinner released Friday — doesn’t entirely help settle the question. This was, after all, a fundraising dinner of the type to which Trump referred. It was one of several instances in which Parnas’s proximity to the president was predicated primarily on his having given money to do so.

But at one point, Parnas tells Trump that then-ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch had disparaged the president, prompting Trump to say that she should be removed from her position. It’s a response that seems to conflict with the idea that Trump was simply interacting with a random donor, seemingly bolstering Parnas’s insinuations that his relationship with Trump was substantial.

It comes down to a question with no good answer:

Is the president lying about his relationship with Parnas or is he prone to endorsing rash personnel changes based on unfounded assertions from strangers?

It’s oddly easy to believe that either might be the case. Trump’s predilection for seeking out the opinions of random nearby individuals is well-documented. This is a president who held a discussion with a foreign leader about an international crisis in the middle of the dining room at one of his properties. This is also a president who has made more than 16,000 false or misleading statements during three years in office. Frankly, it’s easy to see a way in which both could be true: Parnas was just a donor then but eventually made his way into Trump’s inner team.

Bear in mind, this dinner, where one attendee recorded the entire discussion, was not organized by the Republican Party. It was instead for a pro-Trump super PAC, a group to which Parnas allegedly made contributions illegally. Once in the room, he got the president to endorse his opinion of the ambassador to Ukraine.

That exchange has been known for a while; The Washington Post first reported it in November. Given what we know about where Parnas wound up and the extent to which he was involved in the successful effort to oust Yovanovitch that picked up steam in early 2019, it’s worth asking:

How does Parnas’s request fit into what we know about Yovanovitch’s firing?

Parnas was not yet working for Giuliani during that April 30 event; Giuliani had himself only begun working for Trump two weeks prior.

A few weeks after the dinner, though, Parnas and a colleague met with then-Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), at which point the two advocated for Yovanovitch’s ouster and, according to the later indictment of Parnas, agreed to raise money for Sessions. The day they met, Sessions wrote a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calling for Yovanovitch to be removed. This, again, appears to have occurred before Parnas and Giuliani were connected.

That effort expanded in early 2019, in part at the encouragement of Yuri Lutsenko, then Ukraine’s prosecutor general and someone who viewed Yovanovitch with hostility. By then, Parnas and Giuliani were connected, with Parnas joining Giuliani’s interviews of Lutsenko in January of that year. While Giuliani clearly embraced the idea of firing Yovanovitch (which took place in late April 2019), it’s still not clear what spurred the idea. Parnas, enacting a long-standing desire? Lutsenko, recognizing an opportunity? Something else entirely?

Photos provided to the House Intelligence Committee complicates the matter of Parnas’s role and relationship to Trump. One image shows a copy of the Sessions letter. Two others show someone, presumably Parnas, holding an envelope addressed to the president and identified as coming from Sessions’s office. The flap is sealed, with Sessions’s signature written across it. A later photo, apparently taken during an America First event in June 2018 shows Trump near Parnas as the president puts something in his pocket that appears to match the shape of the envelope.

What Trump is putting in his pocket may not be Sessions’s letter. But Parnas appears to have had control of the letter at some point. Why? Was it a function of his relationship with Trump? Did it relate to his conversation with Trump in April?

At another point in that April conversation, the group is discussing military aid to Ukraine. One comment from Trump raises a question:

How familiar was he with the aid being given to Ukraine?

The same day of the event, then-Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko confirmed the delivery of American antitank missiles to his country. This is an act of enormous significance to Trump at the moment, since his attorneys have made his support of arming Ukraine a central part of their defense in the impeachment trial underway in the Senate.

“While it’s true that the United States has stood by Ukraine since the invasion of 2014,” Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow said during the trial on Saturday, hours before the release of the recording, “only one president since then took a very concrete step. Some of you supported it. And that step included actually providing Ukraine with lethal weapons, including Javelin missiles. That’s President Trump.”

On the recording, one of the attendees — perhaps Donald Trump Jr. — mentions the Javelin missiles.

“I guess there’s supposed to be an order of Javelin missiles over there, right?” he says. “They’re the antitank missiles. I saw that go through today.”

“Today?” Trump responds.

“I saw — I read about it today,” the person replies. “I don’t know when it happened. It must have happened in the last couple of days.”

This does not suggest Trump is intimately familiar with the transmission of the weapons. Reporting the prior year suggested Trump was wavering on authorizing lethal arms sales to Ukraine, something that he eventually approved.

We do know what happened when military aid to Ukraine was announced in mid-June 2019. When Trump saw news coverage of a Defense Department announcement that it would provide $250 million in aid to that country, Trump intervened with questions. A few weeks later, the aid was placed on hold, an act that is at the center of the impeachment inquiry.

Trump’s team has argued the hold was an outgrowth of his skepticism about foreign aid while claiming his support for Ukraine was steadfast. In that meeting in April 2018, in conversation with a donor he had met a few times before, Trump seemed unclear on the timing of a major component of his administration’s policy about Ukraine.

No question, though, is more significant than this, at least for Republican senators:

What other tapes might exist?

The release of this recording spawns new questions related to Ukraine and the actors involved in Trump’s efforts there. Parnas’s attorney told The Post that Parnas had turned other recordings over to House investigators.

Recordings have, after all, submarined presidents before.